Christian Nationalism and a Bagel - Word&Way

Christian Nationalism and a Bagel

President Joe Biden is planning to eat breakfast on Thursday. He’s also planning to pray. From what we know about him, neither of those two things is unusual. But unlike most days, he’ll show up on TV for both moments on Feb. 2.

That’s because he’ll be at the National Prayer Breakfast, a quasi-official event that’s been increasingly controversial in recent years. And this year the NPB is getting a facelift. But some critics are questioning if the reforms are actually enough. Is it just cosmetic public relations? Can the event even be saved?

From political lobbying over breakfast, partisan attacks instead of inspirational messages, and Russian spies mingling around to undermine the nation, the NPB hasn’t always been about just prayer or food. Add to that a controversial, secretive group running it and questions about church-state appropriateness, and it’s clear why some have lost their appetite. For instance, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a devout Catholic who spent time as a missionary in Honduras, went from co-chairing the event to refusing to attend for several years. But now the Democratic vice presidential nominee from 2020 is planning to return.

After two years of largely virtual NPB events, the breakfast is getting an overhaul this year. Rather than allowing The Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group often called “The Family,” to run the event, there’s a new group, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, that will oversee the planning. Additionally, the event is shifting from being a gathering of thousands of attendees in a large hotel ballroom to including just a couple hundred people in the Capitol Visitor Center in the U.S. Capitol. And instead of a nice sit-down breakfast, members of Congress and their few guests will just get bagels and coffee.

President Joe Biden speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 3, 2022. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

“The event itself will be a smaller, more intimate meeting,” Mark Pryor, the president of the new foundation’s board and a former Democratic U.S. senator from Arkansas, told me.

Pryor, like other board members of the new foundation, has long been connected with The Family and involved with the NPB. But the details provided thus far show substantial changes are occurring (and not just because the food got downgraded from a hearty meal to a discount hotel’s continental spread). But when I asked Pryor about the church-state concerns with the breakfast and its new location at the Capitol, he didn’t see any problems.

Given the questions about the event throughout its seven-decade history and the presence of the nation’s leaders, the NPB deserves greater attention. So this issue of A Public Witness recalls the history of the NPB and recent controversies before considering what this year’s changes could mean.

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