At least that what Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) says about it.
Humbled to take part in today’s #NationalPrayerBreakfast as Members of Congress, evangelical Christians, and leaders from around the world recognize the power of prayer, give thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and discuss God’s grace at this annual bipartisan gathering. pic.twitter.com/hcig4CVByS
Rep. Hice remembered to say the gathering was bipartisan but he gave away the fact that the NPB isn’t an ecumenical meeting. It is not a multi-faith event. It is all about portraying a tribute to Christianity by Congress and the Executive branch.
Today, in a move that should shock no one, Trump used the event to tout his acquittal.
Ahead of his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, Trump waves around a newspaper with the headline, “ACQUITTED.” pic.twitter.com/MWVO9B0mgY
In essence, Trump and all of the politicians there get to use religion for political purposes. Trump has a very specific purpose but even the Democratic pols conflate political power with Christianity by their presence and support. I can’t see how either Christianity or government is served well.
Southern Baptist leader Denny Burk was quoted in the Christian Post as follows:
Since its release, the documentary series has garnered its share of critics. Denny Burk, president of the Commission on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, labeled the series “one of the most outrageous pieces of anti-Christian propaganda that I have ever seen.”
“There will be millions of viewers whose opinion of evangelicals will be distorted by this film. It catechizes viewers to be suspicious of Christians and to regard us as a clear and present danger to democracy,” he said.
I think irony is the right word to describe Burk’s overreaction. During the founding era, Baptists were fierce advocates of separation of church and state. Jefferson’s letter containing the phrase “wall of separation” was sent to the Danbury (CT) Baptists. The Southern Baptists have strong statements of doctrine calling for the separation of church and state. In 1804, Baptist John Leland wrote:
Experience, the best teacher, has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. (source)
and in 1790, he wrote:
The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils. (source)
In my view, The Family documentary raises a strong warning against entanglements of church and state. Although no legal challenge has been made to the National Prayer Breakfast, I believe a case could be made. The NPB is not multi-faith; it is all about Jesus. When I attended, it appeared to me that at least two branches of the U.S. government had established the worship of Jesus as the state religion.
To quote Leland, evangelicals shouldn’t want the “fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity.” The Family seeks such fondness as a means of operation. When Christians call on government leaders to give aid to the worship of Jesus, the Baptists should be the loudest in complaint. As a Baptist, Burk should be more troubled by the church-state entanglement than by the exposure of it.
I think Burk’s reaction is emblematic of how far Baptists and conservative evangelicals more generally have gotten away from the bedrock principle of church-state separation. I agree with Madison that religion and government both flourish when they are separate:
I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.
Practically speaking, the Fellowship Foundation could continue doing their many good works without the National Prayer Breakfast. The development of the NPB was set in the cold war period and may have served a purpose during that time. However, as we can see in the age of Trump and the emergence of court evangelicals, Christianity and political power damages the simple faith of Jesus and ultimately makes it unrecognizable.
I planned to write a review/reflection on the Netflix documentary The Family by today. However, it didn’t happen. Others were more diligent than me and so I will close the work week with links to three reviews and two articles.
Religion News Service – Veteran religion writer Bob Smietana interviewed author Jeff Sharlet and producer Jesse Moss. This is a good inside look at their thinking on some key questions.
Washington Post – Friend and Messiah College historian John Fea reviews and recommends (with some reservations) the documentary. Read his reasons, pros and cons.
Christian Post – Reporter Michael Gryboski cites me in a balanced report about the documentary and provides a statement from the Fellowship Foundation which I haven’t seen anywhere else. I will have more to say about some of the criticisms leveled in this report next week.
The Atlantic – Is the group as powerful as Sharlet and Moss make it out to be? This reviewer wonders if it matters.
Throughout the Netflix documentary The Family, clips of Family leader Doug Coe preaching a sermon to a Christian audience are played. The clips come from his sermon to the Navigators, a Colorado based Christian mission group, on January 16 1989. This sermon — titled Jesus Demands Total Commitment — had not been available online until 2010 when Coe sent the video to me to post on YouTube. He felt his words had been taken out of context and wanted the entire sermon posted.
The video doesn’t include Coe’s introductory remarks about George Bush and is also cut short. Bruce Wilson has the entire audio available which does have several minutes of Coe praising Bush for his Christianity and asking the audience to pray for him. One thing that is typical of Coe in those remarks is that he doesn’t ask for the audience to pray for Bush to pursue certain policy goals (e.g., end abortion, appoint judges), but instead to make godly decisions. While Coe might have had preferences, he did not seem as interested in specific policy outcomes as the current crop of evangelical leaders surrounding Trump.
I believe this is the only posted video of the event which begins just after the sermon begins. Given YouTube guidelines at the time, I had to break it up into four parts.
With the advent of The Family documentary mini-series (based on a book by Jeff Sharlet) on Netflix starting next Wednesday August 9, there will be renewed interest in Doug Coe. Coe was the leader of the Fellowship Foundation for many years before his death in 2017. Although he wasn’t the founder, he did as much as anyone to shape the Fellowship into the organization it is today.
In 2009, I emerged as a vocal opponent of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and more broadly criminalization of homosexuality worldwide. Author Jeff Sharlet initially made the connection between the bill and the Fellowship. Because Ugandan members of the Fellowship and Prayer Breakfast movement were the main supporters of the bill in Uganda, the Fellowship leaders in the U.S. had to decide whether to take a public position on the matter.
Although there were many U.S. influences on the Ugandan legislators, the Fellowship leaders were divided about how to oppose the bill. Some wanted to quietly persuade the Ugandan people to withdraw, while others favored a more active, vocal opposition. However, taking a public position meant increasing public awareness of the organization. This went against the organization’s historical pattern.
David Bahati, the parliamentarian who co-introduced the Ugandan bill, later said that the American leaders betrayed him and really wanted the bill to succeed. I think Bahati interpreted the initial silence of some Fellowship leaders as support. However, I believe Doug Coe and other Fellowship leaders were sincere when they spoke with me at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast.
The series begins next Wednesday August 9. Over the five episodes, I will post more information I have about the Fellowship including links to speeches of Coe’s which he allowed to upload to my Youtube account which had not been previously posted. The trailer for the series is below.
On August 9, Netflix will roll out a documentary series based on Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I was interviewed for this series and will appear in one of the episodes. My part of the picture relates to my work against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill from 2009 to 2015. You can watch a trailer of the series below:
Big news: My bestselling book, THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, is now a five-part @netflix doc series, debuting Aug. 9. Trailer here: https://t.co/Mtu6b65J3p
As part of my efforts against the Ugandan legislation, I attended the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast at the invitation of The Family (Fellowship Foundation). While there, I conducted one of four interviews with Fellowship Foundation leader, the late Douglas Coe. It was published in 2010 in Christianity Today.
Coe died last year and there has been some struggle for leadership. The Fellowship has been in the news to due to their connection Russian agent Maria Butina. I will add on the series as it progresses.
Often titles with questions are ways of saying something without committing to it. In this case, I really don’t know the answer to the question.
Today is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, an event facilitated by the Fellowship Foundation but one with the feeling of government sponsorship due to the involvement of numerous Representatives and Senators as well as every president since Eisenhower. Trump will speak today.
Of late, TYT Network’s (The Young Turks) Jonathan Larsen has been doing extensive reporting on the operations of the Fellowship Foundation. In a story out Tuesday, Larsen sited a 2018 blog post in which I noted that Fellowship volunteer leader Doug Burleigh seemed unusually partisan toward Donald Trump.
Larsen reports evidence that those now leading the Fellowship Foundation fund Republican political causes and are strongly in Trump’s court. If this becomes a wide spread perception around the world and in Washington, I think the Fellowship’s influence will decline. Being perceived as non-partisan was a value of the late Doug Coe and accounted for the success of Coe in attracting an impressive array of political figures from both parties to their list of supporters.
In a previous article, Larsen also reported that the Fellowship implemented new rules designed to make clear the Fellowship’s opposition to use of the NPB for influence peddling. For those interested in the NPB and the work of the Fellowship, I recommend that article and a review of those new rules which the Fellowship supplied to Larsen in full.
Surrounding the 2016 election, the Russian government was quite busy in the U.S. One component of their efforts was an effort to infiltrate the Republican party via the National Rifle Association. Alex Torshin and Maria Butina were point people on that effort. Today, the plea agreement with Butina was released by the Department of Justice. Butina has been in custody since her arrest in July.
My interest in Butina’s arrest was due to a minor aspect of the story. Butina also infiltrated the Fellowship Foundation and the National Prayer Breakfast. You can read my posts on Butina’s involvement in the NPB via the links at the end of the post.
The one mention of the NPB in the plea agreement is below:
The NPB is a perfect place to meet people of political influence. Making friends at the NPB is a first step toward making deals of all sorts. Butina hoped to make many friends for her bosses in Russia.
Although Fellowship leader Doug Burleigh joked about “Russian collusion,” it is now clear that the Russians were using the NPB for their aims. After the Butina plea agreement, there shouldn’t be anymore scoffing about the seriousness of the Russia investigation.
In March of this year, one of the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast Doug Burleigh joked about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, WA. Then last week, in a federal indictment, it was alleged that Russian national Maria Butina used her connections with the NPB to carry out conspiracy activities. Although the prayer breakfast organizer was not named in the indictment, Mr. Burleigh is the NPB member responsible for coordinating with the Fellowship’s representatives from Russia.
Prior to his sermon, Burleigh told his audience that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough found out the number of Russians attending the NPB in 2018. However, Burleigh dismissed any concerns about that as “fake news.”
Burleigh told the group that he had 61 Russians and 52 Ukrainians at the event this year. Then at 1:02, he said:
Thursday was the breakfast, the 8th of February, and I started getting texts from all over the country. ‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ Well, I’m going to personally share with you a little fake news okay that I ran into is the morning guy on MSNBC who hates Trump Joe Scarborough, he goes, ‘I hear that there’s more Russians than have ever come to the prayer breakfast before and that’s true. But what he didn’t know is that a lot of them were young professionals we invited to lift up Jesus and we had six wonderful times with them. He said, ‘there must be collusion, obviously there’s something going on, so I got friends from around the country going what’s the deal with the Russian collusion. And I said, ‘boy there’s big time collusion: it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion.
In the July 14 indictment it is alleged that in 2017 two of the Russians who were supposed to be “colluding with Jesus” at the prayer breakfast were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. In fact, both Butina and Torshin may have been working the religious group on behalf of the Russian government. Because Butina asked, according to the indictment, the NPB organizer offered to give Butina 10 Russian spots for the 2017 event. It is not clear if that happened or if there were any requests for the 2018 event.
His Tacoma speech wasn’t the first time Burleigh expressed a dim view of the U.S. media. At a Russian prayer meeting in May 2017, Burleigh spoke to a group affiliated with the American Fellowship. After the meeting, he spoke to writer Andrei Tyunyaev.
At about 2:25, Tyunyaev asked Burleigh a question:
Tyunyaev – The fact that you are present here after a few years of a going down relationship between Russia and America and growing tension and so just for us it’s a good thing so what’s your impression, what’s your hope for the future?
Burleigh: I’m very hopeful. The reason I’m hopeful is Mr. Trump is a relational person. He’s a negotiator. He’s going to sit down with Putin and they’re going to talk. And I think, we have an expression in America – win-win. I think he wants a win-win situation. I’ll bet Mr. Putin wants a win-win situation. In other words, both sides win. So how’s that going to happen? When they get together and talk. You know in our country, it’s always strange to in divorces, the attorneys tell the husband and wife not to talk to each other. How can you possibly reconcile with somebody you can’t talk to? The real estate agent tells the seller not to talk to the buyer. You know why that is? He’s worried about losing his commission. He doesn’t care about them getting the best deal they can get.
So the reason I’m hopeful is I think our president really wants to talk to your president. I think they’re both intelligent people. Neither of them wants war. I know that. People always tell me Americans want war. No we don’t. And the reason I know you don’t is I’ve been coming here for 52 years. War to an American is going to Vietnam or Afghanistan. War to a Russian is the tanks coming down the streets of your house. You understand war far better than we do. And I tell my American friends that all the time, you don’t want war. So I’m hopeful.
By the way, some of my best friends are Russian. They’re loyal, faithful and loving. So some of my best friends are American, and they are loyal, faithful and loving. So we just gotta get them together.
Tyunyaev: So when we learned after the prayer breakfast that Mr. Trump would become the president of America, we were pretty cheerful and supportive of that fact. We can see the difficulties that he has to overcome to change the structure. We believe in Mr. Trump’s intelligent and smart approach to the issues, walking toward each other and not away from each other.
Burleigh: Yeah, and the problem in our country is press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them. Let me give you an example from last week is the president said he would be honored to meet with the president of North Korea. I thought, ‘that’s the first time anybody’s ever said that.’ All the press could focus on was the word ‘honored.’ He said he be honored to meet with him!?
Tyunyaev: That’s a step of friendship
Burleigh: Of course it is. He went the extra mile to affirm him. What’s wrong with that?
National Prayer Breakfast: Non-Partisan?
Those close to the Fellowship Foundation that I have spoken to insist that the organization is non-partisan. In fact, one recently told me that if the Fellowship and NPB were perceived as pro-Trump (or pro anybody), the “group would self-destruct.”
In contrast, Burleigh portrays a positive stance toward Trump in these and other public statements. His criticisms of the press are startling and parrot the Trump talking points. In fact, the press coverage of Trump’s announcement in May 2017 about meeting Kim Jong-un was straightforward and only reported what Trump said. In reaction to Trump’s words, many pundits and experts criticized Trump which the press also reported. Furthermore, some raised the observation that conservatives criticized Obama when he offered to meet with our enemies without preconditions.
Has the Fellowship taken a pro-Trump, pro-Russia position? While I doubt it given some of the people still involved in it, I wonder what might happen over time now that leader Doug Coe has passed.
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With the indictment of Maria Butina for conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government, public attention has come upon the Fellowship Foundation. Founded by the late Doug Coe, I crossed paths with the FF beginning in 2009 when Ugandan affiliates of that organization promoted the death penalty for GLB people in the Ugandan Parliament via the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I took a strong stand against that bill which eventually led to an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted each year by the Fellowship. While there, the American leaders allowed me to interview Doug Coe — one of only four published interviews of the reclusive founder — so that he could tell the public in clear terms that he did not favor criminalizing homosexuality.
Now via the documents describing the indictment of alleged Russian operative Maria Butina, the National Prayer Breakfast is again in public focus. The documents refer to an organizer of the prayer breakfast and various individuals who Butina contacted. While I don’t know for certain in each case who she contacted, a source close to the Fellowship told me that Doug Burleigh, the son-in-law of Doug Coe, is the person at the organization who handles networking with the Russian affiliates.
Burleigh Predicted Trump and Putin Would Have a Breakthrough
Almost exactly a year ago at the Russian version of the prayer breakfast, Doug Burleigh made a prediction. A news article from the Russian Evangelical Alliance tells the story:
On another note, Doug Burleigh from Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast forecast that “a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the USA is about to occur. The greatest possible hope for Russia and the USA is friendship between our nations. I believe that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will yet become friends.” (Reverse translation from the Russian.)
I wonder how Burleigh knew such a breakthrough was about to happen. Prophecy? Or perhaps he was on the inside of efforts to make it so. According to the indictment documents, the National Prayer Breakfast organizers were aware of a desire to bring Vladimir Putin to the event. Butina also promised to keep them apprised of new developments in the effort to improve relations between the two nations and the two presidents.
The refusal of Donald Trump to criticize or hold Vladimir Putin accountable has puzzled numerous observers. Behind the scenes, an effort to craft a friendship between Trump and Putin has been in operation for several years.
Were the Russians using the National Prayer Breakfast as a ploy to advance political goals? Is the talk of faith a means to a darker end? Butina will have her day in court and I hope evangelicals who went along for her ride will watch and listen carefully.