S4, Ep. 11: The National Prayer Breakfast and religious freedom
Amanda and Holly take a fresh look at a decades-old tradition and explore the questions it raises.
On February 2, we’ll see the 71st installment of an event that always raises eyebrows and makes news. The National Prayer Breakfast has been around since 1953, but what is it? Does it promote religious freedom, or is it yet another example of Christian nationalism? Amanda and Holly explore the legitimate questions it raises about faith in public life and the relationship between the institutions of government and religion. They also share their thoughts on what we should do about the National Prayer Breakfast and the key differences between it and the National Day of Prayer.
Segment 1 (starting at 00:47): Exploring the National Prayer Breakfast from various angles
You can email Amanda and Holly at [email protected]
Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC. Use that link so we know your gift supports the podcast!
Listen to Amanda and Holly’s conversation on the National Prayer Breakfast during the very first episode of Respecting Religion in February 2020 at this link. Their discussion of the event begins at 28:44 into the episode.
Amanda and Holly mentioned this op-ed in The Washington Post by Arthur Brooks, who was the keynote speaker at the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast: Trump and I disagreed at the National Prayer Breakfast. But we listened to each other
Throughout its history, the National Prayer Breakfast has been hosted by The Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family.” You can visit their website at this link.
As mentioned, this year a newly-created nonprofit will be the official host of the National Prayer Breakfast. “The Family” will host a large event at the same time that includes a livestream. Read more in this Religion News Service article by Adelle Banks and Jack Jenkins: National Prayer Breakfast breaks from ‘The Family’ with new organization
Amanda and Holly mentioned this 2022 article by Jack Jenkins for Religion News Service: Sen. Chris Coons: This year’s National Prayer Breakfast is a ‘reset’
Segment 2 (starting at 25:21): History, controversies, and the proper relationship between religion and government
Amanda and Holly discussed the Johnson Amendment in season 2, episode 4: Grading the Trump administration on religious freedom (starting around 09:50 in that episode). You can also read more about BJC’s work defending the protections of the Johnson Amendment
Journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote a book titled “The Family” in 2009 about the Fellowship Foundation, including the National Prayer Breakfast. In August 2019, Netflix released a 5-episode series called “The Family.” You can read John Fea’s review of the Netflix series that ran in The Washington Post.
Segment 3 (starting at 32:12): What’s the difference between the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Day of Prayer?
Amanda quoted Brent Walker and quoted Holly from this BJC press release in 2011 about the National Day of Prayer.
Amanda tweeted about attending the White House’s naturalization ceremony, held on Religious Freedom Day. See her tweets about attending here, including a clip from Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff’s speech.
Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.
Transcript: Season 4, Episode 11: The National Prayer Breakfast and Religious Freedom (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity):
Segment 1: Exploring the National Prayer Breakfast from various angles (starting at 00:47)
AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.
HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re going to talk about an annual event that’s probably made at least a little bit of news every year since it began back in 1953. That event is the National Prayer Breakfast.
AMANDA: Yes. This is an event that has been a tradition longer than we have both been alive, Holly, which I have a birthday coming up, so it’s a pretty long time.
AMANDA: It’s an event that gets attention, because the president attends it, as well as many high-ranking members of Congress. But this event, the National Prayer Breakfast, raises questions for people like us, people who are invested in religious freedom for all and who know that the government has a limited role when it comes to religion.
HOLLY: So we’ll talk about some of those questions.
AMANDA: That’s right. But before we dive into this conversation, we do want to mention a few things off the top. One, if you would like to email us ‑‑ and we love getting your emails, what you think of the show, ideas you have for us, any kind of feedback ‑‑ you can write to Holly and me by writing to [email protected]. We read our emails, Holly. We’re always glad to hear what you think, and if you have a question, let us know.
Second, if you are enjoying this podcast, you can help us reach more listeners by giving us a five-star rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast, and if you have 60 seconds more, leave us a review as well. This really helps more people find the podcast.
And, third, you might have noticed, our podcast is different than a lot of the podcasts you listen to, because we do not have sponsored content. And we’re able to do that because of generous donors like you. Your donations help keep this podcast free of any sponsored content, and we have a link in our show notes each week that lets you make a donation of any amount to the BJC, and we’ll know that it’s earmarked for the podcast.
HOLLY: Yes. We are honored to have new listeners, so thank you all for listening and for sharing this podcast with others. For those of you who are new to Respecting Religion and the work of BJC, it’s probably important for us to note BJC’s mission as we take on this topic.
We are dedicated to faith freedom for all, stemming from the history and experience of Baptists who from their very beginning opposed government establishments of religion. We are fortunate that Baptists and other dissenters fought against the unholy union of the institutions of church and state in the founding era, and that America’s constitutional vision of religious liberty protects all religions and prohibits government establishments of religion, as well as protecting its free exercise.
AMANDA: I think it’s definitely fair to describe us as friends of and fighters for religious liberty for all and the free exercise of religion, and with the historical lens about the dangers of mixing church and state. So it’s easy to see why we at BJC are not involved in the National Prayer Breakfast and why we think it raises questions for our religious freedom nation.
HOLLY: Exactly. I mean, I can’t say that BJC has spent a great deal of time focused on this issue in the past. We follow it. We understand that reactions to the event vary. The idea that religious people want to pray for our nation is not unusual.
On the other hand, the idea of some official, kind of governmental event called the National Prayer Breakfast — even though it’s not a governmental event, it’s not organized by the government but instead it’s sponsored by a private group — organized around the idea of prayer, which is, of course, an important religious exercise for many people, and it’s so intertwined with the government, all of these factors raise legitimate questions about faith in public life and the relationship between the institutions of government and religion.
AMANDA: You said it right there. The first and most important fact in our conversation is that the National Prayer Breakfast is not organized by the government. It is privately sponsored. But it is still obviously distinctive from the countless private religious events happening all over the country at all times of year, from different religious perspectives that call people to pray for our government and our leaders.
And so as we take a look today, a closer look at the National Prayer Breakfast, we want to explore the event on a number of different grounds. One, we want to talk about it as showing the complexity of faith in public life in America. In our religiously diverse and pluralistic society, what does faith in public life look like? And to remind everyone that church-state separation does not mean “no religion in public.”
Second, we think it’s important to think about the National Prayer Breakfast in a larger conversation of traditions. You know, this is a 70-year-old tradition, and sometimes we just keep doing the same thing because we’ve always done it that way, particularly when it comes to religion.
AMANDA: Religions are deeply entrenched in tradition. So, this gives us an opportunity to look at one particular tradition and ask some questions of that, about its continuing utility.
And, finally, we’re thinking about how this tradition looks today, at a time of growing concern about Christian nationalism.
HOLLY: Yes. And I think we should note that as we tape this, we recognize that this is not the most important news story of the day, nor will this podcast be a comprehensive history of the National Prayer Breakfast. But it’s worth examining, as you said, Amanda, in light of today’s circumstances, giving it a fresh look.
We are, in fact, currently midway through our fourth season of Respecting Religion, and as we prepared for this episode, we remembered that we discussed the National Prayer Breakfast a bit in the very first episode of this podcast, back in February 2020 — you know, the “before” times, a month before the COVID-19 shutdowns. We talked about it because it was a particularly newsworthy National Prayer Breakfast.
People might recall this was the day after President Trump was acquitted after the first impeachment. We talked about this story, which made news. We said the National Prayer Breakfast always makes a little bit of news. Well, it made more news that year because of its timing and what unfolded at the event. And it was a proper topic for our brand new vision for this podcast. That vision included taking note of religion, not only in law and in policy, but in our culture.
As people might recall, President Trump came in with a newspaper, holding up — I think it was, The Washington Post that said he was acquitted. And it was clearly an emotional time for him, seeking some kind of affirmation from this bipartisan audience and faith leaders to kind of want to say that, you know, he had been mistreated, but he came out on top.
He gave one of his wide-ranging ‑‑ is a nice way to put his presentations. And there were some awkward exchanges or reactions to both things that he said, and the primary keynote speaker who was Arthur Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, an accomplished writer and thinker and expert on leadership.
So the stories about the National Prayer Breakfast that year continued for a while. Two things stood out in my mind when I think back on it, and that was the way Professor Brooks wrote about this later and said, The President and I disagreed, but liberty prevailed. So on a positive note, yes. We can have disagreements. We can have these kind of forums where people talk about religion, and we can all discuss respectful or, you know, disrespectful ways of treating each other.
On the other hand, I also remember a pretty blatantly disrespectful use of the forum in that President Trump called out Speaker Pelosi and Senator Romney, kind of questioning their faith, because they had not sided with him in the matters of the impeachment.
AMANDA: I think that’s a really great synopsis of that extraordinary National Prayer Breakfast, and we’re not going to do a comprehensive review of all the National Prayer Breakfasts today, Holly, but I bet that one would be in the top ten list of most problematic occurrences of this particular tradition.
And thinking back on that event from 2020 is useful as we head toward this next one and give this tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast a fresh look, thinking about this event, what it means, and whether it’s something that should continue.
HOLLY: So first of all, we should begin at the beginning. What is it?
AMANDA: The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual event. It is hosted by a private organization called The Fellowship Foundation, which is also sometimes called “The Family.” It was just announced that a newly created nonprofit will be the official sponsor of the breakfast, but reports indicate that its leadership still has ties to The Family. We’ll put a link in show notes to an article with more details which just emerged this week, so we are still learning more about this new structure ourselves.
And, Holly, this organization that created the National Prayer Breakfast, The Family — it continues to be rather secretive.
HOLLY: It describes itself as a nonprofit organization on its kind of statement of itself on its website. For me, it stood out as saying that they were dedicated to a Jesus model for relationship building, dedicated to the importance and power of prayer, and that they are organized to provide oversight and accountability to certain ministries.
Now, that’s not all super clear as far as what they really do or who they are, and as we’ve learned and as other things have been written about them, there are some kind of secretive aspects of this organization and how they work. But that description of itself tracks with what I’ve heard and seen as I’ve looked more closely at this tradition.
AMANDA: If you go to the History tab, then when they talk about the history of the organization, it does talk about the history of the National Prayer Breakfast. And they describe it as a movement that began in the 1940s somewhat organically among members of Congress, and then in 1953 for the first time, they invited President Eisenhower to join them for the National Prayer Breakfast, and that since 1953, it has been an annual event that has always included the president of the United States.
In our modern times, it is held on the first Thursday in February, usually at a large hotel here in Washington called the Washington Hilton. Before the pandemic, including that 2020 prayer breakfast that you reminded us about, there are about 4,000 people who would attend this event from all over the world. But it’s by invitation only. It is not open to the public. In 2022, Senator Chris Coons from Delaware said that the National Prayer Breakfast was being reset and that only members of Congress, speakers and their spouses were invited to last year’s event.
And it seems like that reset is continuing this year, because as reported by Religion News Service, the event will be at the Capitol Visitors Center, and only members of Congress and their guests are invited to the actual National Prayer Breakfast. But new this year, compared to last year, The Family is going to host a large event at the Washington Hilton, the same place the breakfast used to be held before the pandemic, and that large event with The Family’s invited guests will include watching the livestream.
The event has also been bipartisan. There are usually two chairs from Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, and there is often a host committee of sorts.
HOLLY: Well, I took a quick look just at some of the recent prayer breakfasts, just to kind of see how they set that up with the co-chairs, and actually the most recent one in 2022 I found online, and the co-sponsors were Senator Rounds, a Republican of South Dakota, and Senator Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York. And as they spoke in the beginning, they set it up as a bipartisan event to pray for the president.
And in the nature of the comments, in my view, were indicating this kind of effort to come together and show some commonality, which, of course, is appreciated in our very divided partisan times. There was some good humor and goodwill in their introductory comments. Senator Rounds said about his co-chair, “We both understand what our founders knew, that it is the right of each of us to worship the Good Lord as we see fit.” And he went on to say that all are welcome at this prayer breakfast.
I think that shows maybe response to some criticism, to say that it was open to all. I think he means without regard to religion, but he says, “open to all in the spirit of Jesus, this prayer breakfast and all are welcome.” And I think that idea sort of tracks with what The Fellowship says about itself and what I’ve encountered from people who attend, saying this focus on Jesus as a way of relationship building. It feels kind of like a utility use of Jesus’s ‑‑ part of Jesus’s witness and appeal.
But that’s kind of how it opened up, and I think that’s probably representative of how senators and members of Congress approach this in their remarks.
AMANDA: But that remark, Holly, just strikes me as a little strange, this idea that it’s open to all if you get an invitation to this event.
AMANDA: And just the air of secrecy around the whole event. So the event usually has a keynote speaker, but we often don’t know who that keynote speaker is until the day before the event. I will say that the speakers come from a wide variety of ideological backgrounds and the work that they work on. Last year’s speaker was Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and social justice activist, probably best known as the author of Just Mercy and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Previous speakers have been the CEO and founder of International Justice Mission, which is a global organization that protects people in poverty from violence. Senate chaplain Barry Black has spoken there. Former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip has been the keynote speaker.
In addition to the keynote speaker, there are other speakers and performers, singers — like Christian music artists — associated with the event. And, of course, we also often have comments, as you noted from last year’s breakfast, from high-ranking Republicans and Democrats. And you can ‑‑ they don’t keep the event itself a secret. It is livestreamed on C-SPAN so anyone can watch it live.
HOLLY: Respectfully, at least in theory and in parts of the programming, it is an expression of bipartisan support for the president and vice president. It’s a time kind of designated to come together and talk about the role of faith and kind of related subjects. Sometimes you hear comments about religious freedom or respect for religious differences, and an opportunity for people to pray together.
So it is an expression of religion in public life and an exercise of religious liberty and a really unique one. You know, it comes in this particular package of this long-standing history and expectation about the program with these elements that you’ve described with this cooperation of the congressional host committees and chairs, and this kind of secret guest list and a lot of Jesus language.
And, you know, respectfully, we note that religion is expressed in many different ways in our country, and so this is a sort of peculiar mix of religion and bipartisan fellowship, something that many people may really enjoy and think is great, something that might make other people feel very uncomfortable. I don’t think it would appeal to everyone, and there are some questionable aspects, particularly the extent to which it is promoted and viewed as being an official act of the government. And, you know, certain elements give it that feel, even though it is not a government event.
AMANDA: And we started this conversation, Holly, by noting that there are limits on government in the realm of religion. So even though this isn’t a government-sponsored event, the optics of it make it look and feel official and make it look like the government is sponsoring the event.
I was reflecting on the name National Prayer Breakfast. So the name itself ‑‑ I mean, we have a National Football Championship. Right? That doesn’t mean that the government sponsors that game. Congratulations to the Georgia Bulldogs. But it does mean that, you know, I think we have to be careful when we use that language, and then when you add to it the official seal of the United States ‑‑
HOLLY: On the invitations.
AMANDA: Yes. When you invite and the president of the United States attends, when you have members of Congress attend, then we need to be careful about what signal is being sent about the government’s role in this private event. And so, what do we make of this? Does the constitutional limit on government establishments of religion say anything about the National Prayer Breakfast?
HOLLY: I’d say no. And there have not been lawsuits about this event, and that’s because the first thing you need is some kind of government action. But I do think some aspects that you mentioned are problematic, and I think they harm the public’s understanding of religious freedom, and it’s not surprising that controversy is pretty common coming out of the event.
As we said, the event is not sponsored by the government or run exclusively by the government. But it is sort of intertwined with this organization, and you have the presence of the president, which makes it a big deal. And that’s not something that you would normally see absent government approval and sponsorship.
And I think one thing that’s troublesome about it is that these indications that make it look like an official event that the government might sponsor — I don’t think are on accident. I think that they add an air of status to the event, and that’s what those who have been the traditional sponsors, beneficiaries of this event, would want. That gives it this air of importance and connection.
And as we see, this event is often focused on relationships, so we’re talking about relationships to individuals personally, but also between different government actors and business leaders. I think the questions are fair, especially in the wake of a lot of the conversations we’ve been having recently, Amanda, about the realization of the impact of Christian nationalism and how it infects so many parts of our culture.
So I would ask you, Amanda, given the time that you’ve spent out talking about Christian nationalism and learning about it, you know: What do you think about this?
AMANDA: Well, I always start with definitions, Holly, so let’s remind. A definition of Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge identities as Americans and Christians.
So Christian nationalism suggests that to be a real and true American, one has to be Christian, and that to be a real Christian, one has to have certain political beliefs.
AMANDA: And I’m really focused on the first part here ‑‑ that having this private event, sponsored by an explicitly Christian organization and having all of these indicators that the government is involved, heavily involved in the event, sends a signal to people watching that to be truly welcome certainly in this room and overall in America, that one has to be Christian, that that’s the message that seems to be being sent here.
And Religion News Service had an article from 2022 about the National Prayer Breakfast, and there was an interesting quote from Senator Coons in the piece. He said, “This is the 70th anniversary of the National Prayer Breakfast. Every president has spoken every year for 70 years.” He said, “I think that sends an important message. Even in times of difficulty and division, even as the control of the White House and Congress changes party, we can come together in a nonsectarian celebration of prayer in the spirit of Jesus — with people from a wide range of faith backgrounds ‑‑ and still find time to listen to each other, to respect each other and to pray together.”
HOLLY: And it’s interesting, Amanda. Don’t you think that’s a ‑‑ it’s a little bit of pushback from what you said, how we see the dangers. It’s a little bit of pushback, and looking at that on its face, you think, okay, well, maybe that’s fair, and we do respect and appreciate that Senator Coons is more comfortable than many members of Congress in talking about faith. He has a divinity degree. He has long-standing friendships, bipartisan friendships, and prayer group practices that he’s talked about, so we know that he cares about this subject. So this is an interesting way to describe the event coming from him.
AMANDA: I’m glad you reminded us, Holly, that Senator Coons does have this divinity degree. That means that he feels comfortable and I think is even better equipped to speak to religion in public life, and I’m glad that he made the comment here. But I think his comment shows how difficult this is and how one perspective might not serve all.
So, you know, he says, “in a nonsectarian celebration of prayer in the spirit of Jesus.” I think there’s one way to look at it, certainly the way that I look at it, that Jesus did welcome everyone, no matter what their faith background was, and he’s the one who taught us that our neighbor is everyone.
AMANDA: Right. So there is a welcome in Jesus that one can read. And that’s not always the message that everyone receives, how everyone receives Jesus. Jesus is unique to Christianity. Not everyone is a Christian, and we can’t suppose that everyone hears that the same way. And I think we need to be mindful of the signal that’s sent to everyone and why we think this practice is problematic.
Segment 2: History, controversies, and the proper relationship between religion and government (starting at 25:21)
HOLLY: So it’s not that the event so much raises legal problems, but it does reflect some of our Christian nationalism problems. And apart from these issues, it often includes controversy and confusion about the proper relationship between religion and government.
We know that prayer in government forums is almost always controversial. I mean, we have such religious diversity and religion is so important to people that we’re not really unified by the way we address religion. And so while this is not really in a government forum, it’s not surprising that it has this feel that will generate controversy.
And we mentioned at the top, you know, one of the controversies back in 2020, but that reminded me. In President Trump’s very first National Prayer Breakfast, we were listening. I think we were tipped off that he might talk about some policy issue that we were interested in, and then he ended up speaking about something else. He really used that forum to advance a policy agenda, a policy agenda that’s kind of related to religion, didn’t make it any more appropriate for the forum, and that was to say that he intended to totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.
That is a provision of the tax code that protects 501(c)(3)s, certain charitable organizations, and allows them to have tax-deductible contributions. But along with that, it prevents those organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates in political campaigns. So, you know, that was controversial. Basically you have a forum that invites a president to use it to talk about his policy agenda in a way that the president would assume is good for faithful people and something that would be applauded by those religious people in the room.
AMANDA: And we have talked about the Johnson Amendment on other episodes of this podcast, Holly. But just a quick aside. I do think that Trump thought that he was going to score a big political win in that room, but attempts to get rid of the Johnson Amendment are not politically popular, including among people of faith, especially among people of faith, I think, because they understand the dangers.
HOLLY: Good point.
AMANDA: And also I think it’s important to point out that he did not accomplish that goal of getting rid of the Johnson Amendment. And why am I pointing it out? Not just to rub it in, but to say ‑‑ because he continues to claim to this day that he did, and so we have to continue to fight that misinformation from former President Trump and explain that.
HOLLY: Well, in preparation for this episode, I was reminded of another controversy, kind of on the other side, where the keynote speaker was Ben Carson, Ben Carson who later became part of the Trump administration, a Cabinet official. Before that, he was just a famous Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon who’s also a religious person, I think a Seventh-day Adventist, and he used his keynote speech to criticize progressive taxation policies and the health care plan passed under President Obama.
So there you had the forum being used by a guest speaker to criticize the administration because you’ve got this, I guess, captive audience of the president always being there, sitting just a few feet away. That definitely generated some controversy.
I remember conservative commentator Cal Thomas criticized that. He called the political nature of the speech that Carson gave inappropriate for an event that had this tradition of nonpartisanship. So there’s kind of been some chipping away at whatever goodwill may have been intended or accepted and put forth by people who participated in this event in the past.
And then, of course, there is the Maria Butina scandal. I hope I’m saying that right. She was the Russian operative, later convicted of failing to register as a foreign agent. We don’t have time to go all into that scandal, but specifically she was caught violating, you know, what should be a rule of the National Prayer Breakfast and is a rule that prohibits any interactions for the purpose of personal, political or financial gain with entities or persons that are legally prohibited, sanctionable or registrable.
An affidavit said Butina used the 2017 prayer breakfast as a way to gather a group of influential Russians in the U.S. to establish a back channel of communication with Americans.
AMANDA: So we really have it all at this event, Holly. We have espionage. We have inappropriate political behavior. We have the president calling out members of Congress as not being good Christians.
HOLLY: Or being called out by an invited guest.
AMANDA: Yeah. And we also have a Netflix documentary, a five-episode Netflix documentary called “The Family,” that does go into the people behind the National Prayer Breakfast and specifically talks about some of the links to Christian nationalism. And we’ll put some information in the show notes about that series as well.
HOLLY: So for these reasons and probably other reasons, you know, some people have grown weary of the National Prayer Breakfast, and it’s not uncommon to read articles about officials questioning it and in some cases, people saying, I’m not going to participate anymore.
Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia, is a former co-chair, and he’s someone who is quite comfortable talking about faith in public life, and I remember different times in his career being proud of him as my senator in the way that he talked about religious freedom. But he has said in 2021 that he has no intention of going back to it.
AMANDA: Senator Kaine is not the only person who has said he does not intend to return to the prayer breakfast. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio in 2022 also said that he was going to sit out the prayer breakfast for many of the reasons that we’ve mentioned today.
HOLLY: And, of course, there will be interest groups, different people that will continue to call for it to either be boycotted, that people should not go, or that it should be a tradition that should be ended. Its time has passed. So we’ll see. We’ll see how this event changes, if it changes in response, and if it is recast in ways that have been talked about in the past and what it looks like this yea
Segment 3: What’s the difference between the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Day of Prayer? (starting at 32:12)
HOLLY: Well, in light of what we know, what we’ve seen and what we’ve read, what we’ve experienced, what do we think about this?
AMANDA: Just to be clear, if it’s not already, we do not think the government has a role in making us pray or even suggesting that we should pray. And in talking about the National Prayer Breakfast, we have to contrast it with another similarly named event called the National Day of Prayer, which is held the first Thursday in May.
And for us, the National Day of Prayer is more problematic than the National Prayer Breakfast, because it fits into this larger issue of religious exercise sponsored by the government. National Day of Prayer is definitely sponsored by the government.
HOLLY: Right, right. And it gets to this question of: What is the role of government? I mean, it’s one thing to try to bring us all together and for members of the government to express religion in public life. But it’s another thing to usurp the role of religion in the life of citizens by sponsoring events or assuming a certain religious uniformity when there is none.
AMANDA: And we — BJC is on record as disagreeing with the idea of a National Day of Prayer. In 2011, my predecessor, Brent Walker, said, “There is nothing wrong with the American people getting together to pray on a designated day, even public officials. In fact, every day should be a day of national prayer. The problem with the National Day of Prayer is that it is an official act of the government, urging citizens to engage in a religious exercise.”
As you’ve talked about this, Holly, as church-state controversies go, a congressional resolution and a presidential proclamation establishing a National Day of Prayer do not represent a cataclysmic breach in the wall of separation.
“There is little, if any, coercion of anyone’s conscience, and most Americans are unaware of the occasion. But actual coercion has never been the standard for judging whether government has overstepped its bounds in promoting religion. Even though the National Day of Prayer was not held to be unconstitutional, it is certainly unwise.”
And I think those are very wise words.
HOLLY: I said it then. I stand by that, although much is left to be seen about what the proper standard for the Establishment Clause is with the rapidly changing jurisprudence of our current Court. And while the National Day of Prayer may be more problematic, as we’ve discussed today, the National Prayer Breakfast, you know, has a lot of problems that really should be more carefully considered at a time when we would really like to see our country recommit itself to the vision of religious liberty for all, a vision of equal citizenship without regard to religion, and respect for each other, and recognition of the problems that come with assuming religion unites us.
And I think, you know, we are very attuned to those issues given recent history, and I think that makes me more wary of this event, even than I have been in the past, and I can’t say I’ve been a big fan.
AMANDA: What we could do, when we think about what do we think about it but what would we like to see happen, we see people of faith who are also senators, people like Senator Coons and Senator James Lankford who have done all kinds of things in a bipartisan way to lift up religious freedom and faith, they don’t need a National Prayer Breakfast in order to pray together. It would send a really strong signal, I think, for a bipartisan effort to sit out the National Prayer Breakfast, to go about their own more private exercise that doesn’t raise the same kinds of religious freedom concerns.
HOLLY: And we know those opportunities exist, and I think that they have in the press talked about how those not only opportunities exist but those traditions and practices exist in Congress.
I mean, the risks are plain. The scandals reveal some of these problems. But it is, of course, difficult to end long-standing traditions, particularly ones that deal with faith and that have a bipartisan nature. I mean, you know, you can imagine the parties blaming each other for the discontinuation of an event that is focused on religion and faith. So you’ve kind of got this choice. You can come together to end it, or you can try to come together to make it better. And I think we’ve sometimes seen that as an easier way for elected officials to go about participating in this.
And we will be watching, as we always do, for any news that comes out of this National Prayer Breakfast. Meanwhile, we certainly don’t need a National Prayer Breakfast in order to recognize that we have a government that is and should be open to all citizens without regard to faith. Government not promoting or advancing religion in no way indicates that government is hostile to religion. In fact, we just need our government to be more clear about supporting religious freedom for all.
AMANDA: And I personally was reminded of that and how it could look for a government-sponsored event to lift up religious freedom for all when I was invited by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to attend and witness a naturalization ceremony held in honor of Religious Freedom Day. And this was the first ever event held open with people attending in person for a naturalization ceremony held by the White House for Religious Freedom Day.
And all of the speakers that day, all the government speakers, including Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Ur Jaddou who is the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, talked about the importance of religious freedom for all to our constitutional democracy.
And personally, it was one of the most patriotic experiences I have ever had ‑‑
AMANDA: — to watch 15 of my newest fellow Americans take the oath of allegiance to the United States, to recognize all of the work that went into, all the study that went into their quest to be citizens, something that we frankly often take for granted.
And these are people have chosen to be Americans. It was truly beautiful to see these 15 people from 15 different countries, I assume from multiple faith backgrounds though that was not stated, as it didn’t need to be stated because our belonging in American society should never depend on how we worship or what we believe or how we identify religiously. So I thought that was a tradition that we should lift up as a proper role for government and religion.
HOLLY: That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. For details on what we discussed, including links to the articles we mentioned, check out our show notes.
AMANDA: If you enjoyed today’s show, share this program with others on social media and tag us. We’re on Twitter and Instagram and YouTube @BJContheHill, and you can follow me on Twitter @AmandaTylerBJC.
HOLLY: You can email both of us by writing to [email protected]. We love hearing from you.
AMANDA: Thank you for supporting this program. You can visit our show notes for a link to donate to support this podcast and keep it free of sponsored content. And for more episodes, you can see a full list of shows, including transcripts, by visiting RespectingReligion.org.
HOLLY: We always encourage you to take a moment to find out more about BJC and how we’ve been working for faith freedom for all since 1936. Visit our website at BJConline.org for a look at what we do and some of our latest projects.
AMANDA: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.