The National Prayer Breakfast was held yesterday, as it always is, at the Washington Hilton, the only hotel with a ballroom large enough to contain such a large crowd. The attendees pay $175 and don’t even get a made-to-order omelet. It is a bizarre event.
The Prayer Breakfast is organized by the Fellowship, a shadowy and somewhat sinister organization that provides room and board for conservative members of Congress, as well as support for crazy evangelical pastors abroad, such as those leading the effort to make homosexuality punishable by death in Uganda. The Fellowship’s members have been involved in a slew of scandals, both personal and political, raising some questions about the group’s effectiveness at inculcating moral virtues among its members. But, when they throw this breakfast, everyone attends and no one questions why they don’t have the prayer in a church. I will vote for any candidate who vows to have a National Prayer Morning, at which everyone goes to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for morning Mass, and they can get breakfast on their own, and far more cheaply, at Kramer’s up the street when Mass is finished.
I watched part of the event on C-Span (link below), including most of the keynote address by Eric Metaxas, the acclaimed biographer of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas was funny, perhaps a bit too funny for the temper of the event, but far be it from me to criticize any religious personage who interjects humor into their talk and avoids the kind of stern moralizing to which we are accustomed.
The central theme of Metaxas’ speech, however, was no laughing matter. He continually contrasted “real faith” in the living God, a personal God, a personal encounter with Jesus, with what he called “fake religiosity.” He warned against those who go to church but do not evidence the grace of God in their lives. Metaxas reminded the audience that it was Satan who threw scripture texts at Jesus in the desert, calling down condemnation on those who use scripture to condemn others. He called on his listeners to love their enemies and made a profound and deftly un-political call for all to recognize the humanity of the unborn and the sincerity of those who fail to recognize that humanity. He said that all of us are called, as Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer were, to let our faith so change our lives that we, in turn, change the world. All this is fine, up to a point.
That point is this: Few among us have the courage, or the gifts, of a Wilberforce or a Bonhoeffer. Few among us are so thoroughly converted as to ever avoid hypocrisy in our lives, failing to live up to the Gospels’ call to perfection and love of enemies, but nonetheless believing in the Gospel and its promise of salvation. Metaxas is undoubtedly right that true religion is not a moral code, but religion entails a way of life and, for most of us, moral codes help navigate our way through often confusing and conflicting choices. Metaxas sometimes condemned religiosity but his critique often seemed to lump religion in with religiosity, and faith in Christ not only liberates, it binds, the root of the word religion. I suppose in front of such an audience, it is a good thing to call for total conversion and absolute faith, to denounce false prophets and judgmentalism among the faithful, but still, Metaxas’ view of religion struck me as distinctly Protestant, a set of “either/or” moments of decision, completely unalert to the beauty, the graced beauty, of James’ Joyce’s famous observation about Catholicism: “Here comes everybody.”
Metaxas said that “this is a Bonhoeffer moment,” and then added, “It is only the grace of God that can bring left and right together and do the right thing.” But, is this really a “Bonhoeffer moment?” The issues that divide our political class are not the issues that divided Germany in the 1930s. And in a liberal, multi-ethnic, socio-economically diverse democracy like ours, there is something decidedly illiberal about the suggestion that there is only one “right thing” to do. Even President Obama, whose speech was way too overtly political for such an event, allowed that, “Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another. Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us.” I wish President Obama had uttered that qualification before he began his litany about the ways his policies reflect his values, but at least he said it. In Metaxas’ view, apparently, everything is crystal clear, the choices are always arch, every moment is a Bonhoeffer moment.
In short, Metaxas’ speech was simultaneously somewhat wonderful and very off-putting. I am very curious to know what readers thought of it. It left me thinking I am glad to be a Catholic, that when I go to Mass today (and get my throat blessed!), my fellow congregants will be just as mired in sin and doubt as I am and that the salvation I seek will not be acquired in this life only, which casts all our human struggles in a different and less apocalyptic light. Yes, some of life’s choices are as clear as those that faced Bonheoffer and Wilberforce, but I am glad to belong to a church that has room for the uncourageous, for the weak of faith, for those whose moral compass is broken, and, yes, even for the hypocrites. “Here comes everybody” suggests a Church that understands the Kingdom of God has room for everybody, not just for the Bonhoeffers and the Wilberforces. “Plenty good room in my Father’s Kingdom,” as the negro spiritual has it. Room for everybody because, with all our human baggage, here comes everybody.
Here is a link to the C-Span video of the event.