70th National Prayer Breakfast Made ‘Cosmetic’ Changes, But Biden Delivered the Same Old Tone-Deaf ‘Unity’ Message

President Biden delivers remarks at last year's National Prayer Breakfast. Image: Official White House Photo by Erin Scott

Last week, Americans were forced to endure this year’s National Prayer Breakfast—the 70th since the unfortunate tradition, which ought to have been dropped as an embarrassing relic of early Cold War excess decades ago, was launched by the authoritarian Christian organization “the Family” in partnership with the Eisenhower Administration in 1953. Every sitting president has attended every year since.

As I recently argued elsewhere:

Although the breakfast is funded with private dollars and is not an official government event, the US president’s participation with senators and congressional representatives in a highly publicised gathering to pray in the name of Jesus sends a message—the message that to be a good American, one should also be a Christian. And this message enables authoritarian Christian nationalists in their pursuit of a theocratic political agenda.

The anti-pluralism inherent in the National Prayer Breakfast is grating and would be reason enough for a head of state to discontinue support for the event in a functional modern democracy—which the United States is decidedly not.

In recent years, a handful of Democratic politicians have dropped their participation in the NPB in response to the many scandals associated with the National Prayer Breakfast—most notably the exploitation of the event by convicted Russian spy Maria Butina. The fallout from these scandals led the organizers to make some changes in how the event is run starting this year.

Most substantively, the NPB itself is now run by a legally distinct entity from the Family, and only the president, senators, and members of Congress are invited, with their respective plus-ones. A separate event, “the Gathering,” is held simultaneously at the nearby Washington Hilton. Those at the Gathering get access to some of the NPB’s programming, including the president’s speech, via video feed—and, while they may not gain unfettered access to the president, it would be naïve to think they aren’t still there for the kinds of brokered meetings with powerful people that once led the usually much more complacent (and frequently complicit) New York Times to describe the NPB as “an international influence peddling bazaar.” Many commentators—including foremost expert on the Family, Jeff Sharlet himself—have noted that the changes to the event appear “largely cosmetic.”

For some reason, President Joe Biden apparently thought it would be appropriate to make light of the controversies that forced the recent changes, addressing the guests gathered at the Hilton with, “Welcome to all 1,300. And the House invites you to come to the floor today—all 1,300 of you.” According to the White House transcript of the event, this comment elicited laughter, after which the president added, “No, I’m teasing. I’m teasing. Sorry.”

For a Democrat who likes to present himself as a man of the people, this tone-deaf flippancy about the NPB’s history of fostering shady dealmaking and undermining national security was one hell of an opening to a speech that could only be made by an immensely privileged, out-of-touch individual. Biden went on to hit many notes that are alienating to secular Americans and much of the Democratic base, sacralizing American political life and calling for “unity” and “comity” with those who want to deprive the marginalized of their rights.

Gushing over the NPB itself, Biden stated that he was “honored to continue the tradition started by President Eisenhower.” From there, he launched into what amounts to a Christian sermon peppered with patriotic sentiment. Continuing with his calls for an easy unity between oppressor and oppressed, the president waxed poetic on how “there’s so much more that unites” Americans than divides us, proclaiming, “We can redeem the soul of America.”

Lest we be tempted to take that statement as merely an (awkward) metaphor, Biden told those gathered on the House floor and at the Hilton “that joy comes when we apply the commandments of Scripture” before subsuming the diversity of Americans, including “people of all faiths, some people of no faith” under “the infinite creativity of God who is able to see His [capital H in original] reflection in countless ways in different people.” 

As someone who does not believe in God, I do not appreciate having my identity appropriated into this Christian framework of “creation in the image of God,” and I am sure there are religious minorities and people who consider themselves spiritual-but-not-religious who feel similarly.

As he approached his conclusion, Biden built on the notion of loving one’s neighbor as oneself—a biblical commandment he called hard before claiming it used to be easier—to return to the theme of American unity. And, as he’s done before, he spoke lovingly of his early days in the Senate, when the “very strong segregationists” still present would “argue like hell on the Senate floor” with liberals before the erstwhile antagonists would go to lunch together as friends. This anecdote was apparently intended to demonstrate that comity with racial supremacists is an example of “loving one’s neighbor” worth emulating.

For my part, I’m a firm believer that some tents are too big. President Biden seems to think he can heal America by simply asking people like me, a transgender woman, and the screaming fascists currently passing laws to harm people like me, to get along. “Let’s just sort of, kind of, join hands again a little bit. Let’s start treating each other with respect.” That’s easy to say for a White heterosexual male Christian president, but it’s not going to go over well with the youth vote—and neither will the God-talk that erases non-Christians, even if the NPB’s remaining Democratic cheerleaders insist the event is “nonsectarian.”

In fairness, I’m sure it’s the case that most Americans would prefer to live in a friendlier, more humane, more united country; I certainly would. But there can be no cheap or easy unity in a country torn apart by an increasingly fascist Right. Troublingly, establishment Democrats like Biden seem unwilling to hear that comity with unreconstructed bigots will only legitimize and empower them in their authoritarian lust for power, causing severe harm to—to use a biblical turn of phrase—“the least of these.”

If you want a united populace, you also need to take pluralism and inclusion seriously. The NPB may be organized by a private foundation, but it’s also a highly publicized event in which every U.S. president and numerous senators and representatives come together to pray in the name of Jesus, asserting that to do so is “unifying.” That has never been an inclusive position, but it’s even less so in an increasingly diverse and secularizing America, in which the nonreligious make up about a third of the population. 

In short, the NPB is inherently divisive. If, someday, a future American president refuses to participate in this annual Christian political spectacle, that will be a serious step toward a hard-won unity worth having, as opposed to the bigot-appeasing “unity” of the privileged politicians of yore.