The God Factor: National Prayer Breakfast again overshadowed by controversy

February 2, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Last year, for the first time since the National Prayer Breakfast was founded in 1953, angry protesters demonstrated outside the event that has been attended by every sitting president, including President Obama.

When the prayer breakfast convenes again on Thursday (Feb. 3), they'll be back, this time charging that some of the evangelical supporters of the prayer breakfast have blood on their hands.

Last year’s protests were fueled by a proposed law in Uganda calling for life sentences for people convicted of homosexual activity; up to three years in jail for failure to report homosexual activity to police; and the death penalty for convicted homosexuals who are HIV-positive.

The bill — still viable but on less prominent — was drafted by David Bahati, a Ugandan lawmaker who’s also an outspoken participant in The Fellowship (or The Family), the shadowy evangelical network that sponsors the venerable breakfast.

Unable to ignore the fracas, Obama denounced the bill as “odious” during his speech at last year’s breakfast.

This year, lawmakers, clergy, power brokers and diplomats will break bread under a disturbing pall cast by the Jan. 26 murder of David Kato, a well-known gay activist who was bludgeoned to death in his home in Kampala. Kato had been targeted by a Ugandan newspaper in a front-page article identifying him and dozens of other Ugandans as “known homos” under the headline, “Hang Them.”

While a number of high-profile prayer breakfast and Fellowship participants have repudiated the proposed Ugandan law, many human rights activists and other critics nonetheless remain convinced of the Fellowship's role in catalyzing support for the law.

The Fellowship, for its part, keeps a low profile. Its participants and leadership generally shun the media and the group maintains no official website, membership roster or official spokesperson.

Writing for Christianity Today in May 2009, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, and former congressman and U.S. ambassador Tony Hall rejected accusations that The Fellowship is some sort of “secretive organization — such as a Christian mafia — with a plan to do anything other than help people follow Jesus.”

The Fellowship serves as an “administrative umbrella” for more than 200 ministries in the United States and abroad, including the well-known congressional prayer groups, where lawmakers meet privately (and confidentially) for prayer and encouragement.

“The essence of their teaching is to encourage love for God and others, always in keeping with biblical principles,” Wolf and Hall wrote.

The protesters returning to their posts outside the Washington Hilton argue that for Obama and other guests to attend the breakfast is tantamount to a (divine and tacit) imprimatur to Uganda’s persecution of homosexuals.

The pressure seems to be having an effect.

“My sources within the group last year said they felt the bad press surrounding the Uganda affair ... and the prospect of protests at the breakfast — presented the greatest threat to the breakfast’s success in its history,” journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote in an e-mail.

Sharlet would know — he’s the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, both based on years of dogged investigative work.

Leaders of “The Family” distanced themselves from Bahati, Sharlet said, and Bahati told Sharlet that the murdered activist “should be remembered as a troubled soul who worked long and hard to destroy the future of marriage and the future of our children.”

The “invasion” of foreign “homosexual influence,” Bahati said, “must be stopped.”

Evangelicals’ Uganda problem, however, doesn’t stop there.

Some critics lay the blame for Kato’s murder squarely at the feet of three U.S. evangelicals who spoke at a three-day Kampala seminar in March 2009 that aimed to “expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda.”

More than a few critics claim the 2009 seminar was the catalyst for the legislation; Bahati attended the seminar, and his bill quickly gained momentum afterwards.

“David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009,” Val Kalende, a gay rights activist in Uganda, told The New York Times the day after Kato’s murder. “The Ugandan government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood.”

The three U.S. evangelical leaders who spoke at the Kampala anti-homosexuality seminar were Scott Lively, head of the conservative Christian group Defend the Family International and co-author of The Pink Swastika about the alleged gay cabal that orchestrated the Holocaust; Caleb Lee Brundridge, a self-proclaimed “former” gay man and “sexual reorientation coach” at the International Healing Foundation; and Don Schmierer, author of An Ounce of Prevention: Preventing the Homosexual Condition in Today’s Youth.

Schmierer told The Times that Kato’s murder was “horrible,” but said he was promoting parenting skills, not anti-gay violence. He’s since received hundreds of “hate” e-mails for being tied to Uganda’s virulent anti-homosexuality efforts.

“Naturally, I don’t want anyone killed but I don’t feel I had anything to do with that,” Schmierer told The Times. “I spoke to help people ... and I’m getting bludgeoned from one end to the other.”

In a post on the Defend the Family website, Lively cautioned against presuming Kato’s death was a hate crime, and suggested that he may have been killed “by a ‘gay’ lover.”

“It is not wrong to speak against homosexuality any more than it is wrong to speak against other behavioral disorders such as alcoholism and bulimia,” Lively wrote. “To take such criticism as permission to hurt another person is simply crazy and you can't silence all legitimate criticism of a social problem because some crazy person might misconstrue it.”

Schmierer began his 2009 seminar address by cautioning his audience about how they speak to their children lest they turn out gay. In the two years since, however, his words have taken on a dramatically different meaning.

“Death and life,” Schmierer told his Kampala audience, “are in the power of the tongue.”

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