2021 National Prayer Breakfast: A Kinder Gentler Christian Capitalism

Breakfast image from Flickr by Lovisa Lagerqvist (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The 2021 National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), held annually the first Thursday in February and attended by every sitting President since its founding in 1953, reverted this year to dishing out their faith based programming on fine china in lieu of the fast-food version served by the Trump White House. As expected, media coverage of NPB focused on President Joe Biden’s bipartisan message of national unity and faith in light of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, with even Fox News highlighting Biden’s call to end “political extremism.”

Gone were the Trumpian outward displays of a politicized version of Christianity that contained a toxic mixture of conservative white evangelicalism, prosperity gospel preaching, and Christian nationalism. Instead, all living former Presidents sans Donald J. Trump joined President Biden in promoting a future filled with faith and forgiveness. The Washington Post described the mood as a “return to the event’s historically lofty tone” that “highlighted the president’s effort to restore Washington’s institutions to their traditional pre-Trump form.”

One can presume that “traditional pre-Trump form,” represents a discrete reference to white-gloved backdoor diplomacy practiced by The Family that promotes their fundamentalist mixture of capitalism and Christianity. Organizers and speakers at this year’s NPB remained mum regarding the role The Family played behind the scenes in the Trump administration via foot soldiers like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessionsor The Family’s growing relationship with countries like Russia

Even though Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) referenced people of all faiths in his introduction of President Biden, the NPB remains decidedly Christian. In his decades of research into The Family, author and journalist Jeff Sharlet observed how this secretive organization behind the NPB promotes a “specific vision of Jesus as the ideal ‘strongman’ [that] governs their political theology,” adding that they “found, in strongman-sympathetic Trump, an ideal vessel for their beliefs.” 

As reported by The Young Turks, while Trump may be absent from this year’s NPB, Family leaders made campaign donations after Election Day to Trump. Also, Congressional Republicans like Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), the returning co-chair of this year’s NPB who runs the closely-aligned Congressional Prayer Caucus, continued to support the “Stop the Steal” campaign until protestors stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

Furthermore, while the NPB remains largely Republican run, twelve current Democratic members of Congress signed off on using their names as “honorary” representatives and senators for this year’s breakfast. 

In his bestselling book, The Family, and the Netflix documentary of the same name, Sharlet detailed how by “introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to effect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy.” For example, when the National Prayer Breakfast is held in person, this event allows individuals access to the president without going through the usual vetting process by the State Department.

As anticipated, secular groups continue to express concern over the religious rhetoric used during this year’s NPB with repeated calls to end this annual tradition that promotes a politicized version of Christianity. Meanwhile, the United States continues to become increasingly pluralistic with nones representing the largest religious voting block in the United States. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State opines, “While it was a relief this year not to see the breakfast descend into the kind of embarrassment it often was during the Trump years, that hardly means the event is worth saving. This year ought to be its last.” 

However, given President Biden’s endorsement by progressive faith leaders, coupled with the rise of organizations like Evangelicals for Biden and The New Moral Majority, all signs point to the continued infusion of faith and politics within the Biden administration, albeit in a somewhat kinder, gentler manifestation. But make no mistake, this seemingly progressive display of American Christianity remains connected at its core to advancing The Family’s version of the faith to the exclusion of other faith traditions, as well as those who profess to follow no particular religion.