The National Prayer Breakfasts began as anything but national. Founded by a Norwegian methodist minister, Abram Vereide, they offered Seattle businessmen spiritual support during the depths of the Depression. The prayer breakfast movement spread like wildfire, and after Vereide met Billy Graham at a rally the two became close. Eventually their efforts came together in the Senate prayer breakfasts, held throughout World War II. In fact it took nearly a decade for the president to get involved. It was not until Senator Frank Carlson (R-Ka.) reached out to the new president, Dwight Eisenhower.
Evolution Over Time
Over the years the Prayer Breakfast has gone through several other evolutions. First is the name: it changed in 1970, from the “Presidential” Prayer Breakfast to (the potentially less taboo) “National” Prayer Breakfast, reflecting Americans’ general aversion to overt Church/State violations. A second change–less material, though still noteworthy–is the change in venue. After being held successively at the Mayflower, Shoreham, and Sheraton Park hotels, it was permanently relocated to the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel (again, in 1970).
These first changes are somewhat superficial. Yet the last change to which I would like to call attention had profound social ramifications. Until 1969, the meetings were segregated by sex. There are at least two possible explanations for this. First, John Kennedy was openly–and frequently–critical of this practice. As he said in 1961,
It seems to me that in the true Christian spirit next year we should all sit down together, and that we should have gentlemen and ladies pray and reason together, and not confine them in different rooms.
And the next year:
Last year I expressed some concern that instead of having been separated at these breakfasts–the pharisees and the publicans and the sinners and the saints–that the separation occurred on the basis of sex and not on those who should have been in the front room and those who were in the back room.
While it would be nice to believe that the breakfasts were integrated at JFK’s insistence, this does not seem to be the case. The Breakfasts continued segregated meetings years after his death, and coincidentally integration occurs the same year that the president first directly addresses the audience listening at home.
Why bring up the inclusion of women? More than its importance in the evolution of the speeches, it demonstrates a central truth: that presidents use the National Prayer Breakfasts as platforms to level social critiques. Kennedy believed that separate addresses betrayed the unifying spirit of the meetings. (And, in particular, the Christian message. But more on that later.)
So when Barack Obama warned Americans not to “get on their high horse,” it was a social critique not entirely without precedent. In fact, one common leitmotif in these addresses is the exhortation away from hubris and toward humility–in fact, Jimmy Carter’s whole 1977 address is about humility. He draws on Micah’s admonition against hubris. And his speeches continually warn against believing Americans are virtuous simply by their birth and not their actions. Nixon asks the nation to be humble, as does Bill Clinton.
The Prayer Breakfast at a Glance
Before wrapping up, it is helpful to see what Prayer Breakfast speeches–in general–address. A quick word query in NVivo reveals the ten most common words throughout NPB addresses:
These speeches, this illustration suggests, exemplify the “president as priest” model to which scholars in civil religion refer. In a nation where the populace is wary of transgressing the Church/State divide, NPB speeches provide a vehicle for presidents to overtly discuss religion as president.
More importantly, religious words like “God,” “prayer,” and “faith” come alongside words like “nation,” “people,” and “one.” One can deduce, of course, that presidents are underscoring the view that religion unites the nation (though naturally presidents differ in emphasizing pluralism or more specific religions). Again, scholars in civil religion suggest we are likely to find this pattern in American political discourse.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that this snapshot captures all of the nuances that exist in these speeches. To begin, presidents differ: as I will demonstrate, presidents focus on particular themes. Kennedy gravitates toward pluralism. Nixon toward national greatness. Jimmy Carter talks about national humility. Ronald Reagan relies upon more “down home” Christian stories. I will get to the intricacies of these in time. For now, it is only important to know that these nuances risk going unnoticed if we do not subject the NPB addresses to a more fine-grained analysis.