In gods we trust

ribbon2Every year since 1953, an extremely mysterious Christian group called The Fellowship has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. At $400+ a pop, tickets for the breakfast are some of the hottest in town (don't worry, it's free on C-SPAN for us plebeians). Leaders of Christian groups across the country make sure to attend, as do dignitaries from around the world. Every president has attended for the last 50 years. Tables are full of senators and Congress members. In any case, the Associated Press' Frederic Frommer reports on a dramatic change with this year's event, being held this morning:

WASHINGTON -- The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman, the first time in memory that a Jew will lead the gathering, and at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event's overtly Christian tone. . . .

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year's breakfast when he said, "I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus."

A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was taken aback by that, and by registration material that said "Jesus Christ transcends all religions." He wrote to Coleman to express his concerns.

So a private Christian group hosts a popular prayer breakfast and has now decided to make it overtly interfaith. The article also says that Coleman is making sure that there will be no explicitly Christian pamphlets.

I find it endlessly fascinating that stories like presume there are no problems with Christian organizations or functions becoming interfaith. My Lutheran peeps abhor events like this -- not only because they tend to confuse the religious and political spheres but because they always require a watering down of religious doctrines. We're Lutheran for a reason and we don't believe that all paths are equally valid, contrary to the predominant American viewpoint. People think we're awful and horribly unpatriotic because of this. Fox News' theological heavyweight Bill O'Reilly once accused us of not being Christian on account of our views against participating in civil religious gatherings. Opposition to syncretism is hardly unique to Lutherans and yet the folks who find Druid drum circles to be an unseemly addition to Vespers are invisible to many reporters.

Anyway, the article goes on to repeatedly quote the rabbi wondering why there were so many references to Jesus at last year's breakfast if the prayer event was nondenominational. Beyond the vagueness of the term nondenominational (which makes a great argument against its use by anyone at any time), does an event hosted by an evangelical, if secretive, Christian group need to include adherents of other religions? Let's see:

Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who conceded that phrases such as "spirit of Jesus" could be offensive to Jews but noted the significance of Coleman's role this year.

"It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists," said Slattery, who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast.

Well there you go. Pray to whichever god or gods you want. As long as you have similar political objectives, it's all good.

In order to even begin making sense of this story, reporters simply must understand and inform readers how this National Prayer Breakfast embodies civil religion, as opposed to the Christian religion. Religion professor Rowland Sherrill defined civil religion as "the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. -- energized by faith outlooks -- represent a national force."

pancakeExamples of civil religion include the invocation of a non-specific God at political events ("God bless America!") and the quotation or reference of sacred texts in political speeches. We are quite accustomed to biblical references, but President Bush has begun including the Koran in his political rhetoric. His second inaugural highlighted the truths of the Koran, for instance. He called Islam a "noble faith" at his most recent State of the Union speech. Civil religion has its own hymns, such as the Star Spangled Banner, and venerates past political leaders and deceased veterans of wars. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the nation has seen a rise in religious events gathered by political leaders. These events have become increasingly interfaith.

The changes happening to this breakfast gathering this morning are emblematic of the changes happening with American civil religion, and highlight the need for reporters to study this pervasive phenomenon. For an absolutely excellent primer on civil religion, try this one prepared specifically for reporters by FACS.

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