Thursday, February 4, 2010

Prayer and Politics

Prayer is part of the politics of Washington. The famous National Prayer Breakfast has been taking place since 1953. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attended the breakfast this morning.

Although the National Prayer Breakfast is hosted by members of the U.S. Congress, some groups had asked President Obama not to attend the breakfast this year. The prayer breakfast is organized by the Fellowship Foundation which is a secretive, Washington, D.C.-based, conservative Christian organization known as The Family. "The Fellowship" or "The Family" has been linked to the introduction of legislation in Uganda that would sentence homosexuals and people who are HIV-positive to death.

Apparently the Ugandan President Museveni is a member of The Family. Jeff Sharlet, author of the bestseller "The Family," has been investigating this link for years. Sharlet spoke of the connection in an interview with Terry Gross from NPR.

GROSS: This legislation has just been proposed. It hasn't been signed into law. So it's not in effect yet and it might never be in effect. But it's on the table. It's before parliament. So is there a direct connection between The Family and this proposed anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda?

Mr. SHARLET: Well, the legislator that introduced the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of The Family. He appears to be a core member of The Family. He works, he organizes their Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which The Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda.

GROSS: So you're reporting the story for the first time today, and you found this story - this direct connection between The Family and the proposed legislation by following the money?

Mr. SHARLET: Yes, it's - I always say that The Family is secretive, but not secret. You can go and look at 990s, tax forms and follow the money through these organizations that The Family describe as invisible. But you go and you look. You follow that money. You look at their archives. You do interviews where you can. It's not so invisible anymore. So that's how working with some research colleagues we discovered that David Bahati, the man behind this legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Family's work in Uganda, that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni's kind of right-hand man, a guy named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family's National Prayer Breakfast. And here's a guy who has been the main force for this Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda's executive office and has been very vocal about what he's doing, in a rather extreme and hateful way. But these guys are not so much under the influence of The Family. They are, in Uganda, The Family.

According to Center for Media and Democracy, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) had asked President Obama not to attend this year's National Prayer Breakfast.
The Fellowship has also designed the prayer breakfast to have the appearance of a government-sanctioned event; Sharlet says the event "appears to the world to be an official function of the federal government," and reports that when he attended the National Prayer Breakfast in 2003, he obtained his press credentials through the White House.

The Fellowship also operates the C Street House, a Congressional residence for which The Family illegally escaped paying taxes on the building by claiming it was church instead of a rooming house.
The Huffington Post notes that CREW believes The Fellowship is cult-like:

The group, Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, lashed out at the fundamentalist Fellowship Foundation, which has organized the breakfast with presidents and prominent Washington and world leaders since 1953.

"The National Prayer Breakfast uses the suggested imprimatur of the elected leaders who attend to give the Fellowship greater credibility and facilitate its networking and fundraising," CREW director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "The president and members of Congress should not legitimatize this cult-like group -- the head of which has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Laden -- by attending the breakfast."

The White House confirmed to the Huffington Post that Obama plans to attend the breakfast, scheduled for Thursday, but had no response to CREW's letter. The Fellowship is closely connected to the now-notorious C Street House near the Capitol -- essentially a dorm for ethically-troubled Republicans.

"For those who have been housed in or sought refuge at C Street House," says Sloan's letter, "a shocking pattern of unethical behavior has emerged, sparking public outrage. For example Senator John Ensign (R-NV), who lived in the house, is being investigated by the FBI and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for events surrounding an affair he had with a former campaign staffer and his efforts to cover up that affair by helping her husband, his former chief-of-staff, become a lobbyist in violation of federal law."

The letter also mentions ethical troubles for C Street House guests Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).

Today President Obama did attend the prayer breakfast and among his comments he mentioned the intolerable attitude against gays in the US as well as in Uganda.
We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are -- whether it's here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.

President Obama also spoke about the need for civility.
But there is a sense that something is different now; that something is broken; that those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should. At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the men without shelter and the families without health care. Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility.

Now, I am the first to confess I am not always right. Michelle will testify to that. But surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship.

It is this spirit of civility that we are called to take up when we leave here today. That's what I'm praying for. I know in difficult times like these -- when people are frustrated, when pundits start shouting and politicians start calling each other names -- it can seem like a return to civility is not possible, like the very idea is a relic of some bygone era. The word itself seems quaint -- civility.

Because of the political divide and the divisive tone of Congress, President Obama really couldn't protest this prayer breakfast. For if he did, the GOP, the Christian Right, the Whollier-Than-Thous would have screamed and yelled that Obama is not a 'Christian'. That is how far we have deviated from the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.

The issue isn't that he attended the prayer breakfast. The issue is what he felt he needed to say at the prayer breakfast.

I come here to speak about the ways my faith informs who I am -- as a President, and as a person. But I'm also here for the same reason that all of you are, for we all share a recognition -- one as old as time -- that a willingness to believe, an openness to grace, a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives.
His statement speaks volumes about how far to the right President Obama feels he needs to go to appease the religious fervor of this country.

No comments: