WASHINGTON-Nearly 4,000 people from more than 180 nations gathered Thursday at the Washington Hilton to hear President Obama and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speak at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
"We're heavy on prayer and light on food," said Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., the co-chair of the event with Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.
Attendees this year included first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, and senators and representatives from both parties. Though the prayer breakfast is decidedly Christian-marked by Scripture readings and lawmakers' prayers to Jesus Christ-both Obama and Blair reached out to other religions in their remarks.
Obama talked about his religious background which is unlike any president who has spoken at the event, which has been attended by all sitting presidents since President Eisenhower began doing so in 1953.
"I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I've ever known," the president said. Then he recounted his own conversion to Christianity when he moved to the South Side of Chicago.
"It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose -His purpose," Obama said.
The prayer breakfast coincided with Obama's announcement Thursday of the White House's new Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership office, which will have a broader focus than the Bush White House's Faith-Based Initiatives office, reaching out to Muslims and community organizations that may not be faith-based. The office's goals include "making community groups an integral part of our economic recovery," reducing "the need for abortion," and "encouraging responsible fatherhood."
Sitting next to each other and able to set aside political differences for the moment were Shuler and Obama. Shuler was one of 11 House Democrats to vote against the president's stimulus package last week. From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., a longtime attendee of the prayer breakfast, said the "flavor" of the event was no different now under a Democratic administration than it had been under a Republican.
Ehlers, introducing Blair, slyly suggested that Obama take a cue from the former prime minister's claim that he governed from the "radical center." Blair, in directing his comments to the president, offered his friendship: "Now the hard work begins. You don't need cheerleaders but partners."
Blair said faith-of any kind-should be more and more a force in bringing people together around the world. But he added that faith in God has its own power.
"There are limits to humanism, and beyond those limits God and only God can work," he said. "We can perform acts of mercy, but only God can lend true dignity."
Blair recounted a meeting with his advisers while he was prime minister, when he wanted to say, "God bless the British people," at the end of a speech. One adviser retorted, "This isn't America, you know."
So he concluded his remarks Thursday by saying, "By the way, God bless you."
Obama rose to speak ("That's a hard act to follow," murmured several in the audience), encouraging people worldwide to look past their differences. "Let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate," he said. "There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being."
Talking about the new faith-based office, he said, "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another-or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., prayed for U.S. leaders to do their duties "with wisdom and compassion," and Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., prayed for leaders around the world, several of whom sat in the audience.