Toward the end of my Air Force career (1998), I had begun seeing the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) as a type of Trojan Horse. In the belly of this beast came denominational expressions whether in the form of prayer or in song. (It was often from the hymns that were sung that partisan, religious and theological language came pouring forth).
There were basically two different approaches to handling sectarian language that always (ALWAYS!) crept into the program, for how could any organizer vet the prayers of volunteer laypersons? The first was to tell all participants that they could pray in their own style using their own rubric. This ensured that those who could not seem to understand and utilize generic terms for God would not be subject to doing so. There also were those who maintained that they, indeed, could not pray but in the specific name of Jesus Christ. This, then, left the organizer of the NPB either to exclude these people or to bow to sectarian language.
The second approach involved a “civil religious” modality where everyone agreed (or were led to agree) to use generic language and not to utilize into their particularistic, sectarian verbiage. This second approach never worked. There was always a prayer or two or a hymn or two that wound up utilizing specific theological or sectarian language. Again, it was logistically not practical to vet the entirety of the program. Practices were never held at any of these program during the near quarter century of my chaplaincy.
The fact that NPB observances were held on bases made it certain that these commander-backed programs involved a certain spoken or unspoken level of coercion. Those who professed no religion or who were avowed atheists were compromised by the very underlying premise of the occasion which involved praying for our nation. That base level funds and chapel money including (government provided) Appropriated Funds might be used entangled the military in possible Establishment Clause violations.
The whole concept of a NPB foisted religion on service members. That they might or might not choose to attend is not the issue. The offering of religious services ought not ever to be subject to coercion of any sort. That these occasions broke down into sectarian language each and every time (sic!) belied any notion of inclusivity. As such, they became advertisements for religious doctrine and observance. I would also add that for certain religious adherents like Jews, the whole approach as a “service” was foreign, forcing Jewish chaplains like myself and my fellow religious co-travelers to compromise what constitutes a truly Jewish service and adopt a wholly different approach to prayer and observance. We did this in order to “fit in,” but the structure and substance of any NPB was, at best, a sham exercise in light of Jewish liturgical tradition. That these observances were based upon and always devolved to forms of Christian (specifically, Protestant) worship made them all the more difficult to attend and participate in.
Were it my decision, I would opt to exclude the NPB (or any other form thereof) from military bases. If military members and their families wish to participate in religious services and observances, then let them do so off base or at specific, denominational and “general” services, like the “General Protestant” service that is inclusive of most Protestants, sponsored and led by the military chaplaincy at their bases. Any other programs and services like the annual NPB ought be done away with because they ultimately and always wind up promulgating religion and clearly involve pressures to which no military member ought to be subjected.
Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, Chaplain, Colonel, (Ret), USAF