Upholding moral values is the rallying cry of Russia’s National Prayer Breakfast movement. That was again the case at this year’s gathering of nearly 300 leaders in Moscow March 12. This was the 13th breakfast in the course of its 18-year history.

The movement, which propagates a kind of civil religion, consists of gatherings of clergy and laity who express their concern for the common good, often to government officials.

First-time guest Yaroslav Nilov addressed the morality theme immediately, calling Russia “a society of high prices and low values” and adding that his country features “sturdy homes housing fragile families.”

Nilov, the vice chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party’s (LDPR) parliamentary group in the Duma, also offered a vital definition: “True spirituality is not measured by the number of candles lit and the amount of money donated. Spirituality is located within the person and transforms one’s life.”

Russia’s Prayer Breakfast also offers moderate distancing from the West. That function was taken over on this occasion by Eduard Grabovenko, head bishop of the traditional Pentecostal Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith. He thanked his country’s rulers for not taking the country “down the road of liberal principles, but instead retaining straightforward, conservative values.

“Perhaps we are more conservative than the Americans — their liberal values are less popular here,” Grabovenko said. “But much still unifies us in the face of a multitude of common problems.”

The lowest common denominator

Appealing for a moral movement on the widest possible front demands that the Prayer Breakfast movement restrict itself to the lowest common denominators. The movement is therefore no longer strictly Christian in orientation and propagates a kind of civil religion. Jews have been on the Moscow speakers list for years; Muslims, for the past three years. Indeed, this year’s list even included a speaker from outside the faith community: the non-believer Andrey Tumanov. This assumes that atheists too can play a role in Russia’s moral revival.

Yet the religious borders are not limitless. The movement in its present form would not place a Mormon on the speakers list. But they would nevertheless be welcome to attend as guests. The Breakfast is essentially intended for Protestants and the traditional historical faiths of Russia — including a scattering of atheists.

The first try at a new, more political format in 2011 meant that speeches by clergy were nearly non-existent. But this year’s program featured a mix of lay and clerical speakers. Outside of Moscow, the movement remains in the initial stages and consists of regional gatherings of Protestant laity and clergy.

“The Moscow Breakfast is a great platform for us to meet government officials,” said Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko, coordinator of the Russian Prayer Breakfast movement outside of Moscow. “The movement makes no concrete political demands or requests — it’s a good way for evangelicals to show their patriotism and concern for the common good.”

Despite its growth in Russia, real resistance to the movement remains. Said Orthodox Alexander Torshin, a perennial visitor of the Breakfast in both Moscow and Washington: “I have been trying for six years to install a prayer gathering within our Federation Council (Upper House). But certain forces are resisting it actively. They are not against prayer, they say, but one should go to a church if one wants to pray. That would avoid any competition (with other worldviews).”

The breakfast movement is 80-90 percent Protestant. A prayer breakfast — a gathering of laity in a secular setting — is ill-suited to the Orthodox format. The Moscow Patriarchy expects that only a clergyman pray in public and that prayer with non-Orthodox Christians not be practiced. Yet representatives of the Patriarchy did officially visit and speak at the Moscow gathering until three years ago.

William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.