There is always a lot of talk at the annual National Prayer Breakfast about coming together. It is hosted by a Republican and a Democrat, this year by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Mark Pryor(D-Ark.). There was also a greeting from the U.S. House of Representatives Breakfast Group, which meets once a week for prayer and discussion.
“We work together and we pray together,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert from Texas. Rep. Janice Hahn from California got a laugh when she remarked that it was the one place Speaker Boehner could not remove them. “Only God can do that.” And, she added, “the prayer group gives us a bond that can’t be broken.”
But it was President Obama who got the biggest laugh. “I have to say this is now our fifth prayer breakfast and it is always just a wonderful event,” he said. “But 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 --on the same day of the prayer breakfast. 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.”
To that I say: Amen!
I’ve always felt that opponents in Washington sitting around a dinner table together, having a meal and drinking wine makes it much more difficult to personally assault each other over politics the next day. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. But sitting down for an hour or two once a week and actually praying with someone would seem to make it impossible to be hostile to your good friend from across the aisle the next day. Apparently not.
President Obama had it right and by saying what he did, he brought into question the whole purpose of the prayer breakfast in the first place.
The president gave a thoughtful speech about his faith and the faith of other Americans. He spoke of the importance of living in a “godly way.” He added a note “those in an opposing party” who he said were “groping their way, doing their best, going through the same struggles we’re going through.”
Could he have been thinking about the Chuck Hagel hearings last week for Secretary of Defense?
The president went on to quote scripture. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and to say, “See in those with whom you disagree most vehemently the face of God. For we are all his children. “
Was he was referring to the Brennan hearings for head of CIA? Or maybe those who oppose him on immigration or gun control? I’m thinking here of Wayne LaPierre.
The prayer breakfast has always been controversial. Its detractors say that no president should participate in an event so overtly Christian, even though they occasionally have people of different faiths speak. (Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is Jewish, also read from the Scriptures.) They point out that the breakfast is exactly the opposite of coming together because it divides the country into those who believe and those who do not.
Obama seems about as comfortable speaking of his faith, without seeming to pander, as just about anybody. “…I 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.”
The “Friendly Atheist,” Hemant Mehta, wrote for On Faith this week that the president is merely throwing the secularists a bone by giving them a perfunctory mention or two…”So many other Americans know the close embrace of faith - Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. And all Americans - whether religious or secular - have a deep and abiding faith in this nation,” he said at one point. And later, “men and women of different faiths and, yes, those of no faith that they can name - are nevertheless, joined together in common purpose, believing in something that is bigger than ourselves…”
Mehta’s point is that from the president, this kind of talk could not be more divisive at a moment when he is calling for everyone to pray together.
I happen to think that this is a big breakthrough. The president, in almost all of his speeches when religion is mentioned, refers to those who are secular or non-believers. He is giving them a place at the table where, before Obama, they were the unmentionables. His mother raised him in a mostly secular household. He knows whereof he speaks. Just as he has evolved on gay issues, just as the country evolved on the issues of race and the equality of women, so too, is Obama bringing those without a religious faith into the mainstream.
On the other hand, there are plenty of believers who are not happy that Obama continues to mention non-believers in his speeches, including them as though they were equal Americans.
However, as the president pointed out, he is trying to live his life in a godly way, to love his neighbor as himself. To that end, he most important lesson with which he left his audience was this: ”Let me suggest that those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble.”
Let us pray.