WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama, appearing at his fifth National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, touted the power of prayer to create unity and humility in a 20-minute speech that ignored such controversial topics as same-sex “marriage,” immigration, and abortion.
Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 has attended the annual event that attracts thousands from around the world.
“It says something about us—as a nation and as a people—that every year, for 61 years now, this great prayerful tradition has endured,” President Obama said at the Hilton Washington International Ballroom in the nation’s capital. “It says something about us that every year, in times of triumph and in tragedy, in calm and in crisis, we come together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as brothers and sisters, and as children of God.”
While his speech here did not go into the president’s specific policy proposals (that will happen at next week’s State of the Union address), Obama did take the opportunity to chide lawmakers from both parties for Washington’s ongoing partisan divide.
“I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we’ve been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten,” Obama said to laughter. “I mean, you’d like to think that the shelf life wasn’t so short. But I go back to the Oval Office, and I start watching the cable news networks and it’s like we didn’t pray.”
Obama then called for humility among political leaders “for no one can know the full and encompassing mind of God.” As examples of how the nation withstood times of deeper divisions, the president turned to the faith journeys of President Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Obama stressed that today’s divisions are not as destructive as when Lincoln led the nation through the Civil War. But, the president argued, “They are real.” He praised Lincoln for being able to “see God in those who vehemently opposed him.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Ben Carson, the director of the pediatric neurosurgery division at John Hopkins Hospital, did not hide his political views (see “Second opinion” by Marvin Olasky, WORLD April 21, 2012). Delivering his second keynote address at the annual prayer breakfast, Carson began by reading from Proverbs and then attacked political correctness for muzzling people.
“We’ve reached a point where people are afraid to actually talk about what they want to say, because somebody might be offended,” he said. “People are afraid to say ‘Merry Christmas’ at Christmas time. … We’ve got to get over this sensitivity. It keeps people from saying what they really believe.”
Carson also took on the nation’s deficit problem, its tax system, and the new healthcare law. With Obama sitting nearby, Carson rebutted the president’s call for greater tax revenues. Carson, instead, advocated for a flat tax system that wasn’t so complex.
“When I pick up my Bible … I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and He’s given us a system. It’s called tithe,” said Carson, who added that asking wealthier Americans to pay a higher proportion is the “kind of thinking that has resulted in 602 banks in the Cayman Islands. That money needs to be back here, building our infrastructure and creating jobs.”
Carson also argued that a person at birth should be given a health savings account to which they can contribute pretax money.
“When you die, you can pass it on to your family members, so that when you’re 85 years old and you got six diseases, you’re not trying to spend up everything,” he said. “You’re happy to pass it on and there’s nobody talking about death panels.”
Last year, the remarks of keynote speaker Eric Metaxas’s generated a great deal of attention, as he aggressively attacked what he called “phony religiosity” (see “No pious baloney,” by Emily Belz, Feb. 2, 2012.)
With Obama’s policies and philosophies often at odds with social conservatives and evangelicals like Carson, the National Prayer Breakfast over the last five years has offered the nation a rare chance to hear the president describe his own personal spiritual life. His speeches here employ religious language and imagery that he doesn’t often repeat in other public appearances.
During Thursday’s appearance Obama quoted from Hebrews and called faith a process. The president said he often goes to the Bible to find ways to console the inconsolable and to determine how to best balance life as a world leader and as a husband and father.
“I often search for Scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better president,” he said. “And I believe that we are united in these struggles. But I also believe that we are united in the knowledge of a redeeming Savior, whose grace is sufficient for the multitude of our sins, and whose love is never failing.”
Obama added that, “as Christians, we place our faith in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ.” He also described the faiths of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs, and discussed the “deep and abiding faith in this nation” that he said all Americans share.
The bipartisan event, hosted by members of Congress and organized by a religious group called The Fellowship, also included speeches about unity and faith given by Republicans who have long clashed with Obama’s policies.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas and one of the breakfast’s co-chairs, discussed the importance of the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfasts held for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“It’s a surprise for some people after they see how we go back and forth in debate, that when it comes to the prayer breakfast, it’s truly bipartisan,” he said. “We work together, we pray together. It does make us better. It makes us stronger, and it makes the government work better.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama and another Obama political foe, stressed that American is “one nation.”
“Thank you for being my president,” Sessions said to Obama. “Thank you for being our president.”
This year’s breakfast did include some policy news. Obama announced that the long-time head of his administration’s version of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua Dubois, is resigning. Dubois, who has led the office since 2009, will reportedly write a devotional book using the daily meditations of Scripture that he has emailed daily to the president.
“The comfort that Scripture gave Lincoln and King and so many leaders throughout our history, the verses they cherished, and how those words of God are there for us as well, waiting to be read any day that we choose,” Obama said in his speech.