WASHINGTON-Thousands mingled at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, a Washington tradition stretching back to 1953 where political leaders and people from across the country and around the world gather. As guests finished their coffee, some with translation headsets on, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote address followed by President Obama, who called for a change in tone of the national conversation.
"Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility," the president said. "It is this spirit of civility that we are called to take up when we leave here today. That's what I'm praying for."
Clinton, who has appeared previously at the breakfast as a first lady, spoke extensively about her own faith and her current work as secretary of state-especially reflecting on the disaster in Haiti. All of the proceedings went off smoothly inside the Washington hotel, except for some loud mobile phones ringing, but outside controversies swirled.
The previous night, gay activists protested against the Fellowship, the group that funds the breakfast, outside of its house for members of Congress on C Street. During the breakfast, other gay activists protested with their own "prayer hour." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the president saying that the Fellowship has "been cultivating an unorthodox brand of Christianity amongst the political, military and economic elite of America" and "operates under a veil of secrecy concealing the source of its funding, its financial holdings and its political goals." The group went on to condemn the Fellowship's supposed connections to the Ugandan bill and urged the president to skip the breakfast.
Controversy has stirred over a bill under debate in the Ugandan parliament that could levy criminal punishments on homosexuals in the country. David Bahati, who introduced the bill, once led a seminar for a Ugandan nonprofit group called Cornerstone, which is funded by the Fellowship.
Cornerstone has distanced itself from Bahati, and the Fellowship's spokesman on Uganda, Bob Hunter, publicly expressed the organization's opposition to the bill-a rare statement from the intensely private group. President Obama and Secretary Clinton both specifically condemned the Ugandan bill as well.
At the head table Thursday morning with the president, first lady, vice president, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others, sat Tim Tebow, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from the University of Florida who is about to graduate and possibly play in the National Football League. Tebow closed the event in prayer.
When I asked him afterward what he was thinking as he sat on stage with the president, Tebow said, "It was just an honor to be up there with all of those distinguished guests."
Tebow is in the national spotlight leading up to Sunday's telecast of the Super Bowl because he appears in an ad with his mother, Pam, where she describes her decision to carry Tim to term even though doctors had suggested an abortion. CBS plans to air the ad but has been facing increasing pressure from pro-abortion groups to drop it. (See "Escalating opposition," by Megan Basham, Feb. 4, 2010.)
Tebow is already thinking far beyond the Super Bowl game.
"That's what I'm starting now, is living beyond football because I know it's not going to last forever," he said, adding that some of his friends have said that he is stretching himself too thin by setting up his own foundation and doing missions work abroad. "I only have a certain amount of time in this life. I'll have a lot of energy in heaven, and that will be fine. But right now I'm going to make a big impact for Christ . . . period. So I'm going to work as hard as I can in doing that, and I'll rest when I'm done."