Prayer breakfasts are no big deal—right?

Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford recently wrote a spooky column invoking the spectre of William “Bible Bill” Aberhart to scare her readers into antipathy toward, of all things, the upcoming Provincial Prayer Breakfast, to be held in Edmonton later this month.

Ford is fair-minded and competent enough to note that the speaker at the breakfast is not all that frightening: “Pat Nixon, an ordained Baptist minister and founder of the Mustard Seed, the valuable and much-admired ministry for street people.”

Still, the premier himself is also scheduled to speak, and that fact, plus the sponsorship by two MLAs, has set Ford a-wondering whether Alberta now teeters on the brink of a conservative Christian revolution of the scale that brought to power radio preacher Aberhart and the Social Credit Party he founded in 1935. Indeed, her fears get the better of her as she pushes the Wayback Machine to “a retrograde society based on 19th-century morals, attitudes, sexism and racism.”

“This is happening right here, right now, right under our noses,” she breathlessly announces, although “in plain sight” would be another way to put it, since the prayer breakfast is a public event and anything featuring the premier as speaker is likely pretty apparent even to the attenuated newsrooms of what’s left of Alberta’s major media.

Poor Ms. Ford continues: “Do we really want a return to the so-called glory days of an almost all-white, all-Christian province (except for the owners of Chinese laundries and restaurants), ruled with one hand on the Bible and one voice on the radio every Sunday morning?” But the slippery slope downward from a prayer breakfast to a Christian theocracy has got to be both slick and steep in Alberta for anyone to take Ms. Ford’s agitation seriously. I’ve been to several such breakfasts in various parts of Canada, and the level of conspiracy between clergy and politicians has been…slight…and the resulting cooperation between Christian churches and governments has been…not obviously changed.

So let’s chalk up her worries to the typical paranoia of Baby Boomers that Mom and Dad’s religion will once again rise up to wag a finger in their faces and tell them what to do. No, Christianity isn’t that sort of social force anywhere in Canada today—not even in Miriam Toews’s southern Manitoban Mennonite towns—and we can all calm back down.

Still, once we’ve discounted her excessive anxiety, Catherine Ford yet poses an interesting question.

What precisely is the point of these prayer breakfasts? Are they anachronisms left over from a Christian Canada that hasn’t existed for a generation? Then they ought to be retired.

Are they instead exercises in strengthening relations between church and state, boosting the agenda of at least certain (prayer-breakfast-attending) Christians at the expense of others’? (The Edmonton breakfast’s Facebook page implausibly says that “you do not have to be a believer…to come to the event,” but who else would want to go?)

Yes, it’s easy to mock Ms. Ford’s alarm. But if I were in India watching BJP politicians enjoy public festivities with Hindu leaders, I’d worry about the increasing erosion of the secularism on which the modern Indian state was founded.

If I were in Myanmar watching Aung San Suu Kyi make nice with military leaders and Buddhist clergy, I’d worry about the welfare of religious minorities, of which the dreadful treatment of the Rohingya is but the largest example.

If I were in Russia watching Vladimir Putin cosy up to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, I’d worry about how my fellow Protestants will survive under this new Caesaropapism, let alone holders of non-Christian outlooks.

Catherine Ford’s conclusion that religion “is personal and intimate. It has no place in the public sphere” is deeply mistaken. We all behave in public according to what we believe about ultimate matters, and so we should. The problem of a particular religion being given special political favours isn’t rightly remedied by evacuating public life of all religion—as if we could.

But her worry that prayer breakfasts serve to divide, rather than to unite, and to divide particularly along the painful and volatile lines among people of different religions and philosophies is a worry I share. It’s a worry every Canadian who believes in the Confederation spirit of mutual accommodation of big religious differences should share.

And Canadian Christians in particular should be particularly sensitive to how easily, and understandably, many of our neighbours push the panic button when we appear, once again, to be lobbying for power.

So I’m not (yet) worried about prayer breakfasts. But I do wonder what they’re actually for.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).