I attended the annual Tennessee Prayer Breakfast a couple of weeks ago. A couple of us had been invited by virtue of our new mission through UNITED4Hope with Norman Binkley School. The keynote speaker at this particular event was terrific. And the room was filled with most of the local politicians you know or have heard of.
I got to wondering how these prayer breakfasts came about. After all, the founding fathers made it clear that they were in favor of forming a society that was free FOR and free FROM religion. The notion of a fundamental separation between the church and state was meant to protect both from each other. History has not been kind to those periods when government and religion fell into bed together. So I found myself wanting to know how these prayer breakfasts came about.
It appears that they may have had their beginnings during the Great Depression, and that the notion of these prayer breakfasts first originated as a confluence between the church and big business. Kevin Kruse, who teaches history at Princeton, has written a book called “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America”. In his book, Kruse suggests that in the early 30s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive as their credibility had plummeted with the Stock Market Crash. Business tried valiantly to fight off the withering public criticism, but nothing was effective until they began to “conspire” on a vast public relations campaign that “cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.”
Roosevelt used the Crash to erect “The New Deal” in which government came to the rescue of millions who had lost everything. But big business managed to connect with the American Church in a pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. Faith and Free Enterprise became curiously intertwined. Some of these corporate giants like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E.F. Hutton, and other leaders at corporations like U.S. Steel, General Motors and Dupont actually made clergy their spokesmen. One of these was The Rev. Abraham Vereide. It was Veriede who began putting together business leaders and political leaders at such breakfasts across the country. In 1942, Veriede persuaded the U.S. House and Senate to start weekly prayer breakfasts. Veriede began to call Washington, “God’s Embassy”.
There was a certain form of Christian libertarianism that emerged from all this. Certain clergy became very powerful in the Congress and wielded the kind of power to get politicians elected or not. It turns out that one of the best known of these new Christian libertarian ministers was named Billy Graham. In the 50s, Graham was so adamant a voice for corporate America that he became known as the Big Business Evangelist. In one of Graham’s sermons, he wrote, “The Garden of Eden was a paradise with no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, and no disease.” He also called all government restriction and regulation “Socialism”.
Billy Graham eventually made Congress his congregation. He recruited legislators to serve as ushers at packed revival meetings. At his urging, Congress established a National Day of Prayer. He staged the first worship service conducted on the steps of the Capital. It wasn’t long after that the slogan “In God We Trust” was placed on postage and then, the following year, on paper money.
This is not to suggest that there was anything wrong with attempting to connect faith with politics, but later in his life, Graham confessed to having been deceived and used by the big business interests and by politicians. He regretted having not recognized how he had been used.
The danger is found in a subtle kind of seduction. Power is seductive. When church leaders pair up with politicians, it is seductive to believe one might be able to get a seat at the table where decisions are made and where influence is real. And the church needs to have its voice heard. But it can also be a place where the church is manipulated to endorse bad or immoral policy.
Surely no one would argue that prayer would be a bad influence on big business OR politics. However, the church must always be vigilant against being drawn into a partisan divide. The church through the centuries (not just in the 30s, 40s and 50s) has too often found itself too easily offering blessing on this or that political pronouncement. We do best when we don’t forget that our first citizenship and our first allegiance is to a different kingdom.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.