WASHINGTON—Speakers at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in the nation's capital usually keep their talks diplomatic. After all, the room is filled with ambassadors, lawmakers from both parties, Cabinet members, and people of various faiths from around the world.
But Eric Metaxas, the featured speaker Thursday morning and the author of biographies on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, talked to an audience of 4,000 important people about false religion, human depravity, poverty, slavery, and abortion. But the New York author delivered his sharp commentary with his trademark wit, which kept the audience roaring with laughter. (See a video clip of his remarks.)
The halls of the Washington Hilton, the hotel that hosts the breakfast, were buzzing afterward as people discussed the speech—Metaxas' speech, not President Obama's, which followed. Outside the hotel, a protestor asked, "Is it true what I'm hearing, that Eric Metaxas talked about Jesus?"
It was true. At one point, Metaxas led those in attendance in the singing of the hymn "Amazing Grace," and the president joined in. The author attacked "phony religiosity," which he struggled through as an agnostic studying at Yale before he became a Christian. (See "Eric Metaxas' early spiritual mentor.")
"Jesus was and is the enemy of dead religion," Metaxas said. "He came to deliver us from that." Prayer emanates from "real faith in God," he said, adding that faith in Jesus leads to courageous acts like those of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce.
At one point Metaxas handed his biographies on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer to Obama, mentioning that President George W. Bush had read the Bonhoeffer book. "No pressure," Metaxas added. Afterward Obama almost left the room without the books but came back and tucked them under his arm.
"This is a Bonhoeffer moment," Metaxas told the audience. "It is only the grace of God that can bring left and right together and do the right thing." He told them that they couldn't claim to be better than the Germans of Bonhoeffer's era, and launched into an explanation about human depravity apart from God's grace.
Then Metaxas deftly raised the issue of abortion, noting that Germans saw some people as less than human and today some see the unborn as less than human. "Apart from God we cannot see that they are persons as well," he said. "Love those that do not yet see that."
Mother Teresa brought up the issue of abortion at the 1994 prayer breakfast, saying, "Please don't kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child." The audience gave her a standing ovation, but President Bill Clinton did not join them. Obama was much more gracious—he stood and shook Metaxas' hand after the speech.
In his remarks, Obama gave a preview of how he might reach out to faith communities during his campaign. He defended his administration's measures reining in financial institutions, insurance companies, and "unscrupulous lenders" with a litany of biblical references.
"I believe God's command to love your neighbor as yourself," the president said. "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper."
He cited a "biblical call to care for the least of these," and quoted a passage from Proverbs: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves."
Obama referenced partnerships with Catholic Charities and said his administration is "linking arms with faith-based groups across the country." (Catholics at least might dispute the "linked arm" imagery after his administration recently cut off anti-trafficking grants to Catholic Charities, which is considered one of the most effective agencies in that field.)
The president also advocated higher taxes for the wealthy. "I think to myself, am I willing … to give up some of the tax breaks I enjoy?" he said. "It coincides with Jesus' teaching, 'To whom much is given, much is required.'"
The group that organizes and funds the prayer breakfast, the Fellowship, avoids self-reference at the annual event, but Metaxas simultaneously addressed their invisibility as well as the sometimes-overwrought conspiracies about the group.
He wryly noted that the Fellowship had personally chosen every U.S. president except Warren G. Harding, who was punished for not complying by being named "Warren G. Harding."
Metaxas continued, saying, "We, and I mean specifically the president and I, are all their puppets. We're simply doing their bidding."
He also made light of the $175 price of the breakfast. "As a member of the elite 1 percent, I cannot afford this," he said.
Occupy protestors had gained press attention by holding a simultaneous counter-breakfast they called the "People's Prayer Breakfast." Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy, responded to the protest breakfast, saying, "Whatever the fanciful theories about its organizer, the National Prayer Breakfast is a mostly admirable tradition that provokes politicians into at least momentarily expressing high-minded religious principles."