Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012 National Prayer Breakfast: Eric Metaxas on Faith and Social Issues (UPDATED)

(To read about President Obama's speech at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, click here.)

On February 2nd, the 60th Annual National Prayer Breakfast took place in the Hilton Washington in Washington D.C. Hosted by Fellowship Foundation (a.k.a. The Family), a Washington D.C.-based Christian group, the National Prayer Breakfast has been attended by national and world leaders since it was first established in 1953. President Obama spoke at this year's event, as did several lawmakers and Christian author Eric Metaxas. As mentioned in a previous post, Jeff Sharlet described the Fellowship Foundation and the National Prayer Breakfast in his 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

The Fellowship Foundation has come under scrutiny in regards to a draconian anti-gay bill currently under consideration in Uganda. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleged that members of the Fellowship Foundation pushed for the anti-gay bill, while Warren Throckmorton wrote that his contacts with the Fellowship Foundation were uniformly opposed to the bill. GetEqual protested outside the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2nd, accusing the Fellowship Foundation of having connections to homophobia.

The event's opening speakers mused on faith, inclusion, and leadership. In his introductory remarks, National Prayer Breakfast co-chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) stressed the radical inclusion of Jesus of Nazareth at the 3:00 mark.
"In my faith walk as I've studied the life of Jesus, it seems his approach was always to see the people who were considered to be outsiders or had withdrawn, and to bring them all in. All those lepers and Samaritans and disabled people and poor people and folks like the woman at the well. They had been pushed out or had withdrawn, and Jesus brought them. in I think that's the kind of approach we want to embrace in this breakfast and everything that flows out of it. We want to bring everyone in and to be in harmony with God's will and share in God's love."
At the 27:00 mark, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina, 7th District) spoke of the importance of praying for government officials, plugging the Congressional Prayer Caucus.
"Like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, we want to build a wall of prayer around our nation's capital, and you can put a stone or a brick in that wall of prayer, if you will, each week by taking five minutes to join us in prayer, and you can choose the time. If you go to the Congressional Prayer Caucus website ... It is that important because, you see, the true source of power is not found in the halls of Congress or in the Oval Office of the west wing, or in the chambers of the Supreme Court. It's found on our knees before the throne of grace of the almighty God, asking for his help."
Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, gave an eloquent talk at the National Prayer Breakfast before President Obama. I admit that I listened to Metaxas' talk with mixed feelings, as there was much to like and dislike in his speech. On one hand, I found his rejection of empty religiosity and reverence for social justice highly appealing. On the other hand, his conservative stance abortion and marriage, as well as statements implying that moral breakthroughs are due to divine intervention, left me cold.

Metaxas began his talk with jabs at the event's price tag. At the 36:26 mark, he joked about being part of the elite 1%.
"I know it's an august gathering because they charged $175 for breakfast. I don't want to start out by being negative, but I think there may be some kind of money laundering thing kind of happening here. I'm speaking truth to power, people. The price gauging, it needs to stop. Even as a member of the elite 1%, I cannot afford this."
At the 37:01 mark, Metaxas sarcastically joked about image of the Fellowship Foundation as a secretive powerhouse moulding politics behind the scenes.
"Seriously, I know who puts these events on. They are a highly secret, indeed a nefarious organization. They call themselves the Family ... You see, the Family not only runs this event, they run everything that's happening in the world. We, and of course I mean the president and I most specifically, are all their puppets. The president knows what I mean. He cannot admit this publicly, obviously, but appearing here this morning, we are simply doing their bidding. Every U.S. president has been elected by them, except for Warren G. Harding."
Taking a more serious tone, Metaxas spoke of the difference between empty religiosity and true faith, the latter characterized by connection with the divine. At the 16:10 mark, he spoke of the construct of God that he rejected, a construct clothed in religion but devoid of compassion.
"He's not a joy-killing bummer or some moralistic church lady ... I realized everything I had rejected about God was actually not God. It was just dead religion. It was phoniness. It was people who go to church and do not show the love of Jesus. It was people who know the Bible and use it as a weapon, people who don't practice what they preach, people who are indifferent to the poor and suffering, people who use religion as a way to exclude others from their group, people who use religion as a way to judge others. I had rejected that, but guess what? Jesus had also rejected that. He had railed against that and called people to real life and real faith."
At length, Metaxas described his upbringing and eventual religious conversion. Born to a Greek father and German mother, he was raised as an Orthodox Christian. Attending "aggressively secular" Yale eroded his "modicum" of religious faith, and he embraced agnosticism. During a struggle with depression in his twenties, Metaxas met an Episcopalian man who encouraged him to pray to God to reveal himself. Soon thereafter, he had a dream that ignited his faith in God. In loving detail, Metaxas described God as a wonderful and accepting deity who is completely different from the construct of God he'd rejected as an agnostic.

Metaxas told stories about William Wilberforce (a British abolitionist who decried the slave trade) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a theologian and member of the anti-Nazi German resistance), noting the centrality of their Christian faith in their work. He held up Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer as examples of men with true faith rather than false religiosity.

To my surprise, Metaxas argued that revolutionary moral ideas such as compassion for the poor and enslaved are "Biblical" ideas that spring from divine intervention. At the 54:13 mark, he had this to say.
"The idea to care for the poor, the idea that slavery is wrong, these ideas are not normal human ideas. These are Biblical ideas, imported by Wilberforce at a crucial time. Human being do not do the right things apart from God's intervention. We always do the phony religious thing. We go with the flow."
I take issue with these assumptions. First, the Bible contains passages can be used to justify many conflicting positions. On the issue of slavery, the Bible contains pro-slavery passages as well as passages that could undergird an anti-slavery stance. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery voices cited scripture to justify their views. Also, the assumption that compassion for the poor and enslaved is "Biblical" fails to account for the existence of compassionate movements in non-Christian and non-Jewish cultures. Most importantly, Metaxas' statement suggests that humans cannot make moral leaps without divine intervention, which downplays human capacity (and responsibility) to reason out what is morally good.

I also took issue with Metaxas' statements about abortion and sexuality. After asserting that Jesus reveals ideas to us that are different from our own ideas, he had this to say at the 1:00:00 mark.
"Personally, I would say the same thing about the unborn, that apart from God, apart from God we cannot see that they are persons as well, so those of us who know the unborn to be human beings are commanded by God to love those who do not yet see that. We need to know that apart from God, we would be on the other side of that divide fighting for what we believe is right. We cannot demonize our enemies. Today, if you believe abortion is wrong, you must treat those on the other wide with the love of Jesus. Today, if you have a Biblical view of sexuality, you will be demonized by those on the other side who will call you a bigot. Jesus commands us to love those who call us bigots, to show them the love of Jesus. If you want people to treat you with dignity, treat them with dignity."
His calls for respectful behavior notwithstanding, I found Metaxas' statement condescending. In a breathtaking reversal, Metaxas seemed to be accusing same-sex marriage proponents of "demonizing" their opponents by pointing out their bigotry. When he urged people with a "Biblical view of sexuality" to treat others with dignity, he forgets that anti-LGBT attitudes deny dignity to same-sex couples. Moreover, I've seen far more examples of anti-gay activists demonizing LGBT people than the other way around.

Metaxas' anti-abortion sentiments earned him the endearment of anti-abortion commentators.

- Dave Andruski at National Right to Life News Today, praised Metaxas for "adroitly" approaching the abortion issue with President Obama nearby. (See www[dot]nationalrighttolifenews[dot]org/news/2012/02/obama-and-the-question-who-is-fully-human/)

- Anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek called the speech "a soaring inspiration to pro-lifers, with the bonus that President Obama was forced to hear it." (See www[dot]jillstanek[dot]com/2012/02/the-prayer-breakfast-speech-that-came-before-the-presidents/)

- At the anti-abortion Bound 4 Life blog, Matt Lockett expressed gratitude that Metaxas had the "courage to speak honestly to President Obama." (See bound4life[dot]com/blog/2012/02/07/saying-you-re-a-christian-might-mean-absolutely-nothing)

In conclusion, amidst calls for prayer and inclusion, this annual Christian event was not immune to conservative rhetoric. Metaxas' speech, while inspiring in some ways, reflected right-wing sensibilities in others.

To learn more about Eric Metaxas, visit www[dot]ericmetaxas[dot]com. For additional commentary, visit the following links.

Wall of Separation: Bad Breakfast: Annual Prayer Confab Offers Another Helping Of Religion Mixed With Politics

Sojourners: Power, Prayer and Money


  1. The Family remains a dangerous group with a dangerous agenda. Happily, though so many politicos attend, it seems when you watch them,t heir actions are anything but Jesus like. But then I suppose that is a danger in and of itself. I think their definition of Jesus and mine are quite different.

  2. Sherry -- Well, judging from Jeff Sharlet's books, the Family's definition of Jesus is quite different from a lot of good people's. I'm grateful to C-SPAN for recording these events so that the public can keep en eye on them.

  3. Funny how the RR folks seem almost gleeful about the fact that Obama had to listen to Metaxas's speech. Do they think he's going to change his mind?

  4. Cognitive Dissenter -- Their comments definitely ooze glee. I doubt it's anything the President hasn't heard before.

  5. "Human being do not do the right things apart from God's intervention. "

    Plenty of people do the right thing every day without "God". Meanwhile people claiming to be doing "God's Word" engage in some of the worst atrocities.

    "If you want people to treat you with dignity, treat them with dignity."

    They wouldn't know how to treat others with dignity if their lives depended on it.

    "Anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek called the speech "a soaring inspiration to pro-lifers, with the bonus that President Obama was forced to hear it."

    They love when somebody is *forced* to endure them. Meanwhile they scream "persecution" and "tyranny" if they passively encounter the freedoms of others anywhere in the world. Ugh.

  6. Buffy -- It annoys me when fundamentalists claim that their path is the only one that can generate goodness, when so much evidence to the contrary exists. As for dignity, they don't seem to realize that denying LGBT people the right to marry, adopt, be free from discrimination, etc. IS an affront to their dignity.

  7. Just watched Metaxas's speech and had the same reaction (confusion at the odd reversal of urging Christians to stand up for the oppressed and then claiming oppressed status). Thanks for articulating it so well!


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