Is the National Prayer Breakfast unbiblical?
Addressing about three thousand attendees at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, President Bush directed his praise to an unlikely object. "All of us believe in the power of prayer. And for a lot of people here in Washington, a prayer has been answered with three words: Coach Joe Gibbs," he said. He went on to praise U.S. troops in Iraq for promoting religious tolerance.

"The Iraqi people are mostly Muslims, and we respect the faith they practice. Our troops in Iraq have helped to refurbish mosques, have treated Muslim clerics with deference, and are mindful of Islam's holy days," he said. "Some of our troops are Muslims themselves, because America welcomes people of every faith. Christians and Jews and Muslims have too often been divided by old suspicions, but we are called to act as what we are—the sons and daughters of Abraham."

Halfway through his speech, Bush was interrupted by a sound many described as like machine-gun fire. "It was an interaction between wireless microphones and the sound system, akin to a feedback effect," White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said. "It was not a 21-gun salute." (The sound can be heard 9 minutes and 15 seconds into this video.)

That wasn't the only negative feedback of the day, however. New Republic blogger Gregg Easterbrook yesterday called for an end to the National Prayer Breakfast. He's less concerned about its political aspects than its public ones. "Christ repeatedly said that people should pray in private, and followed his own advice, leaving his disciples when he wished to address God," Easterbrook writes. "The Washington Hilton ballroom is today's equivalent of the 'street corners' on which hypocrites used to pray 'so that they may be seen by others.' If the National Prayer Breakfast were transformed into an annual celebration of ecumenical cooperation—with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others jointly vowing to respect each other—that might be one thing. Its current status as a celebration of public self-congratulation is another."

But if Easterbrook wants to take on public prayer, is the National Prayer Breakfast the best target? For one thing, the meeting is hardly one prayer after another. One need look no further than Bush, who did not offer any prayers himself, but did join others in bowing his head in prayer.

For another, the National Prayer Breakfast isn't tremendously public. It's by invitation only, and the press is barred for much of it (presidential speeches and a few musical acts notwithstanding).

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It's not that the National Prayer Breakfast is untouchable. Several conservative Christians would critique the meeting's interfaith nature, and castigate orthodox believers for praying with heretics and Muslims (As Easterbrook notes, "Countless among those present to adulate prayer don't pray themselves, or even consider prayer an irrational superstition.") But Easterbrook's argument is probably better served against, say, legislative invocations than he does against the National Prayer Breakfast.

Furthermore, Easterbrook seems to conflate public prayer with corporate prayer. While he's right in noting, along with Mark, that "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed," the Scriptures offer many examples of believers praying together or in front of others. Indeed, Jesus promoted praying together: "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

Indeed, the point seems to be, as Augustine said of the verses in question, "not that the mere being seen of men is an impiety, but the doing this, in order to be seen of men." John Wesley, for example, warned that some may even use Jesus' words as an excuse not to pray: "Pray to God, if it be possible, when none seeth but He; but, if otherwise, pray to God." It's humility, not crowd control, that's at stake here. Even those who pray in private can violate Jesus' command, if they take pride in praying alone. "Even if thou shouldest enter into thy closet, and having shut the door, shouldest do it for display, the doors will do thee no good," wrote John Chysostom. "Let us not then make our prayer by the gesture of our body, nor by the loudness of our voice, but by the earnestness of our mind; neither with noise and clamor and for display, so as even to disturb those that are near us, but with all modesty, and with contrition in the mind, and with inward tears." (For more on what the great church leaders from history have said on this, check out the World Wide Study Bible at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, which includes Thomas Aquinas's Golden Chain—his version of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.)

This then, is Easterbrook's point: "The huge ballrooms are required because the whole event has become about being seen, not about prayer." (In an issue of Harper's last year, Jeff Sharlet argued that the whole event is "merely a tool in a larger purpose: to recruit the powerful attendees into smaller, more frequent prayer meetings, where they can 'meet Jesus man to man.'")

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If the event is truly about being seen and not about prayer, then certainly it should be disbanded. But if instead it is for politicians, diplomats, and others to humble themselves before God—as Bush characterized the meeting's purpose in his address two years ago, to "remind generations of leaders of a purpose and a power greater than their own"—then long may it last.

First the Super Bowl halftime show, now this …
How incredibly out of touch is CBS? As noted by Jeff Sharlet's religion blog, The Revealer, the political gossip site Wonkette has posted a 60 Minutes press release that is almost a perfect parody of media cluelessness about evangelicals. 60 Minutes also has a copy of it on its site.

"Evangelicals—Christians who place a personal relationship with Jesus Christ above all else—have become a major factor in American politics and culture, says a prominent Christian theologian," the release begins. (The prominent Christian theologian is Harvard University's Peter Gomes, who's sometimes a critic, and sometimes an ally of evangelicals.)

The "army" of evangelicals, says 60 Minutes, "has fought recently to keep a statue of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courtroom and is fighting to keep the name of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Evangelicals have a lobbyist, too, the former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer."

Ah, Bauer, the lone evangelical lobbyist on Capitol Hill, to whom all evangelicals must donate 10 percent of their earnings. You'd think that even if CBS can't get straight that Bauer doesn't represent the full spectrum of evangelical politics, they'd at least know the political players well enough to know that he's not the only one in town.

Oh, but it gets better. "Central to evangelicals' faith is an event that can happen at any time called the Rapture, when God takes all true-believing Christians and children under 12 to a better place while all others suffer the tribulation and are damned."

Here's a contest: Who can find the most things wrong in that sentence? Weblog counts at least six.

Of course, CBS learned its lesson a week ago. This press release may just be intended to cause a buzz among evangelicals, get them to watch 60 Minutes on Sunday, then write a bunch of articles about how outrageous it was. Then the network can deny it knew anything about the segment and get more media play. Ah, brilliant.

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More articles

Kurt Warner:

The Passion of the Christ:

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  • Controversy comes with screening of 'The Passion of the Christ' | In the latest twist to the story, a midstate woman has scheduled a sneak preview of the movie and panel discussion among religious leaders for Feb. 23 at the Regal Harrisburg Stadium 14. That's two days before the Ash Wednesday opening (The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.)

  • Passion rising for Gibson film | Local churches buy out movie theater screens for group viewings (The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.)


  • Bible belters change their tune | As Christian rockers find mainstream success, they ask, 'Why pigeonhole us?' (The Christian Science Monitor)

  • It's the rock gospel truth | Reliant K taps into its mainstream roots (The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne, Ind.)

  • Long time playing | Jonny Lang is 22. He moved to Los Angeles, got married and embraced Christianity (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland)

  • Gospel group avoids talk of murder on latest album | Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "Raise Your Spirit Higher" doesn't address unsolved murder of leader's wife until final track, and then only in the awkward, rap-informed voices of Shabalala's grandsons (The Washington Post)



  • Nothing's bigger than Jesus | Pop culture looks to Jesus Christ for inspiration (The Edmonton Journal)

  • Framing power | Maybe religion reporters aren't so stupid, after all (Diane Winston, The Revealer)

Faith-based initiative:

  • Religious hiring protection under assault | Ever since the launch of the President's faith-based initiative, religious organizations' freedom to hire according to their beliefs has been under fire from some in Congress (Joseph Loconte and Jennifer Marshall, The Heritage Foundation)

  • Also: House okays hire limits by religious groups | The House voted Wednesday to extend a program that lets religious groups restrict employment to members of their faith in hiring for community programs financed by federal grants (Associated Press)

Religion and politics:

  • Religious groups left out of part of caucus process | Jews observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Under Jewish law, that time is supposed to be set aside for rest and religious activity. That would prohibit observant Jews from participating in the caucuses, which are being held Saturday (The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.)

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Candidates and abortion:

Life ethics:


  • Priest was shot at close range, says witness | A Catholic priest murdered six years ago in Samburu was shot with a powerful gun at close range, the High Court in Nakuru was told yesterday (The East African Standard, Nairobi)

  • 'AP ignored pleas not to shoot' | A police officer accused of killing a Catholic Monk ignored pleas not to shoot, a court was told yesterday (The East African Standard, Nairobi)

  • Feds aim to return funds to con victims | The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away—and sometimes the feds have to help. Especially with that "taketh away" part (Steve Blow, The Dallas Morning News)

  • Houses of worship no longer off limits to many vandals | Damage done by two teens accused of vandalizing church Monday night after breaking in there last week highlights the problem of protecting places of worship while still meeting a congregation's spiritual needs, say local clergy (The Enterprise, Brockton, Mass.)

  • Lawyers argue man killed by bishop wasn't visible | A pathologist has told the jury that the victim's injuries are consistent with someone walking from the passenger side of a car—and not from the driver's side, where he would have been easier to see (Associated Press)

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  • A case full of abuses | The state report on the murder of defrocked priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan brims with evidence of malfunction and malfeasance (Editorial, The Boston Globe)

  • Albany bishop denies sexual abuse claim | The Bishop of Albany, Howard J. Hubbard, denied having sex with anyone during his years as a priest, forcefully rejecting claims to the contrary (The New York Times)

  • Also: Bishop sets out to clear name | Hubbard denies sex claim, says he didn't know man who killed self (Albany Times Union, N.Y.)

Church and state:

France headscarves ban:

  • The war of the headscarves | France and Britain have radically different approaches to ethnic and religious diversity. Each can learn from the other (The Economist)

  • Group offers advice on head scarves law | France's biggest Muslim fundamentalist organization says it will advise female students to circumvent a proposed ban on Muslim head scarves by wearing discreet head coverings that can pass as fashion (Associated Press)

  • Concessions made on French veil ban before vote | Schools will now be required to hold talks aimed at resolving the dispute with any pupil flouting the law before they proceed with disciplinary measures. Also, government will review law after one year to see if its call for a ban on "conspicuous" symbols rather than merely "visible" ones is sufficiently clear to avoid argument (Reuters)

  • Ban on veils may spread to hospitals | As France's national assembly neared the end of a four-day debate on a ban on religious emblems in state schools, the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said "similar legislation" was planned to stop hospital patients refusing to be treated by male doctors (The Guardian, London)

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Black faith:


Missions & Ministry:

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  • Counselor: Addicts risk shot at heaven | Some things are just too important to gamble. And a relationship with God is one of them, said Donald Nims, a teacher at Western Kentucky University, who also counsels people with gambling addictions. (Jackson Sun, Tenn.)


Gay marriage:

  • Gay 'husbands' to test their marriage in court | In a legal first, two Melbourne gay men who married in Canada are planning to apply to the Australian courts to have their union recognized at home (The Age, Melbourne, Australia)

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  • Why not civil unions? | We support gay marriage. At the same time, we are skeptical that American society will come to formally recognize gay relationships as a result of judicial fiats (Editorial, The Washington Post)

  • One man, one woman | A citizen's guide to protecting marriage (Mitt Romney, The Wall Street Journal)

  • The Massachusetts mud | The decision Wednesday by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a 4-3 ruling, that civil unions for same-sex couples would be unconstitutional is unfortunate, but not surprising (Editorial, The Washington Times)

Gay issues:

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  • On the Bible and homosexuality | Yea, hath God said ye shall not engage in homosexual sex? (Tom Krattenmaker, The Philadelphia Inquirer)

  • Slipping toward Scandinavia | Contra Andrew Sullivan (Stanley Kurtz, National Review Online)

  • Ex-gay like me | Before going undercover to see what ex-gay America was all about, I imagined it might be any number of things: hook up central for closeted Christians, a cracked out revival meeting or merely a cult. What I found was less sensational and a lot stranger (John Dicker, Colorado Springs Independent)

  • Teacher must do better on tolerating gays: court | In a groundbreaking case on freedom of speech and religion, a Canadian court has ruled that a public school teacher had no right to be critical of homosexuality (Sydney Morning Herald)

Marriage and family:

Anglicans and Episcopalians:


  • A crossroad for the Catholic Church | What "issues" will frame the election to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II? Chances are they're not what you might think (George Weigel, The Washington Post)

  • Pope's envoy admits rot in church | The Pope's representative in Kenya, Archbishop Giovanni Tonnuci, yesterday admitted that immorality had creeped into the church's vicarage (The East African Standard, Nairobi)

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  • Bishop accused of having sexual relationship | The head of Albany's Roman Catholic Diocese is facing allegations of a sexual relationship and the diocese is asking the Albany County District Attorney to investigate (Capital News 9, Albany, N.Y.)

  • Top cardinal says Pope's health improved | Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in a magazine interview released Wednesday that Pope John Paul II's health has recently improved and that talk of term limits is not relevant to the current papacy (Associated Press)

  • Dead priest's sister seeks accountability | Catherine Geoghan said all along that her brother, the defrocked priest and convicted pedophile John Geoghan, was mistreated in prison before he died (Associated Press)

  • Pope death watch | For the past several years preparations for the pope's death have been moving along at a fast clip (On the Media, WNYC)

  • Is eating meat a Catholic sin? | Bruce Friedrich is an animal rights activist on the governing board of the Catholic Vegetarian Society and the advisory board of the Christian Vegetarian Society (San Francisco Chronicle)

  • Parishes 'will have fewer paid priests' | Westcountry parishes will have "considerably fewer" paid clergy in the future, according to the Bishop of Exeter (Western Morning News, Devon, England)

  • Religion Today: The Boston Priests' Forum after Law | Group finds itself struggling to remain a functioning group and to determine just exactly what it's supposed to do, organizers say (Associated Press)



Jonathan Aitken:

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  • Born again | Four years ago Jonathan Aitken lost his libel case against the Guardian and was jailed for perjury. Now he has launched a new career as a preacher and spiritual writer. Here he talks about faith, forgiveness and 'doing your Richard' (The Guardian, London)

  • Also: 'I was terrified and felt utterly helpless' | An exclusive extract from Jonathan Aitken's new book (The Guardian)

  • Delight and bemusement in South Thanet as Aitken attempts his comeback | The former minister had launched his bid for candidacy after learning - to his shock - that a petition signed by over 200 of the 355 local Tory activists had been forwarded to central office, urging the party to consider him as a candidate (The Guardian, London)

  • Disgraced Aitken seeks return | Less than four years after serving a prison sentence for perjury, he has applied to stand at the next election in his old seat of South Thanet in Kent (The Evening Standard, London)

Other stories of interest::

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  • More religion news in brief | Pastor shortage, no Guantanamo visit (The Washington Post)

  • Religion news in brief | Episcopal breakup; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leader nominated for a third term but faces challenger; Scandal-plagued Boston Archdiocese reports 15 percent drop in Mass attendance; Major black Baptist leader marks retirement; and more stories (Associated Press)

Related Elsewhere:

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Launched in 1999, Christianity Today’s Weblog was not just one of the first religion-oriented weblogs, but one of the first published by a media organization. (Hence its rather bland title.) Mostly compiled by then-online editor Ted Olsen, Weblog rounded up religion news and opinion pieces from publications around the world. As Christianity Today’s website grew, it launched other blogs. Olsen took on management responsibilities, and the Weblog feature as such was mothballed. But CT’s efforts to round up important news and opinion from around the web continues, especially on our Gleanings feature.
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Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
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