While re-reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (2007, HarperOne) by Harvard professor and minister Peter Gomes, I was particularly struck by his recounting of a White House Prayer Breakfast to which he was invited:
Some years ago I attended a White House Prayer Breakfast. I didn’t particularly want to go, but a former student of mine, well placed in the Clinton White House, prevailed upon me to attend, and so I did — and immediately knew I had made the wrong decision when I found myself in a long line of clergy in the street opposite the Treasury, waiting to have our credentials validated for admission to the White House. What a sight we must have been to early morning Washington commuters! Every conceivable form of clerical dress from nearly all the religions of the world was represented, and all the people so dressed were eager for a moment of favor in the East Room of the White House. Once we were inside, it was worse — a sort of early morning clerical cocktail party comprised of clergy hoping to be seen with anyone more important than the person with whom they happened to be speaking. There was little prayer at this Prayer Breakfast, but a great deal of networking and schmoozing, and whatever Caesar had to offer, they clergy were glad to take it. A convention of almost any other group would have had more grace than this assemblage of the clergy, with its unsubtle ambition to see and be seen. No one in the assemblage seemed to embrace a nonconformist thought: the world appeared very much in charge. Both John the Baptist and David Koresh would have been out of place, and I, no prophetic soul, wished I were anywhere but there.
Prayer Breakfasts are a big deal in Washington, I am told, and foreign visitors who are brought to them are fascinated by both their absence of piety and their display of power. Most of those who bow their heads before tucking into the eggs and bacon are not seeking transformation, but rather appear to be celebrating the confirmation of the status quo, or worse, longing to recreate the good old days when a Christian consensus determined the right and wrong ways of doing things.
Conservative and liberal alike, progressive and traditional — all, it seems to me, are very adapt at confusing Christ and Caesar. Theological stance aside, both are driven by a desire, acknowledged or not, for political power rather than relying on the transformative power of the gospel, which is, indeed, scandalous. More on this scandal later.