Freedom For or Freedom From Religion?

Bettina Krause March/April 2023

The annual National Prayer Breakfast, attended by every U.S. president since 1953, acts as a national Rorschach test. How we look at it depends on how we answer a simple question: What role, if any, should religion play in the civic life of our country?

Does the event harmlessly celebrate the diverse faith traditions of our nation? Is it just a nod to the role that faith and prayer have played in America’s history and continue to play for many of its citizens?

Or is the breakfast, as described by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a “quasi-governmental gathering, which pressures the president and Congress to put on a display of piety that sends a message that the United States is a Christian nation”?

To add to the confusion, this year President Biden addressed not one, but two, prayer breakfasts. For the first time since the breakfast tradition began 70 years ago, Congress broke away from the original organizing body, the controversial and secretive conservative Christian group called the Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family.” Under its direction, the breakfast had morphed into a bloated international networking event, attracting some 3,000 attendees, many of whom were political lobbyists. This year, in an effort to pare back the event, its congressional sponsors announced they were taking charge and limiting the guest list mainly to members of Congress and their partners.

Accordingly, this year Biden, flanked by Vice President Harris, addressed a much smaller group at the Capitol Visitor Center. Shortly afterward, however, Biden also appeared via livestream at a second breakfast, hosted once again by The Family, where he spoke to some 1,600 attendees from 90 countries who were enjoying a catered breakfast in the Washington Hilton ballroom.

Red Flags

Since 1906, nearly 50 years before the first prayer breakfast, each issue of Liberty magazine has included a Declaration of Principles that begins “The God-given gift of religious liberty is best exercised when church and state are separate.” Since the first issue rolled off the presses, at a time when America’s Protestant Christian majority was calling for a national Sundaykeeping law, Liberty has argued for “secular governance.” This reflects biblical ideas of separate realms of authority for “God” and “Caesar” (Matthew 22:21) as well as classical liberal philosophy, such as that of John Locke’s strict separation of “magistrate” and “church.”

American founders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison echoed these ideals. They were anxious for their new republic to avoid the wars of religion that had devastated Europe for centuries. So through the First Amendment’s establishment clause, they hoped to preserve both a government free from sectarian influence and a society in which religious diversity flourished. America would be a place where different religious sects could put forward their best arguments, neither hindered nor advanced by government disapproval or favoritism.

Seen through this lens, the National Prayer Breakfast raises a host of red flags. Although ostensibly “independent,” it has through the years developed an aura of official government endorsement. (And these optics aren’t helped by the fact that members of Congress will more tightly control planning for the breakfast going forward.) Moreover, recent investigative reporting on The Family suggest that its leaders have long had a disturbing preoccupation with gaining political influence.

Separation or Hostility?

Let’s put the National Prayer Breakfast, and American politics, aside for a moment. How do other Western liberal democracies deal with the role of religion in civic life?

Australia, Canada, France, Britain, and other countries of Western Europe share much of the cultural and legal DNA of the United States. Our laws and our political structures have all drawn from the same historical, religious, and philosophical gene pool. Like distant cousins, if we squint and hold the photo at a certain angle, we can see a family resemblance.

And yet the familial likeness fades quickly when it comes to one area of contemporary life. Unlike the U.S., most of these other Western countries can be described as “post-Christian” in terms of rates of religious participation and public sentiment toward religious belief.

When I visit these countries, I sometimes feel like Marty McFly, the unwitting time traveler in the movie franchise Back to the Future. Like Marty, who’s stunned to find himself in his own hometown 30 years into the future, I catch disconcerting glimpses of what could be the America of tomorrow. A place where the influence of religion has dramatically declined in the day-to-day life of its citizens. A place where public policy is, frankly, hostile toward laws protecting minority or unpopular religious practices: circumcision, halal and kosher slaughtering, construction of minority houses of worship, wearing religious garb or symbols in public settings, or even voicing a traditional biblical view of human sexuality and marriage.

In Australia, the country of my birth, reading the morning newspapers can be a bracing experience for a person of faith. The contemptuous tone the Sydney Morning Herald, one of the largest national dailies, often adopts toward all things Christian makes the New York Times look like a subsidiary of Fox News.

There’s a fine line between preserving and protecting “secular governance” in the best liberal tradition, and crossing over into a hard-edged, hostile kind of secular governance. This latter approach sees religious expression as essentially divisive and destructive to society. It sees religious freedom as limited mainly to protecting belief—merely that which happens between the ears. It’s far less interested in providing strong legal protection for religious actions or speech that, in a postreligious society, may seem quaintly irrational or even offensive.

The Double-edged Sword of Separation

So back to the National Prayer Breakfast. For my money, it needs to go. Its antecedents are steeped in the murky waters of Christian nationalist ambitions. Every year it showcases our willingness to let religious piety be exploited as a political prop. And if you choose to watch the C-SPAN broadcast, you’ll quickly see that the breakfast is not really a celebration of America’s religious diversity but remains a solidly Christian-centric event.

Yet in acknowledging all this, I worry that efforts to police appropriate church-state relations in America are not always benign toward religion. Increasingly, those who push for robust church-state separation have lost sight of the “why” of separation.

Separation exists so that religion and religious expression—even of unpopular beliefs—can flourish. Separation exists to advance freedom for religion, not freedom from religion.

Will this vital understanding of church-state separation survive as America’s demographics follow their current path toward a less-religious future? I pray that it does.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.