Prayers have been ringing out in the halls of Congress, gladdening the hearts of those who believe America was and should be a Christian nation.
The latest version of the half-century-old National Prayer Breakfast lacked the scandals and partisan fireworks of previous years but raised some concerns for its venue: Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
House Speaker Mike Johnson made the choice on location.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, told Religion Dispatches Statuary Hall is “a very disturbing venue” for the privately run Christian event. “It is the heart of our Capitol, the heart of our democracy.”
Johnson also chose who would open the House with prayer on Jan. 30, two days before the Feb. 1 bipartisan prayer breakfast: controversial pro-Trump pastor Jack Hibbs, who has called for President Joe Biden to be court-martialed.
Yet at the prayer breakfast, Biden spoke of unity: “My prayer, my hope, is we continue to believe our best days are ahead of us, that as a nation we continue to believe in honesty, decency, dignity and respect. We see each other not as enemies but as fellow human beings, each made in the image of God, each precious in his sight.”
The National Prayer Breakfast traces its history to 1943 and was intended to foster unity: “The purpose would be to grow in personal relationship with God and bonds of friendship with each other and to be an encouragement to one another as friends. These friendships often transcend party differences and opposing views on national and international issues. It is with this spirit that we aim to be a vehicle of fellowship and connection through the life of Jesus.”
The annual event has been organized by private groups for half a century. For years, the event was organized by The Family, an influential D.C.-based Christian nonprofit profiled in books and documentaries.
But in recent years, the event was beset by scandal and partisanship.
In 2013, Ben Carson used his talk to criticize President Barack Obama’s health care policies to his face.
In following years, Russian operative Maria Butina attended the annual events to help Russia establish back-channel communication with U.S. leaders.
Donald Trump used his talk at the 2020 event to disagree with the keynote speaker’s theme of “love your neighbor.” Trump said he preferred the part of the Bible that taught “an eye for an eye.”
Trump also used the occasion to question the faith of Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic.
The 2024 version of the National Prayer Breakfast provided moments of nonpartisan fellowship, but questions remain about what role The Family continues to play after promising to bring in new leadership and usher in financial transparency. Watchdog groups say the group has not released its IRS information.
Adelle Banks of Religion News Service explained the latest changes: “The refashioned National Prayer Breakfast is a scaled-down version of an event that has drawn thousands to the Washington Hilton and was previously hosted by a group often known as ‘The Family,’ but that called itself the International Foundation.
“Since last year, there have been two events, one sponsored by the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, after years of controversy following the 2018 breakfast and accusations that the gathering of national and international political and religious leaders had become vulnerable to espionage.”
Apart from the annual prayer breakfast, who gets to pray at the House of Representatives? The House chaplain — currently Presbyterian Margaret Kibben, the first female chaplain — opens many House sessions with a prayer.
But the House speaker can invite guest pastors to pray, and Johnson invited Hibbs, a MAGA minister known for anything but unity prayers. Hibbs prayed in the name of Christ and said the U.S. Constitution is God’s “great gift to all freedom-loving people.”
After Hibbs’ prayer, he and Johnson met with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Johnson’s longtime political mentor.
Word&Way reported: “Although Johnson wasn’t presiding in the House chamber as Hibbs prayed this week, the two of them joined Perkins the next morning at the Museum of the Bible for an FRC event billed as a ‘National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance.’ A couple dozen other Republican lawmakers also came on stage during the five-hour event, along with Christian pastors, activists and attorneys.”
“The powers that are pulling the strings to this country are literally bringing us to a civil war,” Hibbs told his congregation Jan. 24. “It’s the first time since 1861 where we’re looking at soldiers, possibly shooting at other soldiers on the same team — states.”
The progressive group Media Matters summarized other concerns about Hibbs’ persona: “Hibbs is a pro-Trump Christian nationalist pastor who has built a right-wing media profile through interviews on Fox News, Newsmax and Charlie Kirk’s Salem Media program. … Hibbs has openly supported right-wing candidates and campaigned against LGBTQ inclusion in public schools, and he frequently warns followers of a coming ‘Antichrist.’ Hibbs made headlines after the January 6 insurrection for defending the violence at the Capitol as ‘what you get when you eject God from the courts and from the schools,’ and he later said President Joe Biden ‘needs to be facing court-martial.’”