Everybody Loves Jesus
Jeff Sharlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Feb 02, 2007 at 12:48:35 AM EST
Or, the unofficial lobbying fest known as the National Prayer Breakfast.

(I'm using this post about the National Prayer Breakfast, below, to formally introduce myself to the Talk2Action community. I had the good fortune to be present for one of Fred's first public announcements of this site, a rousing speech worthy in style of Billy Sunday and in content of Clarence Darrow's great defenses of reason. I've wanted to get involved ever since, but I've been bogged down finishing my own book on the Christian Right. Now it's done; it'll be out later this year from HarperCollins --Jesus Plus Nothing: Our Shadow Theocrats and the Evolution of American Fundamentalism; and I'm free at last to join the fine discussion here at Talk2Action.)

Today our nation celebrates the 55th annual National Prayer Breakfast, Washington's annual ritual of dedication to the ecumenical Christ. You know the one -- the God we all agree on, whether we're Muslims, Christians, or Jews. All of whom are invited at the Prayer Breakfast to pray to Jesus with the president of the United States.

Yes, the National Prayer Breakfast is that weird...

...and has been, since 1953, when Eisenhower's pal Senator Frank Carlson finagled Ike into attending the first such event as payback for services rendered. It was Carlson and his Christian conservative allies, after all, who'd smoothed the way for Ike's nomination by brokering deals with the old school conservative champion and presumed 1952 Republican nominee, Robert Taft. Ike didn't want to go -- he feared setting a precedent for the erosion of church/state separation -- but there was a debt to be paid, and besides, Jesus was proving awful helpful in the propaganda wars with the Soviet Union.

Ancient history. Today, the National Prayer Breakfast is a gathering of all faiths, in Jesus' name. To be fair, the organization that produces it -- so deliberately lowkey that they encourage the misperception that it's an official government event -- tones down its true strangeness in honor of the attendance of the president and hundreds of congressmen. For instance, they don't bring up what they consider the leadership lessons of... Hitler. Yes, Hitler. The "Prayer Breakfast folks," as they prefer to be called if they must be called anything at all, are not Nazis, of course -- they just admire strength. In Jesus' name, that is. Here's how it works according to Doug Coe, the de facto leader of the Prayer Breakfast folks (internally, the group calls itself the Family):

The day I worked at C Street I ran into Doug Coe, who was tutoring Todd Tiahrt, a Republican congressman from Kansas. A friendly, plainspoken man with a bright, lazy smile, Coe has worked for the Family since 1959, soon after he graduated from college, and has led it since 1969.

Tiahrt was a short shot glass of a man, two parts flawless hair and one part teeth. He wanted to know the best way "for the Christian to win the race with the Muslim." The Muslim, he said, has too many babies, while Americans kill too many of theirs.

Doug agreed this could be a problem. But he was more concerned that the focus on labels like "Christian" might get in the way of the congressman's prayers. Religion distracts people from Jesus, Doug said, and allows them to isolate Christ's will from their work in the world.

"People separate it out," he warned Tiahrt. "'Oh, okay, I got religion, that's private.' As if Jesus doesn't know anything about building highways, or Social Security. We gotta take Jesus out of the religious wrapping."

"All right, how do we do that?" Tiahrt asked.

"A covenant," Doug answered. The congressman half-smiled, as if caught between confessing his ignorance and pretending he knew what Doug was talking about. "Like the Mafia," Doug clarified. "Look at the strength of their bonds." He made a fist and held it before Tiahrt's face. Tiahrt nodded, squinting. "See, for them it's honor," Doug said. "For us, it's Jesus."

Coe listed other men who had changed the world through the strength of the covenants they had forged with their "brothers": "Look at Hitler," he said. "Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Bin Laden." The Family, of course, possessed a weapon those leaders lacked: the "total Jesus" of a brotherhood in Christ.

"That's what you get with a covenant," said Coe. "Jesus plus nothing."

That's from a 2003 article I wrote about the Family for Harper's, "Jesus Plus Nothing." Congressman Tiahrt, presumably fortified by "total Jesus," has since becoming one of the House's most conservative zealots. But the Family is not only ecumenical in Jesus' name, it's also bi-partisan, as Joshua Frank made clear with his November Atlantic Monthly profile of Hillary Clinton, a participant in the Family's weekly prayer meeting for senators.

The truth is that the Prayer Breakfast is perhaps the most bi-partisan, ecumenical, profoundly bland event in the Washington calendar. The Family likes it that way. As Coe, whom Time dubbed the "stealth persuader" in its list of the 25 most powerful evangelicals once put it, the Prayer Breakfast is "not even one tenth of one tenth of what we really do." Rather, the Family considers it a recruiting event: 4000 dignitaries attend the breakfast, some lesser number attend the three days of seminars for oil, banking, and defense execs (and the pols who love them) on the Jesus-plus-nothing approach to business and diplomacy, and a few of those graduate into prayer cells, modeled, according to the Family's internal documents, on a revolutionary vanguard, as I reported in a Rolling Stone profile of Family cell member (cellist? cellie?) Senator Sam Brownback:

"Communists use cells as their basic structure," declares a confidential Fellowship document titled "Thoughts on a Core Group." "The mafia operates like this, and the basic unit of the Marine Corps is the four-man squad. Hitler, Lenin and many others understood the power of a small group of people."

That Hitler! Kind of an asshole, but he sure had some neat ideas about secret, anti-democratic organizing.

Many of these cells include or "adopt" foreign officials, the better to increase the bonds of brotherhood between the "powers that be," as Romans 13:1 puts it. So who are this year's potential initiates? I'm not reporting on this breakfast, but a quick survey of the world press reveals a promising bunch:

--From Pakistan, Minister of State for Privatization and Investment, Umar Ahmad Ghuman, leads a delegation (including the famously corrupt former prime minister Benazir Bhutto) to this "exclusive club" in which they hope to share prayer with a list of American bigs, ranging from Condoleeza Rice to John Negroponte to Joe Pitts. Joe Pitts? Of course -- the House chair of the Christian Right Values Action team, and an inner circle member of the Family.

--From Taiwan, a favorite of the Christian Right since 1949, comes former Premier Frank Hsieh as an official envoy, seeking "solidarity" with "influential members of Congress." Oh, and Jesus, too.

--From Sudan, General Ali Ahmed Karti, linked to genocide in Darfur, will come to thank the American Christ for his disinterest;

--From Bulgaria, Minister of Defense Veselin Bliznakov, who boasts that he
s be using the meeting to make friends w/ American congressmen;

--From Macedonia, Defense Minister Lazar Elenovsk has come to combine prayer with the president and a visit to the Pentagon;

There are many more, of course, not to mention thousands of American businesspeople, military officials and politicians who use the Prayer Breakfast and the three days of off-the-record events that follow as an opportunity to make special friends. But I couldn't tell you who they'll be this year, because the Family doesn't release a guest list.

Not that the press asks. I covered the 2003 National Prayer Breakfast for the Jewish Forward. To get in, I had to go through the White House Press Office. Which, of course, has nothing to do with the private, sectarian event. Except handling the press. And not very well, I might add -- at first, I was denied a press pass on the seemingly reasonable grounds that I was calling too late (the day before). So I asked who else would be representing the Jewish press at this ecumenical event. "Umm..." came the response. Soon after came a call back. I was in. In, and given my own private White House press office handler, no less, an evangelical shiksa instructed to help "the Jewish reporter" understand prayer.

To be fair, she was the only person there who asked tough questions ("How are you going to present this?" "You're going to include the fact that Senator Lieberman is here, right?" "Did you see Congressman Cantor? He's Jewish, you know"). The rest of the press corps dutifully sat through prayers from Bush and Condoleeza Rice and then made a run for it, eager to cover "politics," the big leagues, the stuff that matters. The rest of the Prayer Breakfast, and the deals it fosters, and the simultaneous Prayer Breakfasts held at U.S. military bases around the world -- the "iceberg," as Doug Coe once put it -- remained under the surface.

I read your "Harper's" article about this bunch on 2003 and duly shivered. It's good to have the connection to the "National Day of Prayer" recalled.
Are they not a bunch of would-be kingmakers?

by nogodsnomasters on Fri Feb 02, 2007 at 10:52:58 AM EST
Thanks, "Nogods."

I think you could make a strong case that they often are kingmakers. Or rather, king brokers. That was the case with Ike's nomination, but given his popularity you can't credit his victory to them. Nor do they stand in the way of the candidate they like less -- they preferred to have access to Clinton than Bush or Dole as president (of course, Clinton was more religiously in line with their thinking than either Bush 1 or Dole).
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Fri Feb 02, 2007 at 06:10:06 PM EST

And the National Prayer Breakfast, about how taken aback he was, initially, to encounter Clinton at a small private NPB dinner event with Franklin Graham, Bill Bright, Jack Hayford, and Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie.

Kuo writes:

"....a side door opened. One stern-looking man in a suit entered. A blond-haired woman in a suit followed, with another grouch behind her. The grouches were Secret Service. The woman was ... oh crap it is the Antichrist. It is Hillary Clinton." ( Tempting Faith, page 102 )

There's quite a bit in the book about Kuo's relationship with "The Family", pages 91-105.

Also, in terms of how the PR makeover of the Faith Based Initiative - that was Kuo's book - went down, I have to wonder about the influence and wisdom of "The Family" ; the significance of the Initiative was quite successfully minimized and so Kuo's book represented, from a certain perspective, a significant public relations coup that fed the left what it really wanted to hear - the initiative wasn't real, it was little more than smoke and mirrors.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Feb 04, 2007 at 08:59:06 AM EST

... to a cached Alternet article on a fellow who "visited" with the Family: g/story.html%3FStoryID%3D16167+%22the+family%22+coe+cult&hl=e n&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us

by Cynthia Gee on Sun Feb 04, 2007 at 02:33:41 PM EST
Who wrote the Talk To Action post we're discussing here !

I think Jeff links, in his post, to the full version of his fine piece, "Jesus Plus Nothing", that ran in Harpers' sometime last year.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Feb 04, 2007 at 03:36:46 PM EST

Well, there's nothing like going around in circles.....

by Cynthia Gee on Sun Feb 04, 2007 at 05:29:47 PM EST

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