On the morning of Feb. 2, 2017, more than 3,500 political leaders, military chiefs and corporate moguls met for eggs, sausage, muffins – and prayer. The Washington, D.C. gathering, the 65th National Prayer Breakfast, is an opportunity for new friends and old associates, from 50 states and 140 countries, to break bread and forge fellowship in Jesus’ name.
Convened on the first Thursday in February, the gathering, known as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast until 1970, has always included the American head of state. Donald Trump, in his maiden appearance, broke precedent with a powerful no holds barred speech that put other countries on notice, threatened church/state separation and mocked actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As a scholar of American religious history, I am intrigued by how presidents negotiate the intricacies of church/state relationships versus religion/politics entanglements. Most avoid the former while trying to benefit from the latter. That’s why the prayer breakfast is noteworthy – it is an opportunity for leaders to appear as Christ’s servants rather than formidable heads of state.
President Dwight Eisenhower began the tradition with the first breakfast in 1953. While Eisenhower was initially wary of attending a prayer breakfast, evangelist Billy Graham convinced him it was the right move.
Speaking to an audience that included Graham, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and 400 political, religious and business leaders, Eisenhower proclaimed that “all free government is firmly founded in a deeply felt religious faith.”
Today, “Ike” – the 34th president’s nickname – is not remembered as being deeply religious.
However, he was raised in a pious household of River Brethren, a Mennonite offshoot. His parents named him after Dwight Moody, the famous 19th-century evangelist who likened the state of the world to a sinking ship and stated,
“God has given me a lifeboat and said… ‘Moody save all you can.”
Soon after his election in 1952, Eisenhower told Graham that the country needed a spiritual renewal. For Eisenhower, faith, patriotism and free enterprise were the fundamentals of a strong nation. But of the three, faith came first.
As historian Kevin Kruse describes in “One Nation Under God,” the new president made that clear his very first day in office, when he began the day with a preinaugural worship service at the National Presbyterian Church.
At the swearing in, Eisenhower’s hand rested on two Bibles. When the oath of office concluded, the new president delivered a spontaneous prayer. To the surprise of those around him, Eisenhower called on God to “make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people.”
However, when Frank Carlson, the senator from Kansas, a devout Baptist and Christian leader, asked his friend and fellow Kansan to attend a prayer breakfast, Eisenhower – in a move that seemed out of character – refused.
But Graham interceded, Hilton offered his hotel and the rest is history.
A strategic move
It is possible that Graham may have used the breakfast’s theme, “Government under God,” to convince the president to attend. Throughout his tenure, Eisenhower promoted God and religion.
When he famously said to the press, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,” he was not displaying a superficial or wishy-washy attitude to faith. Rather, as Ike’s grandson David Eisenhower explained, he was discussing America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage.”
The truth is, Ike was a Christian, but he also was a realist. Working for a “government under God” was more inclusive than calling for a Christian nation. It also was strategic. Under his watch, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” imprinted on the nation’s currency. But legitimating the National Prayer Breakfast was a signature achievement.
A political meeting?
The National Prayer Breakfast has grown steadily over the years – from 400 attendees to close to 4,000. The presence of the U.S. president has made the event a draw for leaders worldwide and networking before and after the breakfast.
In a 2006 journal article, sociologist D. Michael Lindsay described the breakfast as a “veritable ‘Who’s who’ of the political and evangelical worlds.” Invitations cast it as an opportunity to “seek the Lord’s guidance and strength … and to renew the dedication of our Nation and ourselves to God’s purpose.”
But according to Lindsey’s conversations with men who attend the breakfast, most attend for political reasons, such as meeting the U.S. president, rather than its spirituality.
For many, the upshot is making new friends with religious, political and business leaders. There also are opportunities for alliances that could happen away from public scrutiny. In 2010, for example, The New York Times wrote about possible ties between the breakfast’s sponsors and Uganda’s persecution of homosexuals.
A guide for the powerful
The prayer breakfast’s success would have pleased Abraham Vereide, the Methodist minister behind the meetings. Vereide immigrated from Norway in 1905 when he was 19. For many years, he ministered to the down and out – society’s cast-offs.
He started Goodwill Industries in Seattle and provided relief work throughout the Depression. But seeing how little progress he’d made, Vereide turned his attention from helping the poor to guiding the powerful.
According to author Jeff Sharlet, Vereide’s ultimate goal was a “ruling class of Christ-committed men bound in a fellowship of the anointed.” A fundamentalist and a theocrat, he believed that strong, Christ-centered men should rule and that “militant” unions should be smashed. Between 1935 and his death in 1969, he mentored many politicians and businessmen who agreed.
During the 1940s, Vereide ran small prayer breakfasts for local leaders and businessmen in Washington, D.C. The groups were popular, but he wanted to spread and enlarge them. Senator Frank Carlson was Vereide’s close friend and supporter. When Eisenhower, the first Republican president since Herbert Hoover, was elected, Vereide, Graham and Carlson saw an opportunity to extend their shared mission of nurturing Christian leaders.
Using the breakfast moment
In the years since, presidents have used the prayer breakfast to burnish their image and promote their agendas. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson spoke about the harrowing days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination and his desire to build a memorial for God in the nation’s capital.
Richard Nixon, speaking after his election in 1969, said that prayer and faith would help America’s fight for global peace and freedom. In 1998, Bill Clinton, faced with allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, asked for prayers to “take our country to a higher ground.”
But while presidents are cautious about their prayers, preferring generalities to specifics, keynote speakers (who are not announced until the morning of the event) are forthright.
In 1995, Mother Teresa condemned abortion as President Clinton, who supported women’s right to choose, quietly listened. In 2013, pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson castigated the nation’s “moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility” while President Barack Obama sat in the audience.
And just last year, Hollywood power couple Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who produced the television miniseries “The Bible,” recounted how their Christian faith led them to create “family-friendly entertainment” that, they hoped, inspired viewers to talk about God, prayer and the Bible.
More changes with time
Just as speakers have become more diverse, so have attendees. There are Muslims and Jews as well as Christians of all stripes. The Fellowship Foundation, an organization started by Vereide that sponsors the breakfast, considers the National Prayer Breakfast as an inclusive event. Hillary Clinton has attended, as has Tony Blair, Senator Joseph Lieberman and musician Alison Krauss.
But while the breakfast is an open tent, the small seminars and discussions that fill the days before and after are exclusive. These meetings, also organized by the Fellowship Foundation, convene clergy, politicians, military leaders and businessmen for high-level discussions on the global intersections of faith, power and money. The president does not attend these meetings, but his confidantes do.
Historians, who might have hoped to listen for echoes of Vereide’s call for strong Christian leadership and journalists, for clues for his future plans, were not disappointed.
Reminding listeners that “I fix things,” Trump pledged to be “tougher” in international dealings and to protect religious liberty. Specifically, he promised to “viciously” confront terrorism, take “necessary action” against dangerous immigrants and “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which restricts religious organizations from involvement in political campaigns.
On a lighter note, the new president dropped “hell” into his impromtu compliment to Senate Chaplain Barry Black and suggested prayer to help the ratings of his Celebrity Apprentice successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The new president’s performance was a departure from his predecessor who, in 2016, concluded his remarks with this prayer:
“I pray that our leaders will always act with humility and generosity. I pray that my failings are forgiven. I pray that we will uphold our obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation – this beautiful planet. I pray that we will see every single child as our own, each worthy of our love and of our compassion. And I pray we answer Scripture’s call to lift up the vulnerable, and to stand up for justice, and ensure that every human being lives in dignity. That’s my prayer as well for this breakfast, and for this country, in the years to come.”
Diane Winston, Associate Professor and Knight Center Chair in Media & Religion, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism