It is no secret to many of you that I have never been a fan of the National Prayer Breakfast. I'm not comfortable, frankly, with any event that gives Americans the false impression that religion and government in our country are one and the same.
Our Constitution is based on secular values, including the separation of church and state. But too often, the National Prayer Breakfast itself seems to send the opposite message. Often it seems to be suggesting, as politicians and clergy participate together in this exercise of religious outpouring followed by power broking, that government and religion in this country have an unholy relationship.
This year, of course, the National Prayer Breakfast is mired in much greater controversy, which we've heard about this morning. Recent reporting has cast a revealing light on The Family, the secretive, very fundamentalist Christian organization that sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
And what that light has exposed is alarming. It's reason enough for our elected officials to approach this year's event with added caution. In fact, neither the president nor any member of Congress should attend in anything like an unthinking or uncritical manner.
My primary concern is that The Family - also of course known as the Fellowship Foundation - has a long-running goal of reaching politicians, wealthy business leaders and other individuals of influence and drawing them into a politically problematic network. Far from being some benign form of generic religiosity, the National Prayer Breakfast has become The Family's primary principal vehicle to insinuate itself into the very highest levels of the American government.
Yet the group's expression of faith does not represent some broad range of religious thought in America. And while the organizers of the Prayer Breakfast claim that the event is ecumenical, the fact remains that it is sponsored by a shadowy organization that shuns all public inspection and apparently sees itself on a messianic drive to merge religion and government under its own narrow brand and understanding of Christianity.
Some of The Family's actions that we've heard about today have had appalling repercussions around the world. This group has long had a longstanding presence in Uganda, and it has recently come to light that a member of the Ugandan parliament, David Bahati, who sponsored this evil legislation, is affiliated with The Family very directly.
Bahati has become famous - or better, I suppose, infamous - as the sponsor of that draconian law that would apply the death penalty in fact or in its effect to gay men and lesbians in Uganda. The bill would punish those who harbor gays and anyone who speaks publicly on their behalf.
It is difficult for many of us to imagine such a vile, backward policy being promoted in the 21st Century anywhere in this world, yet this one has the backing of many members of the Ugandan government and could in one form or another still become law. For a time, there were reports that Bahati himself might attend the Prayer Breakfast here on Thursday. More recent reports say he will not be there, but the real damage has already been done. This prayer service is already tainted with the stain of intolerance and religious extremism.
It's time for political leaders to stop lending uncritical power and prestige to an extremist organization that all too often works behind the scenes to subvert the best of American values - values like human rights and religious liberty and freedom. We tend to take these concepts for granted in America, too often forgetting that many people throughout the world still live under a yoke of oppression. The Family has never done anything to lift that yoke; it has simply added stones to it, decade after decade.
We cannot stand by while the United States government gives any aid and comfort to groups or individuals who do not understand the values or, worse yet, work actively to undermine the values of this country. I believe The Family does all of that. The Family, through its worldwide machinations of the rich and powerful, its espousal of an explosive mixture of religion and politics and now its ties to this hateful bill in Uganda, has forfeited any right to claim any position of moral authority. The fact that most of this activity is deliberately done in secret only amplifies the problem.
What does all of this have to do with Thursday's breakfast at the Hilton Hotel? It has plenty to do with it. For many years, people looked at events like the National Prayer Breakfast, shrugged and said, "Well, it's just another example of 'civil religion.'" At least that's what some of its defenders said. It's just a little religious talk. What's wrong with that?
Now I think it's clear that this is about something more, because there is nothing wrong with religious talk and prayer when it's freely chosen. But in this instance, we're concerned with a corrupted messenger. We're no longer shrugging over the National Prayer Breakfast. Rather, we're taking a closer look at the group behind it and the alarming agenda that it brings and the consequences it spawns in Uganda and around the world. We deplore what we see, and people of goodwill should never be afraid to say it loudly.
If the president of the United States attends this event, then he should speak critically of support by government or organizations that support anti-LGBT legislation anywhere in the world. President Obama should affirm the primacy of personal faith and repudiate government involvement with it.
Moreover, the leader of The Family, Doug Coe, should himself in a public place like this prayer breakfast repudiate the horrific anti-gay legislation in Uganda and urge that persons of all faiths join in its worldwide repudiation. If the president condemns this legislation, and if Doug Coe acknowledges that this was a sin and a moral scar on the face of the earth, then it would truly be a prayer breakfast to remember. Maybe I'd go next year.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.