When professor, journalist, and author Jeff Sharlet tweeted, “#TheNationalPrayerBreakfast is all over the affidavit for Russian spy Maria Butina,” it raised the question: How did Butina and a number of her Russian colleagues obtain invitations to attend an event known for a US-centric Christian focus?
Since its founding in 1953 by the Family (aka The Fellowship Foundation), the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), the Family’s only public event, has become an annual gathering of what is now more than 3,000 religious leaders, US politicians, and representatives – declared and otherwise – of foreign governments. In The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008), Sharlet detailed how this event misuses the name of Christianity to provide a backdoor to American diplomacy that allows individuals access to the President without going through the usual vetting process by the State Department.
In a 2018 article for The New York Post, Sharlet reported, “At a 2017 prayer breakfast in Moscow, Doug Burleigh – a current Fellowship leader and lifelong Russia hand – appeared alongside Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, to declare ‘a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the US is about occur.’” Also, at Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins “cites a 2017 email from Butina to a prayer breakfast organizer in which she thanks the person for allowing her group to attend ‘and the very private meeting that followed.’”
The Family’s Russian connections are growing, with a record 60 Russian attendees at 2018’s NPB. In a blog post for Americans United, Communications Director Rob Boston cited recent developments in Russia that run contrary to most Americans’ values. These include the diminishment of women’s rights, bans against certain religions (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), attacks on LGBT rights, and the rapid disappearance of the freedom of the press. These actions parallel wishes expressed by our President, especially since he teamed up with now vice-president Mike Pence, a longtime Family member.
As referenced by Sharlet in The Family, “[i]n the process of introducing powerful men to Jesus, the Family has managed to effect a number of behind-the-scenes acts of diplomacy.” However, benign acts such as helping end the Rwanda-Congo conflict appear to be the exception to the rule. The Family’s focus appears to be on connecting the most powerful people, regardless of niceties like mass murder. Butina’s felony investigation pulled back a curtain and brought some of the Family’s maneuvers into the light. According to Sharlet (in the Twitter feed cited at top), the Family sought Butina out in Russia: “they went to her in Moscow, actively cultivating a relationship with these spies.” That’s how the Russians got those tickets.
By December 2018, when Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, the NPB brouhaha had long faded into the background, displaced by endless rounds of Trump tweets and other ongoing maneuvers designed to divert attention away from Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigations. However, the organization remains intact. Trump administration officials such as Cabinet member Betsy DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence remain firmly committed to the Family.
While believers in other religions may be present, Sharlet observes that the Family’s “specific vision of Jesus as the ideal “strongman” governs their political theology”, and that they “found, in strongman-sympathetic Trump, an ideal vessel for their beliefs.” In his first address to the NPB, Trump‘s biblical bromance with the religious right went into details of destroying barriers between church and state, as in this pronouncement:
“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God. […] Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that – remember.”
Groups like Americans United continue to question the propriety of a prayer breakfast with invitations issued through Congress and the President expected to make an appearance. Perhaps now is the time we should take their ongoing concerns seriously, given the increase in the Russian presence (including Butina) at this event following the election of Donald J. Trump.
So as the NPB gets ready for yet another dubiously spiritual prayer-a-palooza on February 7, 2019, it seems that maybe an answer to America’s prayers would to shut this “Christian” circus down once and for all.