By Michelle Boorstein
True, thousands of people trek each year to the Hilton Washington to attend the National Prayer Breakfast and hear the president speak, as he did this morning. But that’s not the real story.
The real story takes place in the hotel’s hallways, which were jammed all morning with one of the city’s biggest schmooze sessions for those in the faith-based world. And I mean WORLD.
Korean missionaries. Diplomats from North Africa. Agents for religious publishers. Lobbyists. Think tank types. White House operatives. Pastors. Wanna-be pastors. The coffee shop looks more like a cocktail party, with everyone table-hopping, talking politics, foreign policy, food. While the event is officially non-partisan, it tends to be heavier on social conservatives, and a lot of people don’t even go to the breakfast, but come even from out of town to parties and meetings scheduled for today or tomorrow to coincide with the breakfast.
One of those types is Richard Cizik, the longtime Washington guy for the National Association of Evangelicals, who has been coming to the Hilton for about 30 years, but never attending the actual breakfast (though he said he did make an exception the year Bono spoke). Cizik famously was pushed out of his prominent spot in late 2008 after saying he supported civil unions. It was the final straw, as Cizik had been agitating for some time for the group to focus less on fighting gay marriage and legal abortion and more on other issues including global warming and interfaith relations.
Person after person made the pilgrimage to the table of Cizik, who is now free to speak his mind, which results in a lot of comments like this one: “I think evangelicals have been led for 25 years by false political prophets, who, among other things, have led us into conflict with the Muslim world.”
Cizik has been working for years on evangelical-Muslim relations, and is currently organizing what is being touted as the first official Earth Day event in a Muslim country – on April 24, in Morocco. This represents trends among younger evangelicals being interested in not only exploring relations with Muslims but also in environmentalism. But there’s an even bigger picture, which is a movement of faith leaders who are trying to rewrite the way religion is handled in American foreign policy. That means we’ll probably see more and more debate in the coming years about everything from whether overseas proselytizing is a religious freedom issue to exactly how much the State Department should be focusing on promoting religious tolerance.
“We’re still struggling today to understand this stuff — look at Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Cizik, a vivacious chatterbox who just started a new evangelical advocacy group that plans to speak on things like nuclear disarmament, justice reform and interfaith dialogue. “We don’t get how foreign policy should respond to the fact that religion can solve conflicts, not just aggravate them. Why do we still not get it? For a nation so religious, it doesn’t make sense.”