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At National Prayer Breakfast, Obama to Address Shadowy Christian Group Tied to Uganda's 'Kill the Gays' Bill

The prayer breakfast is a display of power for an underground religious group that often shapes U.S. foreign policy in ways that sometimes conflict with our policy goals.

UPDATE: Since AlterNet published this story, the good-government group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called on President Obama and members of Congress to stay away from this week's National Prayer Breakfast. Find more about this development here.

The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual Washington exercise attended by politicians of all stripes who wish to demonstrate their piety, is one of those must-go events for the U.S. president, or so the conventional wisdom has it. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended.

But the prayer breakfast, however benign it may seem on the surface, is really a display of power for an underground religious group that often shapes U.S. foreign policy in ways not easy to see, and sometimes at odds with the policy goals of the government. This Thursday, President Barack Obama is expected to address the gathering, as he did last year. But if there was ever a year for the president to have a sudden scheduling conflict, it's this one.

The breakfast draws leaders from all sectors of society, including a hefty contingent from the military. It's a coveted invitation. The event is usually the only public sighting of its sponsor, the shadowy right-wing religious network known as the Family. Around the periphery of the event, the Family does what it does best: bringing together leaders from developing countries of special concern to U.S. business interests with members of Congress and people in government who hold the keys to the foreign aid kingdom.

"This is the bullying tactics of banality," said Jeff Sharlet, author of the definitive book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power , in an interview with AlterNet in December. "This is not about a banality of evil, but the evil of banality. The breakfast itself is a very bland event, but it's surrounded by this week-long lobbying festival which isn't visible."

Introductions are made and meetings arranged for foreign dignitaries through the auspices of the Family, led for the past 40 years by Washington insider Doug Coe and comprising powerful men from all over the world, including a number of prominent members of Congress. That group of powerful men includes two who are behind a controversial anti-gay law in Uganda, proposed by two politicians with strong ties to the Family. The law carries the death penalty for what it calls "aggravated homosexuality."

The Prayer Breakfast is closed to the media, except for those in the press corps who travel with the president. "It's a private event," explained Joe Mitchell of the National Prayer Breakfast Committee via a voice mail left in response to AlterNet's request for access. Invitations to the Prayer Breakfast go out on congressional letterhead, Sharlet said, even though the stated purpose of the gathering is distinctly Christian and not ecumenical -- a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. "So, too bad Muslims, too bad, Jews -- this event is not for you," Sharlet said.

So why does the president feel he must give his props to a group that often works against the national interest, and whose most prominent congressional members -- Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to name a few -- have acted as his nemeses? It's all about the group's perceived power in the very structure of the U.S. government. "You don't want to alienate them," one religious right leader explained to Sharlet.

Obama will seek to keep his own participation in the event low-key, Sharlet predicted. "He'll give a bland, kind of useless address."