Separation of Church and State Streets (photo: archeoeric via Flickr)

It is the first Thursday in February, which means that “The Family” —  or as they like to be known publicly, The Fellowship Foundation —  is holding its National Prayer Breakfast. As has been the case since the 1980s there will be a wide variety of leading political figures at the this event, including President Obama.

For those who have not read Jeff Sharlet’s “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” or watched Rachel Maddow’s excellent coverage of this group let me give just a little primer.

The Family was founded by Abraham Vereide and has been a shadowy presence ever since. It is the owner of the now-notorious C Street House where Sen. John Ensign, and others apparently got sweetheart deals on lodging from The Family. The current leader of this group is Douh Coe who’s been seen in video clips comparing the commitment of the Nazis and the Red Army to the commitment his followers need to have in Jesus. I can’t say whether it was taken out of context or not, but let’s just say I have never heard a Jesuit speak approvingly of Hitler or Stalin in any fashion. To use the comparison of fanatical belief and commitment of followers to a couple of the greatest killers in history seems jarring when one is talking about the “Prince of Peace.”

I don’t have a problem with people coming together to pray. If that is you thing, go for it. I don’t see the point, but I am not going to stop you or even advocate that you stop. The problem is that this has achieved national prominence. Every American president since Eisenhower has participated in this event. This and the fact that it is organized by Republicans and Democrats makes it an overtly political event.

This is a real problem with the separation of church and state. The Family arranges for the president to meet with high ranking members of other governments in an hour long event before the main event. This is a huge amount of power; after all who else do you know that can dragoon a president to talk with persons of their choice every single year?  . . .


The other problem with this is the patina of respectability this gives The Family. This year one of the Chilean miners and Gabby Gifford’s husband in attendance. Who could be angry at a group hosting these folks? All of it is good cover for the rest of their agenda. You see, The Family is a big supporter of David Bahati who introduced the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda.

Now The Family did all it could to try to muddy the waters about its association with Bahati, but the Ugandan legislator is proud of his association with this group and has repeatedly claimed that he got some of his ideas form them. Lest you think this hyperbole, Mr. Bahati was a long-time guest at the National Prayer Breakfast and was scheduled to attend last year, until the news of his heinous legislation broke.

The senators and representatives involved with The Family are the ones you would expect if you looked for those in favor of steering federal dollars to Christian groups. They are the ones that managed to get funds diverted from the U.N. to Christian NGOs under the leadership of Sen. Sam Brownback’s North Korean Human Rights Act. Yeah, I was a little confused with what human rights in North Korea and diverting funds targeted to the U.N. have to do with each other, but that is standard operating procedure for The Family — propose something that people generally won’t find objectionable then stuff something objectionable into the fine print.

I have a very tolerant attitude to those who believe. It is your call, and since it is always an emotional one, no amount of rational argument is going to change your mind, so why bother. Where I draw the line is making your religion political. If you believe that we should not have laws that draw from all traditions, and the consent of the people through their representatives, but rather only laws that come from your religious tradition as you understand it, then I am going to say you’re not fit to be a true representative of the people.

Every senator or representative has a diversity of constituents of different faiths in their state or district. Every state has atheists, too. To push legislation and to favor groups belonging to an elected official’s religion is unacceptable. We have struggled and continue to struggle with tolerance in this nation. Tolerance is not some vague ideal, it is the very heart of a pluralistic society. It is a challenge that every generation must take up and work through. Groups like The Family who make a fetish of zealousness and unswerving devotion to their interpretation of the Christian faith are the antithesis of this.

It is time to push our elected officials to stop wearing their religion on their sleeve. The place of religion is not in government, it is in the mind and (if you believe you have one) soul of the individual. Being a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Zoroastrian is not about forcing your world view on others; it is has nothing to do with the way a very diverse nation of 308 million citizens should be governed.

Most religions don’t have a lot to say about government. Even the Christian Messiah said “Render on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” which means let government be government and let religion be religion.

I am confident there will be those who don’t like my prescription; they will say something to the effect of “Why do you want to piss on a nice thing like a prayer breakfast?” In answer to them I’ll just say this. It is not the breakfast qua breakfast that I object to. It is the group that holds it and the way that they use this nice seeming event to network with the most powerful people in the country. It is that it is an event which tacitly and explicitly gives the luster of government approval to a sectarian religious event.

There are many ways to influence people in government; using the leverage of godliness is an oldie but a goodie and it should be resisted at every turn.

The floor is yours.

Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for Govtrak.org

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