Loaves and Fishes

Dining with the pious at the National Prayer Breakfast

A table with food on plates
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Jesus didn’t care for show-offs. “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father,” he told his followers (Matthew 6:6). Some, however, interpret that command a little loosely. This past spring, several hundred people, including fifty-five Members of Parliament and senators, gathered at the Westin Ottawa Hotel to hunch their shoulders, clasp their hands, and address the Lord. Also, they ate a nice frittata.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual gathering at which politics and religion align so masterfully that no one can tell the difference. For half a century, it has drawn church leaders, politicians, and business executives from across the country, as well as foreign dignitaries, lowly Hill staffers, and lobbyists with immaculate intentions. It is styled after the flashier and pricier American original, which President Barack Obama attends, as has every US commander-in-chief since Dwight Eisenhower, and for which the invitation-only tickets cost more than $500. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper eschews ours, and tickets can be purchased online for $60.

The breakfast started bright and early since, as one MP put it, so many of the attendees were “needed to run the country.” At the entrance stood a man in an orange jumpsuit plastered with slogans about workers’ compensation. Clearly not an official representative of the Canadian Fellowship Foundation, which hosts the breakfast, Richard Hudon had been ejected from a Q&A event across the street, and was distributing flyers as he waited good-naturedly for the police to take him away. While most of those at the Westin wanted to talk with God, Hudon had just wanted to ask Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne a question.

Upon entering the hotel, some attendees paused to bow their heads together in small, whispering knots. Two members of the Knesset also hung about in the same drooping posture, though they were just checking their phones. Accompanying them was Eli Nacht, founder and CEO of the Israel Empowerment Lobby, who travels the world attending prayer breakfasts. (“Evangelicals are mostly pro-Israel,” he explained helpfully.) Later, introducing the Israelis in his opening remarks, MP James Lunney told the story of how Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, cheerfully implying that Christ was the real sacrifice God had intended. When asked how he felt about Judaism being recast as Christianity’s pre-game show, Nacht deadpanned, “Jesus was a Jew.”

Religion and politics haven’t always fit together so snugly as they do at the National Prayer Breakfast; early Christians’ refusal to bow before Nero had them serving as street lamps and dog food long before anyone opined about the separation of church and state. (Jesus never ran for office, but neither did he live in a democracy.) “Wherever you have Christians in society who are recognizing a higher law than the state, it’s going to cause conflict,” admitted an attendee named Rob Parker, who organizes people to pray for elected officials.

The breakfast’s American precedent was founded in 1953 by a Norwegian pastor named Abraham Vereide, who also created a shadowy international network of Christian power-players known as the Fellowship; the breakfast became its marquee event. (Over the last few years, the Fellowship has drawn scrutiny for its alleged association with Uganda’s so-called Kill the Gays bill, and for its ties to libidinous politicians such as former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.) Vereide made it his life’s work to minister to the rich and mighty—“up-and-outers,” as he called them. Indeed, though some at the Westin seemed visibly attuned to the presence of a powerful deity, others were more plugged into the presence of powerful people: Elizabeth May, Green Party leader; Noël Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate; Justin Trudeau, Liberal Party leader and marble bro.

All this gawking made for slow progress to the dining room, so ushers cajoled the participants to go forth and sit down. At one table, the Croatian ambassador found his seat, along with a Sun News Network reporter, an easygoing Hill staffer, and the director of an Ottawa-based organization that provides networking services for Christian politicians and business people. When a kilted bagpiper led the members of the head table—including Trudeau—to their platform, the 630 guests put down their muffins and stood at attention.

Finally, out came the eggs, Mediterranean vegetables, and turkey sausages, and the speeches began. Although the breakfast maintained a sense of jubilance, the attendees felt pessimistic about society’s moral decay. Keynote speaker Rod Wilson, president of the evangelical Regent College in Vancouver, outlined our long decline in his speech “Three Phrases that Could Change the World”—namely, I’m sorry, Thank you, and Tell me more. Not just a lesson in manners, the phrases were proffered as antidotes to specific societal ills: we live in a Culture of Victimhood, a Culture of Entitlement, and a Culture of Autonomy. “You deserve success,” Wilson complained, reciting this deceitful messaging. “You deserve material well-being; you deserve a good education; you deserve a good job.”

Jesus, for his part, thought everyone deserved a good meal now and then. In one of the Gospel parables, he spoke of a king who invited the masses to a wedding banquet, evoking the messy human splendour of an outdoor festival or a fall fair. The National Prayer Breakfast offered a reasonable feast but little splendour, just dark suits in degrees from matte to gloss—bowing heads, shaking hands, and returning to work. Outside, away from the tables, orange-clad Hudon was long gone. In his place, just up the street, the slogan-wearers had multiplied into thousands of anti-abortion protesters, gathered in front of the Parliament Buildings for a march. The sun shone down on all of them as they reached into their backpacks for lunch.

This appeared in the September 2014 issue.

Mark Mann
Mark Mann is a journalist whose work has appeared in Toronto Life, Dance Current, Report on Business, and Motherboard.
Jeannie Phan
Jeannie Phan (jeanniephan.com) draws for Quill & Quire and the New York Times.