Time to Separate Piety and Politics

Time to Separate Piety and Politics

by James Bovard

The First Amendment of the Constitution specifies, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In Washington, the “free exercise thereof” perennially includes politicians exploiting religion to sanctify themselves and all their power grabs.

It would take divine intervention for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump to be consistently honest with the American people.
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Piety with a side of eggs

One of the most brazen if not most shameless “free exercise thereof” examples is the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Politicians gather to silently pray that the Lord will smite all their enemies — or at least get them indicted on multiple charges. And the common theme of comments at the event is that the political class is doing God’s work.

The prayer breakfast long ago turned into the type of “market” that Jesus castigated thousands of years ago. The prayer breakfast became notorious as “an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of American power,” the New York Times reported. Maria Butina, who the media labeled as a Russian spy because she failed to register as a Russian agent, used the breakfast as a way “to establish a back channel of communication” with America’s top political leaders, according to a 2018 federal indictment. Franklin Graham described the prevailing motive at prayer breakfasts in 2018: “I can tell you right now, everybody in that room has the same agenda. They’re wanting to be able to rub elbows with somebody that they normally couldn’t rub elbows with.”

Controversy over the foreign spying spurred a newly formed organization to take over the prayer breakfast gig. It issued a revised mission statement: “The vision of the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation is to promote and share the idea of gathering together in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth,” with participants “united in believing that by looking to the life of Jesus, people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs can join together, encourage and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Politicians joyfully join together to con the rubes — to keep average Americans paying and obeying Uncle Sam. The national Prayer Breakfast is a keystone of civic religion in the nation’s capital. That religion is devoted to worshiping the government and pretending that federal agencies can perform miracles, regardless of their past records.

Shaming the masses into submission

Prayer breakfasts provide an opportunity for presidents to uncork their biggest lies without getting hooted down by hostile audiences. In his 2000 speech to the prayer breakfast, President Bill Clinton called for reconciliation among all groups clashing around the world, from Northern Ireland to the Middle East to Kosovo. Clinton then revealed, “And here in Washington we are not blameless…. For we often, too, forget in the heat of political battle our common humanity. We slip from honest difference which is healthy into dishonest demonization.”

This was a shameless pitch from a politician who had proclaimed that Republicans who opposed his Superfund legislation wanted to poison America; who ignored a jury verdict and declaimed that Texas residents were murderers because they resisted federal agents attacking their home; who, in his 1996 reelection campaign ads, accused Republicans of favoring killing older Americans because of their position on Medicare; whose wife went on national television after the Monica Lewinsky story broke and said it was just another concoction of a “vast right-wing conspiracy;” whose vice president compared opponents of affirmative action to people who sought to murder blacks; and who perennially portrayed advocates of tax cuts as favoring throwing old people out on the street via the destruction of Social Security.

At the 2023 prayer breakfast, Biden proclaimed that “we can redeem the soul of America” and called for Americans to “go forward together.” Such prattle was null-and-void last month when he denounced his likely election opponent Donald Trump for allegedly “echoing the same exact language used in Nazi Germany.” The Biden campaign is using a graphic explicitly comparing Trump and Hitler’s rhetoric. Biden previously denounced Republicans for “semi-fascism.” The backdrop for his raging September 2022 speech in Philadelphia looked like it was borrowed from 1930s Nuremberg.

Prayer breakfasts give politicians a chance to remind voters that they are God’s anointed. Shortly after he was selected as House speaker in October 2023, Congressman Mike Johnson (R-LA) declared, “I don’t believe there are any coincidences. I believe that scripture, the Bible, is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority, he raised up each of you, all of us. And I believe that God has ordained and allowed us to be brought here to this specific moment and time.”

Johnson did not explain why God decided to sanction ballot harvesting and millions of unverified mail-in ballots in 2020 — in contrast to prior presidential elections. Shortly before the 2024 prayer breakfast, Johnson riled up some conservatives by adding that Biden’s 2020 election victory and presidency “must have been God’s will. That’s my belief.” Johnson’s assertion spurred plenty of howling by Washington conservatives.

To safeguard the event’s purity, the breakfast was not held at a spacious Washington hotel this year. Instead, it was held at the U.S. Capitol and had far fewer attendees. Organizers stressed that the event strictly adhered to “congressional ethical standards” — a phrase that boosts confidence only inside the Beltway. The fact that the breakfast kingpins would use such a phrase proved that most attendees were probably beyond redemption.

Perhaps it was a divine spirit lifted Biden’s rhetoric higher than usual that morning: “We’re the beacon to the world. The entire world looks to us. That’s not hyperbole. This is an idea. This idea was made real before the soul became flesh, before this dream became a fact. It was prayed for, it was hoped for, it was believed in. That’s the story of America.”

Lord have mercy on anyone trying to follow Biden’s revelatory narrative.

Biden prattled that “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness” — perhaps embodied by Biden’s subversion of the Supreme Court ruling on student loan forgiveness. He mumbled about how the room in the Capitol had seen “insurrection and instability” — another reminder of his plans to endlessly invoke January 6 for his reelection campaign.

Biden’s homilies

Prayer breakfasts provide presidents the opportunity to sprinkle rhetorical holy water over the foreign conflicts they have propelled. Voice of America, a federal agency, headlined its report on the 2024 shindig: “Biden Attends Prayer Breakfast, Promotes Global Peace and Unity.” The fact that Biden was pushing for far more military arms to be delivered to Ukraine and Israel was irrelevant to his devotion to global peace, at least according to scoring by Washington insiders.

Biden assured listeners that “the fruit of the spirit is love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness — I believe that’s our collective calling.” Biden boasts that America “gives hate no safe harbor” but hating Republicans is apparently merely doing God’s work.

Biden dragged out one of his favorite quotes into his spiel:

History remembers President Lincoln’s first inaugural address counseling us to heed, quote, “the better angels of our nature.” We do well to remember what he said just a few moments before he concluded the same address. At a moment of deep division in our nation, President Lincoln said, “We are not enemies.” He said, “We are not enemies, but friends.” “We must not be enemies,” he went on to say.

Biden neglected to mention that shortly after making that speech, Lincoln took actions that almost guaranteed that a Civil War would ravage the nation. After the first seven states seceded in late 1860 and early 1861, a huge sticking point was the fate of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, a fort that continued to be held by Union forces in defiance of the state and new nation.

Most of Lincoln’s cabinet and his military commander, General Winfield Scott, favored abandoning the fort to deny a pretext for war and allow tempers to cool on both sides. Prior to the attack on Fort Sumter, Virginian supporters of the Union believed that Lincoln was serious when he seemed to offer them “a state for a fort” — that he would abandon Fort Sumter if Virginia would stay in the Union. But a day or two after delegates at a Virginia convention voted almost 2-to-1 not to secede, Lincoln approved sending the U.S. Navy to resupply Sumter.

Lincoln knew that would spur Confederate Jefferson Davis to order Gen. P. T. Beauregard to open fire on the fort. The Confederates launched an idiotic, self-defeating attack, and Lincoln quickly exploited it to fan mass hysteria and war fever. Lincoln’s order to other states to provide troops to suppress the “rebellion” quickly doubled the size of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi as Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas seceded. Lincoln’s invocation of “better angels” did not deter him from reckless policies that helped lead to the deaths of 600,000 soldiers.

Of course, it shouldn’t be a crime for politicians to meet in public and claim to be praying. The real problem is the “rent a halo” effect of such confabs. Attending a prayer breakfast makes politicians as religious as waving a flag makes them patriotic. Unfortunately, there are plenty of gullible folks out there, and not all of them are in the press corps.

Tartuffe is the patron saint of the prayer breakfast. It would be more accurate to label the event “Parade of Pharisees.” But that would be tricky considering the Biden Justice Department’s proclivity for prosecuting people for “parading without a permit” (their favorite charge for January 6 defendants). How many of the politicians pirouetting at today’s breakfast supported forcibly shutting down churches and synagogues during the Covid pandemic?

Biden concluded his spiel this year: “Let’s remember who the hell we are: we’re the United States of America. It’s all about dignity and respect.” At least Biden didn’t fling the F-word at the audience. But concluding a prayer breakfast spiel with hell is more appropriate than Team Biden might like to admit.

News coverage of the breakfast stressed that House Speaker Mike Johnson sat next to Biden and the two of them shook hands. Johnson said that “we wept in the front row” during the screechy performance by a famous Italian singer that started the breakfast, and photos showed Biden wiping away a tear. Pundits are hopeful that this signals a new era of politicians working together.

Actually, that is how America got a $34 trillion national debt. Maybe the breakfast should have offered special prayers for the federal government’s credit rating? For decades, D.C. bipartisan deals have been smarmy Solomonic solutions sawing the Bill of Rights in half to help politicians snare campaign contributions. But citizens didn’t send members of Congress to Washington to destroy their rights, liberties, or currency on the installment plan.

Perhaps presidents and congressmen should be praying for a new, even more gullible cadre of voters to reelect them. Cynicism is routinely denounced at prayer breakfasts, but cynicism is blowback from decades of deceit. Most of the major political power grabs in modern history have been propelled by official falsehoods, as have all the major wars since 1950. Perpetual bipartisan chicanery explains why only 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government nowadays. Cynicism is simply a discount rate for political honesty.

Prayer breakfasts foster the illusion that politicians are corrigible. But lying is practically the job description for politicians. Economist John Burnheim, in his 1985 book Is Democracy Possible?, observed of electoral campaigns:

Overwhelming pressures to lie, to pretend, to conceal, to denigrate or sanctify are always present when the object to be sold is intangible and its properties unverifiable until long after the time when the decision to buy can be reversed.

Dishonesty is practically the distinguishing trait of the political class. Thomas Jefferson observed in 1820, “Whenever a man casts a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” One carpetbagger Reconstruction-era Louisiana governor declared, “I don’t pretend to be honest. I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”

A 1996 Washington Post poll found that 97 percent of people interviewed trusted their spouses, 87 percent trusted teachers, 71 percent trusted the “average person,” but only 14 percent trusted politicians. A 1994 poll found that only 3 percent of those surveyed had a “high” opinion of politicians. Burns Roper, the director of the Roper poll, observed, “Those in government-related occupations are at the very bottom of the list of occupational groups thought well of.”

Are politicians who praise the Lord preparing to pilfer the Treasury? Or are they revving up some foreign intervention designed to create full employment for grave diggers? Or are they harmlessly gas-bagging, stalling until they can remember to wave the flag again?

Americans are amidst an election year which is dominated by two presidential candidates that most Americans heartily distrust. It would take divine intervention for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump to be consistently honest with the American people. That type of miracle is so unlikely that even Las Vegas is not taking bets.

The article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Future of Freedom.


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