Planning Next Year’s Prayer Breakfast
by Jack Cashill
A certain class of Kansas Citians thinks that all thinking people think as it thinks. As Bill Dunn, chairman emeritus of the J.E. Dunn Construction Co., spectacularly proved at the now notorious Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, that is not exactly so.
According to The Star, Dunn’s “conservative political emphasis and denunciation of secular society” outraged at least some members of the audience, Mayor Kay Barnes among them. To express her “personal dismay” with Dunn’s speech, the Mayor, in fact, announced that she would not attend next year’s event.
This threw the not-for-profit Prayer Breakfast Committee into something of a pickle. Having the Mayor boycott the Mayor’s Breakfast is like having the bride boycott a wedding. In either case, it’s just not the same without her. The breakfast organizer, in fact, lamented that the breakfast has been “destroyed” by what she calls a “maelstrom of controversy.”
“Destroyed” may be a little strong, but “wounded” the breakfast surely is. As a member of the mainstream-indeed, I voted with the majority in just about every election last year—I feel a new responsibility to heal these wounds. I even half sympathize with The Star’ inimitable Lewis Diuguid who publicly yearns for the days when a speech at the Mayor’s Breakfast “doesn’t reverberate in this community.” To prevent future reverberations, or at least to assure balance in the reverberating, allow me to propose some simple guidelines.
Guideline 1: Make sure the ground rules are known and disseminated in advance.
Given the breakfast’s mission statement, one can understand how an octogenarian (yes, that’s right, kids, someone who eats octopuses) like Mr. Dunn interpreted his mandate as he did. As the mission statement reads, the speaker is expected “to emphasize ethics, morality and spirituality in business, labor, the professions and government.” Whether the audience appreciated it or not, Bill Dunn seems to have taken the mission statement at its word.
Dunn addressed what he saw as the nation’s “sharp downward trend in ethics, morality and spirituality” and cited some of its seemingly obvious symptoms, among them pornography, the sexual abuse of children, illegitimacy, divorce, a swelling prison population, the breakdown in marriage, partial birth abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. Any of us would be hard pressed to speak on “morality and spirituality” without having a strong opinion of some sort. Perhaps those two words should be extracted from the mission statement.
Guideline 2: Make sure that all participants play by the same ground rules.
A few years back, when the good Reverend Robert Meneilly used his prestigious Johnson County pulpit to denounce the social conservatives of Johnson County as a “far greater threat than the old threat of communism,” The Johnson County Sun reprinted the sermon in full, and The Kansas City Star lauded the honorable Reverend as a “drum major for justice.”
Then, just about every do-gooder organization that had an award to give gave this proud manufacturer of maelstroms theirs, culminating with the prestigious Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor award. To keep the ideological fires lit, Meneilly helped found a group called—with a wink and a nod—the “Mainstream Coalition.” Kay Barnes has sat on its board.
Clearly, Mr. Dunn marches to the beat of his own drum. Given his advanced years, one can forgive him for thinking the Mayor keen on drum majors in general and not just those who play a particular tune.
Guideline 3: Require that all participants at such events reveal their ideological bent.
For some time, I was the only journalist on KCPT’s Kansas City Week In Review to be introduced with a political label attached. This was true even though my politics hewed closer to the norm than did those of other panelists like, say, the aforementioned Lewis Diuguid or The Pitch editor. When I suggested that all the participants have the privilege of being labeled, the producers decided that it might be just as fair if no one were.
In a similar vein, in all the reporting on the Mayor’s Breakfast, only Dunn is labeled—in his case with the Scarlet C for “conservative.” He likely doesn’t mind. For years, he has been an outspoken advocate of pro-family and pro-life causes. Most of the attendees had to have known this. Still, 1200 people attended, the most ever for a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
A good deal less transparent is the group that pocketed the receipts, the NCCJ. Once known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews, the group quietly changed its name some years ago to The National Conference for Community and Justice.
The Star buys the NCCJ line that it “generally does not take stands on political issues.” The NCCJ web site, however, proudly declares that political advocacy is a major part of the NCCJ mission. That advocacy, although not hard left, is relentlessly liberal. Even The Star admits that the group, like the Mayor, does support “same-sex marriage,” an enthusiasm few at the Prayer Breakfast shared.
So why does The Star worry that Barnes and the NCCJ people were offended by Dunn’s position? Isn’t it just as likely that Dunn and much of the audience would be offended by theirs? Besides, it’s not as if Dunn walked away with the day’s revenues.
More coy still is the one group that Dunn did indeed hammer, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. “The ACLU’s mission,” the group argued in response, “is to conserve America’s original civic values,” particularly the First Amendment.
In theory, maybe, but in reality, the ACLU promotes those “civic values” that excite its decidedly left of center donor base. Thus, in the ACLU’s eyes, the right of a homosexual to be a Boy Scout leader, which I can’t find in my copy of the Constitution, trumps the truly “original” rights of the Boy Scouts to freedom of assembly. This is one position that clearly provoked Mr. Dunn, and he said as much. In its response, the ACLU obfuscated as it almost always does. With the possible exception of Fox News, no organization in America conceals its political leanings less convincingly than the ACLU.
Next Year’s Breakfast
After the event, Mayor Kay Barnes asked the Breakfast’s beleaguered executive committee to change its rules so as to allow elected officials to speak. She volunteered herself as Speaker One in the revised format. The Committee refused.
Even if the Committee reverses its decision, the question remains whether the Mayor would whip up a maelstrom of her own or would she ease Mr. Diuguid’s anxiety and return the speech to its pre-reverberating days.
To the ACLU, it may not matter. Mr. Dunn has awakened this slumbering giant to an offense right under its nose, the “Mayor” saying “Prayers” in any which way. Indeed, in its sharply worded response, the ACLU subtly put the Committee on notice that it supports free speech only if “supported by the strict separation of church and state,” and “strict” the “separation” at this breakfast definitely ain’t.
Given the ACLU’s vigilance, “Prayer” may have to be removed from the title of the breakfast. Given the Mayor’s likely boycott, “Mayor” better go as well. The “spirituality and morality” part of the mission statement is way too provocative. And who wants to give money to the NCCJ anyhow?
How about a beer after work that day? No one really likes breakfast in any case, and at a bar, a friendly one, you can still say any dang thing you like.
Jack Cashill is Ingram’s Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 26 years. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram’s Magazine.