Cardinal prays with Democrats, too

As the Republican show closed in Tampa, Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced a flock of Tea Party activists, religious conservatives and country-club loyalists and gently addressed the sanctity of life. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life," said the shepherd of New York, who also leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A week later, Dolan offered the final benediction for a Democratic National Convention in which 25 speakers praised or defended their party's unchallenged support for abortion rights. While covering the same litany of issues in both conventions, the cardinal tweaked this Charlotte prayer to make his point even more obvious.

"Help us to see that a society's greatness is found above all in the respect it shows for the weakest and neediest among us," said Dolan. "We beseech you, almighty God to shed your grace on this noble experiment in ordered liberty, which began with the confident assertion of inalienable rights bestowed upon us by you: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"Thus do we praise you for the gift of life. Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected. Strengthen our sick and our elders waiting to see your holy face at life’s end, that they may be accompanied by true compassion and cherished with the dignity due those who are infirm and fragile."

Democrats respectfully stood with heads bowed, even as TV crews searched for anyone who might visibly shun the cardinal. Dolan's late insertion into the program had been controversial after months of church-state conflict between the Obama White House and the U.S. Catholic bishops caused by Health and Human Services mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health insurance covering FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills," and sterilizations.

While critics on left and right were quick to parse the prayer, it was highly symbolic that Dolan ended up standing before the Democrats in the first place, said Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops.

"It's very important to take steps to try to keep a religious presence in the public square, to make sure the church remains a player in debates about the great issues of our day," he said. "There are major players who, quite frankly, want to chase us back into the sacristy, where we're supposed to mind our own business and not bother all the important people who are working out in the real world."

The Democratic Party's leaders could have declined Dolan's offer to pray, which would have left him "twisting slowly in the wind" since he had accepted an invitation to give a benediction for the GOP, said Shaw. That would have made it easier to portray Dolan as "a mere political partisan" – which was precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Also, it was important to know that the Charlotte drama unfolded in the wake of Dolan's decision -- infuriating many Catholic conservatives -- to invite President Barack Obama to the white-tie Al Smith Dinner, a nonpartisan event celebrating lighthearted civility that will take place just before the election.

"I apologize if I have given such scandal," wrote Dolan, at his "The Gospel in the Digital Age" weblog. "I suppose it's a case of prudential judgment: would I give more scandal by inviting the two candidates, or by not inviting them? ...

"In the end, I'm encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I'd be taking all my meals alone."

One thing is certain: court cases and political debates about religious liberty and health-care reform will continue for some time to come. The cardinal knows that the U.S. bishops will eventually need to talk to people on both sides of the negotiating table.

"Cardinal Dolan has pretty good political instincts," said Shaw. "In this case, he knows that it’s important to try to keep some channels of communication open. ... It helps to be able to pray with people and to break bread with them, too."

Cardinal praying in a GOP spotlight

Political conventions have always included prayers and, through the decades, legions of preachers, rabbis, bishops and others have stepped to the podium to deliver them -- whether the delegates were paying attention or not. Then Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faced the Democratic National Convention in 2000. First, he reminded the delegates they were in the presence of God and that true prayers must focus on "moral values, not partisan politics."

In his litany, Mahony said: "In You, O God, we trust -- that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row. ... Give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate healthcare, childcare and education."

After that, political leaders of all stripes learned to be more careful when choosing who gets to pray in an age in which America's most divisive debates -- about marriage, family, abortion and sex -- often involve religious beliefs and practices.

Tensions have been especially high this year, with a coalition of conservative Catholics, Jews, Protestants and others challenging -- in courts as well as pulpits -- Health and Human Services mandates that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills."

The central figures in the resulting religious-liberty showdown have been President Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Thus, no one was surprised when Dolan's Republican National Convention benediction included several references religious liberty.

"Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, we beg your continued blessings on this sanctuary of freedom, and on all of those who proudly call America home," said Dolan, as he began his 533-word prayer. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life."

This passage set the tone for anyone parsing the cardinal's words for political content, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn and has been active in a variety of multimedia Catholic ministries.

"What caught my attention was what Cardinal Dolan didn't say, as well as what he did say. He kept the whole thing broad-minded, without getting too specific," said Kandra. "Most of all, there was nothing overtly political in this prayer."

For example, the cardinal prayed for God's blessing "upon those yet to be born" and those "at the end of this life" -- but avoided direct references to abortion, euthanasia or related health-care issues.

In another passage, Dolan alluded to immigration -- a tense topic for some Republicans and the Catholic hierarchy. Without being specific, he prayed for God's blessings on "families that have come recently" to America and reminded his listeners they must "strive to include your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the production and prosperity of a people so richly blessed."

And what about the high-stakes battle between the White House and those who insist there is more to "freedom of religion" than mere "freedom of worship"? In the most pointed lines of the prayer, the cardinal mentioned this issue by name, then linked this debate to natural law and belief in moral absolutes.

"Almighty God, who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank you as well for the singular gift of liberty," said Dolan. "Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom. ...

"May we know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature's God, and not seek to replace it with idols of our own making. Give us the good sense not to cast aside the boundaries of righteous living you first inscribed in our hearts even before inscribing them on tablets of stone."

In the end, said Kandra, is the cardinal could probably "change a few words, a few names, in this prayer and then use it again at the Democratic National Convention. That was probably his goal."

Concerning the prayers of Tim Tebow

Moments after the New England Patriots smashed his Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow stood before a wall of reporters and said exactly what anyone who has been paying attention already knew he was going to say. The Patriots, he stressed, "came out and they played well and they executed well and you've got to give them a lot of credit."

Then Tebow interrupted himself to deal with a higher matter: "But before I talk about that, I just want, you know, to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and thank my teammates for the effort that they put forth, not just tonight but this whole season."

Please note one crucial detail in this thanksgiving statement.

In a recent Poll Position survey, 43.3 percent of the respondents said they believed divine intervention played some role in Tebow's roller-coaster season, including that stunning Broncos playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, 42.3 percent said God was not helping Tebow out.

This schism is one reason Tebow critics enjoyed asking some obvious questions after the Patriots loss: So what happened? Did God tune out all of Tebow's prayers?

People can laugh all they want, noted the leader of a Denver-area megachurch that has long had its share of Bronco players in the pews. The key is that Tebow -- as is the norm for athletes who are believers -- always offers prayers of thanksgiving after losses, as well as victories.

"If people have been listening to anything that Tim Tebow has been saying, then they know that he never prays to win. He has said that publicly many times," said the Rev. Brad Strait, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Englewood.

"The key is that many people who keep commenting on this situation don't know very much about why believers pray. It seems that they think the main reason, or even the only reason, that people pray is to ask God to give them things. ... It's that old Santa Claus equals Jesus thing. You mix all of that up with football and this is what you get."

In this case, what you get is controversy about a hunky missionary kid who continues to confound his critics on and off the playing field. Meanwhile, choirs of Tebow fans -- saith an early January ESPN poll -- have made him the America's most popular athlete.

His life began, of course, in a dangerous pregnancy and his mother's decision to reject doctors' advice to abort provided the hook for a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Tebow's drive to excel in high-school football -- while being home-schooled -- fueled headlines long before his two national championships and Heisman Trophy win as a Florida Gator. Then there was the 2009 press conference in which he cheerfully answered a question about his sex life, pledging to remain chaste until marriage. This put Tebow on the radar of every comic with a microphone.

This recent blast by liberal talk-radio star Mike Malloy hit all the crucial notes.

"Tim Tebow, of course, is a massive irritation," he said. "God, I hate crappy-ass displays of public religiosity, especially, especially, in a sporting event. This to me is vile, just vile, for these fundamentalist Christians to find divine intervention -- in a pass for a football game, in Denver, Colorado? Oh well, it's their religion, not mine."

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Tebow doesn't believe God is pulling strings for him, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, where the student body includes Tebow's brother, Peter.

The fact that Tebow gives thanks after a game doesn't imply that he prayed for victory before the kickoff, said Groothuis.

"He always says that he is giving thanks to 'my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' which says, to me, that he is thanking God for his salvation. Then again, he could be thanking God that he is a professional football player and that he has a national platform. He could be thanking God that he didn't get hurt during the game," he said.

"If you look at this logically, it doesn't make sense for him to thank God after a loss if he has been doing what people seem to think he has been doing -- which is praying to win. ... There's one other point that's important. Tebow isn't cursing God after he loses, that's for sure."

Praying with (or to?) John Paul II

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was a soft-spoken nurse in the south of France when her life was changed by what the Vatican has decided was an answered prayer.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001 and, with other nuns in France and Africa, immediately began prayed for healing. However, her symptoms worsened after the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. That was when Simon-Pierre and her supporters began seeking the help of the pope, who suffered from the same disease in his final years.

Simon-Pierre awoke on the morning of June 3, 2005, with her hands steady and no other signs of the incurable neurological disease.

"It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II," she told reporters in 2007. "I came across a sister who had helped me tremendously and I told her, ... 'look, my hand is no longer trembling.' John Paul II cured me."

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree confirming that this "scientifically inexplicable" change in her health can be attributed to the intercessions of John Paul II, meaning that his predecessor can be called "blessed" and, thus, has moved closer to recognition as a saint.

While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?

Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.

"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not."

When describing this process to non-Catholics, especially to Protestants who are critical of the church, the priest offers a metaphor from -- believe it or not -- local government.

There is this citizen, he explained, who has a problem. His sidewalk is so messed up that it has become dangerous. This citizen can, of course, call city hall and seek help. It would also be appropriate to directly call the mayor. However, this particular citizen also has a good friend, or perhaps it is even a loved one, who works in the mayor's office. Why not ask for this close friend to intercede, as well?

"That is what intercessory prayer is about," said Panula.

The problem is that some people, Catholics included, tend to omit a key element when describing this mysterious process. They spend so much time talking about the intercessory role of the saints that they forget to mention the reality that unites Catholics and other believers -- their belief that it is God who, in the end, hears prayers and performs miracles.

The key is the word "intercessor," which is often used, but rarely explained, in reports about John Paul II, Mother Teresa and others who are being considered as possible saints. An "intercessor" is a mediator who works with others, helping them find favor with a higher authority who has the power. The bottom line is that it isn't the intercessor who acts on their behalf.

Leaving God out of this picture, said Panula, "has become part of our culture, today. It's one thing for journalists, to describe the process that leads to the beatification of John Paul II. They may not mind that. But it's something else to write that there is a God who loves us, who is concerned about our welfare and who hears our prayers and those of his saints."

Patricia Neal and her angels

After her destructive affairs with married men, after the death of her first child, after an accident left her infant son brain-damaged, after the near-fatal strokes that struck months after her 1964 Oscar win for "Hud," actress Patricia Neal faced yet another personal crisis that left her on the verge of collapse. While her marriage to British writer Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and Giant Peach," had long been troubled, Neal was shattered when she learned he was having an affair with one of her friends. They divorced in1983.

In her 1988 memoir, "As I Am," Neal admitted: "Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."

That quotation captured the tone of the tributes published after Neal passed away on Aug. 8 at the age of 84. Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of the Tony Award winner and critics sang the praises of one of Hollywood's ultimate survivors, an actress who literally learned to walk and talk again before returning to the screen to earn another Oscar nomination.

But Neal's story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in "As I Am" that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.

Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.

"Lady Abbess," said Neal, "I don't want to join up, you understand?"

The abbess sighed and said, "Believe me, we don't want you to, either. I don't think we could take it for more than a month."

As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the "last cigarette I would ever smoke."

A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, "I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. ... I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. ... I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best."

Neal went to church on time, followed the abbey's prayer regime, baked bread, remained silent during meals and, with the help of a spiritual director, began writing the journal that evolved into "As I Am."

Behind closed doors, she unleashed her fury. At one point she screamed so many curses at her counselor that the sister finally cursed right back, urging Neal to be honest about her own faults and mistakes.

The actress finally voiced her secret pain. Monsignor Jim Lisante of Diocese of Rockville Centre (New York) later discussed with Neal the tragedies of her life and asked if there was any one event that she would change.

"She said, 'Forty years ago I became involved with the actor Gary Cooper, and by him I became pregnant. As he was a married man and I was young in Hollywood and not wanting to ruin my career, we chose to have the baby aborted,' " wrote Lisante, at the Creative Minority Report website. "She said, 'Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby.' "

Several of the obituaries for Neal -- including the New York Times feature -- mentioned this episode in the context of her pain and regret. The Washington Post noted that late in life "she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert."

In the end, Neal decided that, "God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making" allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. "I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke -- choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed."

One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: "There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us."

Hail Marys for Hitch

One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and say his evening prayers. The sobering final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have recently taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease which leaves few survivors.

"I am going to begin praying ... for the salvation of his eternal soul," wrote Peters, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."

Peters is not alone and Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" told CNN that he has been surprised that others -- who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" -- are praying for his healing, both body and soul.

This has been one of the strangest side effects of Hitchens' journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." This is a zone in which almost everyone is politely encouraging, the jokes are feeble, sex talk is nonexistent and the "cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited," wrote Hitchens, in a blunt Vanity Fair essay. The native tongue in "Tumorville" is built around terms such as "metastasized," phases such as "tissue is the issue" and quotes from the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Most of the inhabitants also do quite a bit of praying -- for themselves, for their loved ones and even for suffering people they have never met.

Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced these prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."

The bottom line, explained Peters, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us. ... Hitch just happens to be a famous public enemy of the faith, so more people know what is happening in this life, so more people are talking about why it's good to pray for him."

While it is "absolutely horrible" that anyone would pray for Hitchens to suffer and die, he added, many believers may find it hard to do more than pray for "God's will to be done." That is the "safe prayer" that is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who -- with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith. That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.

"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," said Peters. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."

As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender. However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.

"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that -- not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."

Fasting, for evangelical Protestants?

Elmer Towns had a big problem three decades ago after he moved to Lynchburg, Va., to help a Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell start the school that grew into Liberty University. Month after month, Towns faced two house payments -- a real family crisis. Thus, the veteran Bible professor decided to try something that he considered a radical, "Old Testament thing." In addition to praying that someone would buy the house back in Chicago, Towns and his wife Ruth began fasting on the day that mortgage was due.

Not much happened, but they kept praying and fasting.

After a year, the house sold and Towns has been pondering this question ever since: What role did their fasting play in solving this personal problem?

"What I have learned is that there is much more to fasting than trying to get something from God, because we cannot say what God will do," said Towns, the author of 100-plus books and dean of the School of Religion at Liberty.

"You are really fasting because you want a closer relationship to God. ... There are fasts where you are seeking an end result -- like the deliverance of a person from addiction. But that is not the norm. That's not the main reason God wants us to fast."

These kinds of mysteries have driven Towns to do something that may sound strange for an evangelical Protestant. He has written three books about fasting, including the recent "The Beginner's Guide to Fasting," and has already finished a fourth book on this topic.

Fasting, of course, is a familiar practice for Jews, who observe a strict fast on Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"). Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan and believers in many other religions also practice forms of fasting.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians fast several times during the church year, especially in the pre-Easter season of Lent -- which began this past week. Some modern Catholics continue to fast from meat during Lent, while the Orthodox strive not to eat meat or dairy products.

This practice -- eliminating specific forms of food from the diet -- is one of several different forms of fasting found in the Bible and in religious history, noted Towns. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet and his friends only ate vegetables and water for 10 days. The leader of the Methodist renewal movement, John Wesley, often fasted for 10 days before major conferences, eating only whole-grain breads and drinking water.

Another common practice, which Towns considers a "normal" fast, is to eat nothing, while continuing to drink liquids. The Gospel of Luke observes that during a 40-day fast Jesus "ate nothing and afterward, when he had ended, he was hungry."

An "absolute" fast, said Towns, eliminates both solid food and liquids, as in St. Paul's three-day fast after his conversion on the Damascus road. This strict form of fasting is not for beginners and never should exceed three days, he said. On Mount Sinai, Moses is said to have survived a 40-day fast without food or drink -- which would clearly be miraculous.

Believers who are new to fasting should seek guidance from experienced clergy and even from doctors, stressed Towns. The bottom line: It isn't physically or spiritually wise to "put God to the test by rushing off and doing something irrational," he said.

In the past decade or so, interest in spiritual disciplines such as fasting is on the rise among many Protestants, including evangelicals and those in Pentecostal or "charismatic" movements, said Towns. This is interesting because, at the same time, many Americans seem anxious not to be labeled as religious "fanatics," "nuts" or "extremists."

Yet many Americans seem open to new forms of religious experience.

"I think that there's a growing interest in spirituality among all kinds of people -- people inside the church and people outside the church, as well," said Towns. "Some people are willing to try all kinds of things right now, including some things that I think are very dangerous.

"People may hear about fasting and say, 'That sounds interesting. That sounds powerful. I think I'll give that a try.' ... The issue is whether they have the commitment to stick to it. I'm concerned that most people aren't willing to pay a price to experience the presence of God."

Breakfast prayer wars

The way President Barack Obama sees things, Americans should be able to find unity in prayer -- even if they disagree on the details of faith and politics. That's true in the current debates about health care, poverty and even gay marriage, he said, at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

"Surely we can agree to find common ground when possible, parting ways when necessary," said Obama. "But in doing so, let us be guided by our faith and by prayer. For while prayer can buck us up when we are down, keep us calm in a storm, while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle -- and I assure you I'm praying a lot these days -- prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts with humility. ...

"Through faith, but not through faith alone, we can unite people to serve the common good."

But while the president preached unity, this year's National Prayer Breakfast was surrounded by controversy. There were signs this event on the semi-official Washington, D.C., calendar may no longer be able to serve as a safe forum in which a wide variety of religious and political leaders can unite their voices. The breakfasts began in 1953 and every president since Dwight Eisenhower has taken part.

Before the event, the leaders of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the White House and to Congressional leaders calling for a boycott. They also urged C-Span not to televise the breakfast. Meanwhile, a coalition of gay-rights activists and religious liberals announced a series of alternative "American Prayer Hour" events in Washington and other cities nationwide.

Both groups focused intense criticism on The Fellowship, the nondenominational Christian organization that sponsors the prayer breakfast and similar networking events in Washington and around the world. The key is that numerous Ugandan leaders are active in Fellowship activities in that country, including the politician who introduced anti-gay legislation that includes capital punishment for some offenses.

The ethics group's letter accused this organization -- often called "The Family" -- of being a "cult-like secret society with unknown motivations and backing" that preaches an "unconventional brand of Christianity focusing on meeting Jesus 'man-to-man.' " The American Prayer Hour coalition simply called it a "secretive fundamentalist organization." The New York Times noted that the group has no "identifiable Internet site, no office number and no official spokesman."

However, some religious conservatives have also expressed doubts about The Fellowship. In an investigation of its property holdings in and around Washington, World magazine called attention to The Fellowship's "muddy theology," its "distain for the established church" and an emphasis on privacy that "grew into an obsessive culture of secrecy."

Describing the participants in Fellowship events, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told World: "Some of them are Muslims. Some of them are Christians. But they meet in the spirit of Jesus, so it's not a denominational thing, it's not even a Christian thing, it's a Jesus thing."

The ultimate issue is that this organization needs to admit that it exists and talk openly about its activities and goals, said journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." It's a sign of progress, for example, that many Americans who are active in the organization have rejected the Ugandan legislation and communicated their dismay to their contacts in Uganda.

When it comes to the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship's leaders "should go completely public," said Sharlet, by email. They should "acknowledge their existence, the fact that this is their event, make their account of it accountable (it was not Ike's idea), explain the process by which people are invited and ... make explicit that this is about consecrating leadership to Jesus. Everybody is welcome, but it's about Jesus."

This kind of transparency might accelerate what already seems to be happening. Some leaders -- on the left and right -- might reject the big-tent approach offered by the National Prayer Breakfast and create their own events, which could focus on more explicit messages about faith and politics.

If the Fellowship's leaders are truly "serious about what they're about," noted Sharlet, this "would be great by their lights. They would lose a lot of clout, but the prayer breakfast movement would at last become an actual movement, of many strands."

Baptist take on spirituality

Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.

When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.

"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.

"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."

The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.

One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.

Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.

When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."

Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.

Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.

"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."

The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.

"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."