On Monday, January 16th, Humanists will celebrate National Religious Freedom Day. According to BlitzWatch, “Congress designated January 16th as Religious Freedom Day to celebrate the enactment in 1786 of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, stipulating that it be commemorated by a presidential proclamation each year. Written by Thomas Jefferson and championed by James Madison, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the forerunner to the approach to religion and government taken by the Framers of the Constitution in 1787, and the First Amendment in 1789.”
President Biden’s 2022 proclamation for the day emphasized the presence of diverse faiths and belief systems as a great strength and cornerstone of American democracy. Notably, the President even specifically made a mention of the secular community by stating “On Religious Freedom Day, we recommit ourselves to the protection and advancement of this vital aspect of our American character — and to protecting the freedom of people of all faiths and none, both across our Nation and around the world… We must continue our work to ensure that people of all faiths — or none — are treated as full participants in society, equal in rights and dignity.”
Unfortunately, The National Prayer Breakfast, which occurs typically on the first Thursday of February each year, both undermines the uniting sentiment expressed in President Biden’s proclamation and in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and fuels religious extremism by legitimizing far-right Christianity’s chokehold on government. Since its inception in 1953, the event has been attended by U.S. Presidents, legislators, and international attendees, even in the face of First Amendment concerns.
Elected officials should not attend the National Prayer Breakfast because it does not represent the majority of Americans nor their values, and it certainly does not represent what they want to see elected officials supporting. Many members of Congress are already recognizing the harmful nature of the National Prayer Breakfast and are leaving it behind, including former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who had regularly attended in years past.
The National Prayer Breakfast’s supposed purpose is to establish a bi-partisan forum to cast aside differences and celebrate faith. Yet, under the guise of unity, the National Prayer Breakfast instead has served as a gathering exploited for the lobbying of harmful policy aims that embolden Christian Nationalist agendas. Attendance is not an expression of personal religious practice, but rather an exploitation of the profiles of public servants for private political purposes.
The National Prayer Breakfast is led by a group called The Fellowship (or ‘The Family’) whose affiliates have been found to have ties to dictators and alarming anti-LGBTQ stances. The influence of the secretive and intolerant organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast was exposed in Jeff Sharlet’s The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and subsequently, in the Netflix documentary miniseries The Family.
It’s telling that other groups have organized alternative prayer breakfasts to the National Prayer Breakfast, simply showing that what the National Prayer Breakfast expresses is not just some innocent moment to put differences aside and join together in faith, but rather a muddling of influence in government. As just one example, former President Trump used the event in 2019 to promote religious adoption agencies that refuse service to same-sex couples, stating they should protect a tradition of faith-based discrimination.
While not an ‘official’ Congressional event, it tries to appear as one, and when members of Congress attend, they send the message that they endorse the secretive and homophobic values of this fundamentalist religious organization. In this way, the National Prayer Breakfast shows a blatant disregard for the separation of religion and government.
Humanists are aware of what message attending or endorsing the National Prayer Breakfast sends about how their values and needs are being represented, which is why the American Humanist Association and the broader secular community have been sounding the alarm about the National Prayer Breakfast for years. Help build on the momentum to construct a more pluralistic and equal society–with many members of Congress already walking away, visit our Humanist Action Headquarters now to tell your Representative and Senators to do the same.