In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

I covered the National Prayer Breakfast once or twice, which sounds glamorous, but it was a thankless job in that the organizers loathed the media and the only sure way to get access was to be part of the White House press pool.

One rises at some ungodly hour to get to downtown Washington, D.C., through the security at the White House and into the press room, where we were all crammed into three black SUVs at the end of a long line of cars headed for the Washington Hilton.

Reporters were ordered into one corner of the room, then told to leave as soon as the president took his leave. This was confounding in that I’d been told I needed to report on the main speaker, which the president doesn’t always linger to listen to. During my first time at this event, as the pool headed out the back door, I leapt into the audience where I grabbed an empty seat. The Secret Service was not happy with me.

You see, I knew that the real story of the gathering wasn’t so much the massive breakfast, but all the wheeling and dealing going on before and afterwards. A lot of foreign officials showed up, with the mistaken impression they could get face time with the president, while a small army of people did their best to introduce these foreign contingents to Christianity. 

Which is why I was pleased to see the recent New York Times story on the machinations behind the breakfast. Unfortunately other publications have chimed in by alleging that what’s behind the breakfast is actually a right-wing conspiracy involving the Russians.

The truth is more complex. Here is the top of the Times piece:

WASHINGTON -- With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.
But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.
Their presence at the breakfast illuminates the way the annual event has become an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of American power.

No surprise there. It’s been an influence-peddling bazaar for years.

The story adds that Butina was recently indicted for being a Russian agent at the breakfast.

Ms. Butina’s spy-thriller-like tactics hint at the more widespread, if less sensational, international maneuvering that pervades the prayer breakfast, and the lucrative opportunities it creates for Washington’s corps of lobbyists and fixers, according to more than half a dozen people who have been involved in peddling access around the event.
Ahead of Mr. Trump’s first appearance at the breakfast last year, some of the people said, foreign politicians clamored for tickets, with some offering to pay steep fees to get into the event and the myriad gatherings on its sidelines.
One lobbyist, Herman J. Cohen, offered what he billed as an exclusive invitation to last year’s breakfast, and three days of meetings around it, to an African leader for $220,000.

Maybe Trump is pressing the flesh at these events, but when I attended –- during the Bush II administration –- the president wasn’t mixing with the crowd. Back to the Times:

Held every year at the Washington Hilton, the prayer breakfast festivities span several days during the first week of February, with the American president appearing at a ceremonial breakfast on Thursday. The days are packed with programming, after which guests head to private suites with names like the Africa room and the Middle East room, or to fancier hotels in nearby Georgetown, where they mingle late into the night -- praying, sharing business cards and sometimes draining expensive bottles of cognac. A favorite activity is an annual midnight tour of the Capitol, hosted by a former congressman.
Some describe the gathering as similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle. The eclectic guest list has included the Dalai Lama, the Rev. Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, the singer Bono and the former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, as well as the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

So yes, it’s no huge surprise that some Russians wanted in on this party. Before the Times piece ran on July 27, Religion News Service ran a piece on July 18: 

Butina intended to use 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. She allegedly described the list of Russian attendees to the prayer breakfast as “populated by important political advisors to Russian President (Vladimir) Putin, university presidents, mayors, and substantial private businessmen.”
She also reportedly discussed with a colleague the possibility of bringing Putin to meet President Trump at the event, although that meeting did not ultimately occur.
Using a religious event to broker unsanctioned political communication may seem like an unorthodox ploy. But evidence suggests sustained links between Russian officials and the National Prayer Breakfast that potentially opened the gathering up to exploitation.

The bottom line: I’m just surprised it took the Russians this long to discover what everyone else knew -- that the breakfast and its parent organization, the International Foundation, have been organizing secret meetings between foreign government leaders and U.S. politicians other folks for years.

Doesn’t the same sort of thing happen at Vatican embasses around the world? Is this news all that surprising? The key question is documenting the money involved.

What’s more, participants appear to see ultimate value in meetings and relationships seemingly irrespective of the motives of those present.

I would sub in “evangelistic value,” in that the motive behind the breakfast is to pave the way for the spread of the Gospel in foreign countries by inviting their government officials to the breakfast.

Remember, the folks at the breakfast -- and the Foundation -- are using this as an opportunity to reach the Russians (and others) just as much as the folks from overseas are using it as a way to reach influential Americans.

“We don’t really care why they come because God’s a big guy, he can take care of himself,” one organizer, Tony Hall, told academic Michael Lindsay when Lindsay studied the prayer breakfast in 2006.
But if the charges against Butina are true, it shows how the fusion of the foundation’s influence and dedication to anonymity may have allowed it to become a target for political exploitation and potential international espionage.

The breakfast is the blandest event imaginable and a display of civil religion at its worst. CNN says that even when the Russians first tried crashing the event, they were quite clumsy at it.

By the way, I question the CNN video with this piece that links the prayer breakfast with white supremacy?!

A prior CNN video aired in February also makes the point that it's not exactly just top Kremlin officials at this event. A lot of the Russian delegation are senior religious figures.

Meanwhile, notice that Butina's first contacts were with the National Rifle Association. It sounds like the prayer breakfast was one of her many methods to open doors inside the Beltway, including offering sex to gain access. So is it fair to link the Butina affair to how the Russians, as a rule, are interacting with American evangelicals?

Maybe in the most general sense. But that's not what's happening. The RNS story links Butina with evangelist Franklin Graham and a summit on persecuted Christians slated for 2017 in Moscow. The idea was the President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet at this Moscow event.

A second RNS story also mentioned this summit, adding that it was later rescheduled for Washington.

But why was it rescheduled?

The article didn’t say, but it was because Putin signed a law that took aim at anyone doing missionary activities in his country, which was a slap at evangelical Christians and other groups seeking the right to evangelize in Russia. Thus, he pulled the conference out of Russia -- in protest. See this Deseret News piece for more details.

Instead of being made to appear as Putin’s errand boy, Graham should be given credit for standing up to the Russian president. But that doesn’t fit into the narrative of the craven evangelicals choosing to cosy up to the Russians, does it?

For an insightful and more nuanced look on the links between Russian Orthodox and American evangelicals, start with this recent Christian Century piece. And here is a 2011 piece from tmatt about the start of Metropolitan Hilarion's campaign to dialogue with evangelicals.

Whether you agree or disagree with the organizers of the breakfast, it’s worthwhile to question who’s really using who at that event and its associated meetings.

Are folks like Butina really getting a bang for their buck, or do they only think they are? And is it fair to link the breakfast, and the secretive folks who run it to some Clintonesque rightwing conspiracy? It’s tempting –- and easy -– to do that, but is it fair? The truth may be more complex and messy.

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