Religious Leaders Condemn National Prayer Breakfast; Offer Alternative American Prayer Hour

As more activists call attention to the activities of The Fellowship, or The Family, the secretive fundamentalist powerhouse whose National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) is this Thursday, a group of religious leaders has launched an alternative American Prayer Hour to condemn The Family’s role in the kill-the-gays bill pending in the Ugandan parliament.

“Prayer is a good thing, and Americans ought to gather to pray, but we better be careful what we pray for,” said the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the Ninth Bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, speaking at the National Press Club Tuesday morning. “We have a duty to confront those who are praying for those things that would break God’s heart.”

“I call upon our president to make himself known to be in opposition not just to the death penalty but to this violation of human rights for all of God’s children in Uganda and beyond,” Robinson added.

President Obama is scheduled to speak at the NPB despite calls for him to boycott it. The religious leaders behind the American Prayer Hour are asking him to take the opportunity to speak out against homophobia and heterosexism, said Harry Knox, the Director of the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign, which is co-sponsoring the events. Knox is also a member of Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council (and RD’s advisory council).

Alternative prayer hours are currently scheduled in 17 cities, according to Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, which is coordinating the event.

Speakers at Tuesday morning’s launch warned that the Ugandan bill would cause a genocide of LGBT people in that nation. Moses, a gay man from Uganda seeking asylum in the United States, gave a chilling account of the harassment and terror he withstood growing up there—even before the bill, which would not only call for the death penalty and life imprisonment for LGBT people but also require friends and family to turn people suspected of being LGBT over to the authorities.

Moses, who addressed reporters with a paper bag over his head to conceal his identity, spoke of how in Uganda, “one would rather die than come out of the closet,” because LGBT people are so terrorized in a culture that portrays homosexuality as “deviant” behavior. He described being beaten at school and living in constant “fear of rejection, fear of isolation by my family, making my family a laughingstock. . . . fear of losing friends, fear for my life.” He experienced a “constant feeling of shame,” and ultimately abandoned his studies and lost his job. LGBT people in Uganda, he said, are routinely denied housing because of fears of “spreading” their “deviant” behavior.

Moses said that he was raped by a policeman, but feared seeking medical attention because “if I told health workers they would not give me help. They would instead report me, and the next day I would hit the headlines in the newspaper.” Moses displayed lists of suspected homosexuals published in Ugandan newspapers with headlines like “Top Homos” and “Homo Terror.” People lost their jobs and received death threats as a result of their names being published, he said.

Two former evangelical powerbrokers who were familiar with The Family spoke at the press conference: Frank Schaeffer, whose father Francis Schaeffer was a key figure in the religious right, and Bishop Carlton Pearson, whose questioning of the concept of hell several years ago caused all of his evangelical friends to abandon him. (Pearson, who lived in Oklahoma at the time, started attending National Prayer Breakfasts in the 1970s, at the invitation of now-Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a key member of The Family.)

Schaeffer condemned Doug Coe, The Family’s leader, for not publicly speaking out against the Uganda bill, adding that “it is stunning” that Obama would speak to the group. (Schaeffer has otherwise been outspoken in his support for Obama, both during the presidential campaign and since he took office.)

Jeff Sharlet has shown that the member of the Ugandan parliament who introduced the bill, David Bahati, is deeply involved in The Family, telling NPR last year:

David Bahati, the man behind this legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Family’s work in Uganda, that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni’s kind of right-hand man, a guy named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family’s National Prayer Breakfast. And here’s a guy who has been the main force for this Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda’s executive office and has been very vocal about what he’s doing, in a rather extreme and hateful way. But these guys are not so much under the influence of The Family. They are, in Uganda, The Family.

Pearson described The Family’s agenda as “to Christianize the world.” He said Coe was “like an icon to us . . . . in the same category as Pat Roberston, Billy Graham . . . supposed to be a great man of God. . . . it’s frightening now, when I look at it from the other perspective, what was going on: to gain power and become intoxicated by it.”

Sharlet has described how The Family sees Jesus as a “strong man” and seeks to emulate that. “Jesus was the strongest man of all, and if he was alive today, he’d be the greatest quarterback, he’d be the number one CEO, he’d be the head of General Electric. When you live in The Family, they sit around and wonder how awesome Jesus would be if he raced NASCAR,” Sharlet told me in 2008.

This morning, Robinson said, “you can talk about Jesus all day, but if you are not doing what Jesus would have you do, then it matters not. God save us from admirers of Jesus.”