Peculiar institutions: Eisenhower channeled the evangelists’ prayer breakfast, according to Cold War logic. New Albany just borrowed the idea, which should be modified.

“His legacy is already there.”
— Lee Corso

That’s right. In the beginning, a New Albanian was inspired to hold a mayoral prayer breakfast by the example of Ike, who’d been encouraged by Billy Graham in a time of Cold War consciousness. Let’s pursue this narrative to the usual conclusion: “We’ve always done it that way” — even though we began this tradition only in 1968, before anchors were Trump.

New Albany’s prayer breakfast celebrates 40 years, by Melissa Moody (New Albany Tribune, Nov. 8, 2008)

Wilson Waters got the idea for the New Albany Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast from Dwight Eisenhower 40 years ago. And 40 years ago, Waters and his fellow prayer breakfast committee members started the event.

“I figured they have one in Washington, why can’t we have one here,” he said. “I’m surprised it kept going, but I’m glad it did for 40 years.”

In this decade-old treatment, one prayer breakfast attendee inadvertently gets to the heart of the matter, as New Albany’s annual supplicatory extravaganza actually serves as a mirror, reflecting the city’s relative absence of religious diversity.

“It’s a gathering of all churches,” said Patty Wolfe. “It means so much; it’s a fellowship of people of all ages, a combination of good Christians.”

In 2017, the institution created by Eisenhower and borrowed by New Albany (as well as numerous other communities) turned 65. Interestingly, while the national version of the prayer breakfast remains associated with the presidency, it has undergone an evolution of identity to remove the direct reference to the office.

Initially called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, the name was changed in 1970 to the National Prayer Breakfast.

Predictably, it’s a memo New Albany has failed to receive — for 46 years. Jeff Gahan might take note of this, although he won’t.

National Prayer Breakfast: What does its history reveal?, by Diane Winston (The Conversation)

On the morning of Feb. 2, 2017, more than 3,500 political leaders, military chiefs and corporate moguls met for eggs, sausage, muffins – and prayer. The Washington, D.C. gathering, the 65th National Prayer Breakfast, is an opportunity for new friends and old associates, from 50 states and 140 countries, to break bread and forge fellowship in Jesus’ name.

Convened on the first Thursday in February, the gathering, known as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast until 1970, has always included the American head of state. Donald Trump, in his maiden appearance, broke precedent with a powerful no holds barred speech that put other countries on notice, threatened church/state separation and mocked actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As a scholar of American religious history, I am intrigued by how presidents negotiate the intricacies of church/state relationships versus religion/politics entanglements. Most avoid the former while trying to benefit from the latter. That’s why the prayer breakfast is noteworthy – it is an opportunity for leaders to appear as Christ’s servants rather than formidable heads of state.

Faith first

President Dwight Eisenhower began the tradition with the first breakfast in 1953. While Eisenhower was initially wary of attending a prayer breakfast, evangelist Billy Graham convinced him it was the right move.

It is impossible to separate the National Prayer Breakfast from the Cold War imperatives reigning during the era of its establishment.

An American political cocktail: nationalism, religion, and nostalgia, by Heather Greene (Wild Hunt)

The morning after hangover

During this not-so-distant past, there were many politicians who, like (Senator Joseph) McCarthy, were advocating for a strong nationalism as a means of protection from foreign enemies during a time of growing global fear, and this surge of nationalism was neatly wrapped in religious rhetoric attributed to America’s great past. It is a cocktail from which America has still not fully recovered.

The tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast comes out of that time, as do the other religious components still resident in our contemporary American cultural experience, such as the pledge of allegiance and the motto.

However, it is important to note that there are other politically-based social traditions that are intertwined with similar religiosity, but were not born in that 1950s time frame. The White House Christmas tree lighting began in 1923. Irving Berlin wrote the famous song “God Bless America” in 1918. From the presidential inauguration ceremony to the patriotic songs commonly sung, religious language finds itself in many places. In fact, written into the end of every presidential proclamation at least over the past 150 years is the statement:

“IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this second day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand seventeen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.”

Much of this religious language is so well embedded into America’s systems and cultures that it is largely accepted and ignored, being challenged only periodically by religious freedom organizations.

Readers already know that if given the option, I’d consign the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast to the dustbin of history. But at the very least, shouldn’t references to the mayor — this one or any other — be removed?

So long as public money isn’t being used to fund the event, erasing the connotation of political patronage would go a log way toward neutralizing the objectionable nature of the gathering as currently constituted.

I know; we’ve always done it this way — except we haven’t, and this doesn’t mean cobwebbed rituals can’t be modified to suit modernity.