Since the National Prayer Breakfast began in 1953 with President Dwight Eisenhower, the Washington event has been low-key, drawing few headlines outside the capital. Thousands from around the world attend to pray, eat, meet, and greet world leaders. But this year the organization behind the Feb. 4 breakfast, the Fellowship, is likely to face some headlines after recent months of scrutiny.
Gay activists are planning protests of the event, believing the Fellowship has had a hand in a pending bill in Uganda that would levy harsh penalties, including capital punishment, on homosexuals. While National Prayer Breakfast attendees sit down to eat, national gay activist groups plan to hold an "alternative" called "American Prayer Hour" at a church in downtown Washington-to "affirm inclusive values and call on all nations, including Uganda, to decriminalize the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people."
The event is set to include the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, and author Frank Schaeffer (son of theologian Francis Schaeffer), who has described the Fellowship as an arm of "right-wing evangelicalism." The American Prayer Hour website describes the Fellowship as a "fundamentalist organization."
The flap over the Feb. 4 breakfast isn't the Fellowship's first. Lawmakers Mark Sanford, John Ensign, and Chip Pickering, all congressmen allegedly unfaithful to their wives leading to high-profile scandals in the past year, spent time at the organization's hub on Capitol Hill known as the C Street house. And former presidential hopeful John Edwards, who also confessed to an adulterous relationship and to fathering a child out of it, chaired the breakfast in 2002, after co-leading a prayer group associated with the Fellowship in the Senate.
Those scandals drew national attention to the group's low-key sponsorship of the National Prayer Breakfast, along with other activities in Washington and overseas. Public-relations consultant Larry Ross, who is also a member of the Fellowship, said he expects the group's approach to the breakfast to be "the same as in previous years."
But media attention-and the Uganda controversy-may not permit that, and has already provoked the Fellowship to speak more publicly on issues touching its operations than at anytime in its 60-year history.
The recent attacks on the Fellowship as a gay-hating, right-wing organization stem from a connection to Ugandan legislator David Bahati, who introduced the Ugandan bill that could levy criminal punishments on homosexuals. Bahati led a seminar at a Ugandan nonprofit called Cornerstone, which is funded by the Fellowship. Cornerstone has distanced itself from Bahati, and the Fellowship's spokesman on Uganda, Bob Hunter, publicly expressed the organization's opposition to the bill-a rare statement from the intensely private group.
Bahati announced that he would not only be attending the National Prayer Breakfast, but also speaking. Fellowship associates have said Bahati will not attend, though he was invited as a volunteer before he introduced the inflammatory bill.
The National Prayer Breakfast has an ever-expanding theological and political tent, with the Fellowship stating that it "builds bridges of understanding between all peoples, religions and beliefs." Speakers-including the president-are careful now to quote not only the Bible, but also the Quran and other spiritual readings. President Obama is expected to attend, as he did last year, along with another high-profile speaker who will remain unknown until the breakfast; last year, that speaker was former British prime minister Tony Blair.