At last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, the President Obama used his platform to slam the event’s organizers, the Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family,” for its alleged involvement in lobbying for virulently anti-gay legislation in Uganda. “We may disagree about gay marriage,” said the president, “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 [Clinton] mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”
At yesterday’s breakfast, however, Obama’s speech was notable not for what he said, since he focused much on his personal faith journey, a theme of bipartisanship, and reiteration of his faith as a Christian. Instead, the speech was interesting for what he didn’t say. Some pro-LGBT activists were surprised to see that he attended the breakfast again at all after the previous year’s criticism of the organizers; but not only did Obama attend this year’s event but he made no mention of the ongoing controversies surrounding the event’s organizers whose involvement in Uganda has once again entered headlines after the killing of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato.
The assailant admitted to killing Kato with a hammer after he agreed to accept money in exchange for sex. Uganda has been debating a piece of legislation that, if passed, would increase the severity of the punishment for homosexuality to death or life imprisonment, which some say has been introduced by at least one member of the Fellowship.
In Jeff Sharlet’s 2009 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, he detailed his experience living in a house that lodged members of the organization, many of them influential congressmen, as CHwell as the organization’s reach in far-flung places like Uganda. Sharlet documents that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who expressed support for the anti-gay bill when it was proposed, has attended the National Prayer Breakfast.
During an interview with Teri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air to promote his book, Sharlet reported that he discovered a direct connection between the Family and the Ugandan bill:
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.
And in his more recent book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, Sharlet delved into even more detail about the anti-gay climate in Uganda, and The Family’s and Bahati’s activities there. But though the Family has come under fire for their connections to the Ugandan bill, prayer breakfast volunteers wouldn’t comment on the controversy yesterday. One volunteer simply said that attendees check their ideology at the door and that the National Prayer Breakfast is a private, non-partisan event.
Bob Hunter, who served in both the Carter and Ford administrations, responded to Sharlet’s interview in his own appearance on Fresh Air, in which he denied the Family’s involvement in Uganda. “My opinion is it’s a terrible bill and shouldn’t be adopted,” Hunter insisted in the interview, “and I believe no one that I know, in America particularly, and my close friends in Uganda, I know of no one who supports it in the Fellowship.”
In an exchange, published on Harper’s website, Sharlet and Hunter trade arguments about the Family’s role in the bill and the climate it sprang from. Among other things Sharlet writes:
I did agree with [Harper’s Scott] Horton that the Family’s fingerprints were on the bill. David Bahati, the bill’s author, is the secretary and de facto leader of a weekly meeting of Ugandan legislators who understand themselves to be part of the Family and who take inspiration from American visitors from the Family such as Senator Jim Inhofe, our own Congress’ ranking homophobe. Bahati and Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba Buturo, the chairman of the weekly meeting, describe the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as an important achievement of that group. That’s not guilt by association. That’s the guilt of a self-declared, recognized member of the Family who persuasively attributes much of his political success and his religious and political thinking to that organization.
Pastor Scott Lively, president of a group called Defend the Family International, who is not connected to the Family but is considered an instigator of homophobia in Uganda, wrote on the group’s website:
Ugandan homosexual activist David Kato was recently beaten to death with a hammer, a horrific crime. These very media have rushed eagerly to judge this a hate crime and to blame those, like me, who have spoken against homosexuality in Uganda. It is the central (but patently false) narrative of the left that all criticism of homosexuality leads inevitably to violence and murder.
But defenders of the Family who deny responsibility for Kato’s killing haven’t deterred critics from pointing out the connection. Openly gay and now-retired New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church reiterated David Bahati’s role in the legislation and his connection to the Family in a Washington Post editorial published prior to the event:
I call on the National Prayer Breakfast organizers, as an act of good faith at this Thursday’s breakfast, to lead their roomful of influential politicians, religious leaders, and dignitaries in a prayer of compassion and concern for the family, friends and colleagues of David Kato, and pray for their protection from further harm.
But Kato’s death wasn’t mentioned in the public remarks at the breakfast. A group of protesters from GetEQUAL, an LGBT organization known for pushing issues like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in an aggressive way, gathered at six a.m. before the breakfast to bring attention to Kato’s death for prayer breakfast attendees. Holding signs that read “End the Harm From Religious Based Bigotry,” GetEQUAL protestors passed out bright pink flyers with a photocopy of Kato’s photograph alongside detailed information about the Family’s connection to Uganda.
“We want to point out that you can’t serve two masters,” says Heather Cronk, one of the protest’s organizers. “The president says he’s pro-LGBT at the same time he’s giving the keynote address here.”
While attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast used to be seen as a fairly innocuous venue for politicians to make a public display of faith, it has become much more controversial as the organization’s affiliations and mission have become more widely known.
“The idea that the National Prayer Breakfast is a box that’s checkable for religion for the folks who are attending is offensive to say the least because that… brand of religiosity does not have a monopoly on the word religion,” Cronk says.
But while they oppose the politics of the event’s organizers, protestors say they don’t have a problem with the president expressing his personal faith.
“This is not an anti-religion protest. I’m a seminary graduate myself. There’s no way this is an anti-religion protest,” Cronk says. “We’re organizing it with the Unitarian Universalist Association with Soul Force… This isn’t anti-religion; this is anti-hatred.”
“Talking about their personal faith is one thing,” says GetEQUAL’s Michael Dixon, a protest organizer, “but when they affiliate themselves with an organization that is on record supporting the execution or life imprisonment of gays and lesbians… they’ve crossed way over any acceptable line.”