Bigotry and the National Prayer Breakfast

by Dr. David Aikman
March 2, 2011

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Shed a tear for the poor old Washington Post. In its heyday, during the riveting Woodward-Bernstein reporting of the Watergate affair, for example, or in its coverage of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, it made you proud of the profession of journalism and proud to be an American.  "Truth will out" appeared to be the motto of most of its reporters and columnists most of the time. Of course, the Washington Post was always heavily left-leaning politically. But while it might have been biased, it seldom was bigoted.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that newspapers in general in the United States -- and certainly the Post -- have taken a beating from the contraction of the economy, competition from the Internet and cable TV as sources of news, and the basic declining attention span of the average reader. What is sad, however, is that the Post now gives space to columnists who indulge in bigoted and old-fashioned Christian-bashing in an effort to drum up readership.
The latest example was a sneering piece by Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, directing his caustic, condescending sentiments toward the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. Held this year on February 4, the National Prayer Breakfast -- also sometimes called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast -- was the 38th in an annual Washington, D.C. celebration started by President Eisenhower in 1953. By the standards of American history, any assiduously cheerful bipartisan event that lasts nearly four decades in the nation's capital ought to be cause for some joy. After all, aren't people from both political parties regularly complaining about how partisan Washington has become?
It's worth noting that the National Prayer Breakfast has produced some major international benefits as well. Since the beginning, a plethora of distinguished foreigners has been invited: foreign presidents, princes, prime ministers, parliamentarians, ambassadors, and a host of merely ordinary diplomats. What kind of event did they attend? An event in which the acrimony of partisan politics is studiously avoided, an event at which people of all political persuasions are honored for their spiritual virtue. That is why religious personalities of entirely non-Christian origin have been happy to accept invitations to attend. They have seen at the gathering something quintessentially American, yet also eminently decent and inclusive -- no color or religious or denominational bar here -- that honors moral and ethical virtues so worthy of imitation that national prayer breakfasts, and mini-versions of the same, have sprung up all over the world.
Speakers at the National Prayer Breakfast have ranged from Roman Catholic nun Mother Teresa to Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, and the associated smaller-scale seminars on the two or three days before and after the prayer breakfast have revealed astonishing achievements of politics and diplomacy practiced by people from a wide variety of national backgrounds. This year, for example, an Ethiopian politician recounted how his Christian convictions had prevented him from lashing out in hatred against the former colleagues who had him arrested and sent to prison when he parted company with their policies.
Foreign media accounts sometimes sneer cynically at how American all this is, but very few have taken direct aim at the religious sentiment -- yes, predominantly evangelical Christian -- or the sincerity and wide range of backgrounds of those present. The 2011 prayer breakfast that Berlinerblau mocked was, by general acclaim, one of the best ever, mainly because of a very funny, self-deprecating, yet serious speech by Hollywood screenwriter Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart) and a refreshingly honest and vulnerable story by President Barack Obama of his own faith journey.
This, of course, sailed far above the academic head of Berlinerblau, who indulged in the ugly put-down that it was "a raging Christ-fest." I wonder: does Dr. Berlinerblau, a professor who is director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, encourage his students who are future American diplomats to refer to gatherings of Jewish people as "raging Moses-fests" or to Muslims gathered for religious purposes as "raging Mohammed-fests"? If so, say some prayers for the safety of his students.
Berlinerblau is not coy about his own non-beliefs. He describes himself as "a new secularist" -- whatever that means -- and harrumphs like a pensioned-off hippie that "the sixties are over, man!" after quoting Obama as saying, "I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior."  Berlinerblau noted with a heavy sneer, "The overall speech (was) quite effective for the non-advanced degree crowd." That sounded like the 1993 Washington Post put-down of Christians as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." Can't the Post come up with a new cliché? At my prayer breakfast table, the "non-advanced degree crowd" included an ambassador to Washington of a NATO ally, a Palestinian banker, a German Social-Democrat politician, an American college professor, and Berlinerblau's Washington Post colleague Sally Quinn. At least one of those at the table had a Ph.D., and it wasn't Quinn.
Berlinerblau's column was not just sheer bigotry; it was silly, uninformed bigotry at that. It is fine to be a "new secularist" if you want to be one, but why slash away in the national media at those who are not? Can't the Washington Post do better than that? If not, America's national news dialogue is in serious trouble.
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A version of this column appeared originally at on 22 February 2011.

For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. Read full bio.

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