It’s easy to be cynical about Washington. I was born in this city and even I occasionally throw up my hands in frustration when observing Republicans and Democrats at war with each other over the silliest and sometimes most important things in order to gain political advantage. Too often they appear more interested in themselves than the rest of the country.
The purpose of the National Prayer Breakfast, which will be held for the 60th time on Thursday, is to attempt to bridge political and even religious differences through what is called “the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth” in order that leaders consider a Higher Authority to Whom they are ultimately accountable and answerable.
Since President Eisenhower attended the first breakfast in 1953, every president, Republican and Democrat, has come. It is truly one of the few nonpartisan events taking place in Washington.
While the president is prayed for, along with the Congress and state and local leaders, what transpires behind the scenes is often of greater importance. Many attendees come from nations that have never known free elections, followed by an orderly transition of power. They know nothing of a two-, or multi-party system. In too many of their countries, when one side wins an election, or a war, the winning side jails or kills members of the opposition. For them, to see Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, praying together and praying for this country is a revolutionary experience it is hoped they will take home and replicate in their own countries. Many have done precisely that.
Lay people and Members of Congress have quietly and often at their own expense, traveled around the world to establish prayer breakfasts in legislatures and other governmental bodies with the National Prayer Breakfast as their model. Disputes have been settled, tribal wars ended, peace brought between gangs, hunger assuaged, wells drilled providing clean water to people who never had any, and many other positive goals achieved.
Diplomatic back channels have long been a useful tool of American foreign policy. One might call this effort a “spiritual back channel.”
“Christianity” per se is not preached. Because many religions and cultures respect Jesus, though they may not regard Him as God’s Son, those who carry His message on behalf of a core group of people in Washington do so by using His words about forgiveness, love and reconciliation. Sometimes those listening to this message ask to go further, but they are not pressured to do so. The “tactic,” if there is one, is to present not an American religion, but a message from a greater power Who can actually change lives and heal nations.
In the invitation to this year’s breakfast, there are four quotes about faith from former U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. The one from Coolidge is particularly striking: “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.”
One can debate whether the National Prayer Breakfast engages in a type of “civil religion,” but there is much good that emerges from it. For at least a short time, politicians -- from the President of the United States on down -- acknowledge they are not as powerful as the Almighty.
On receiving a Bible from a group called the Loyal Colored People of Baltimore, Sept. 7, 1864, Abraham Lincoln said, “All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it, we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”
It is for the purpose of commending that Book and that Jesus to more than 3,000 leaders from around the country and world that the National Prayer Breakfast exists and is an essential part of our national life.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and Fox news contributor.