President Jimmy Carter yesterday took part in the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton Hotel where 3,600 people gathered for fellowship, fried apples and a reaffirmation of their religious faith.
Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) read from a Bible his mother gave him when he was a tad, and some of the best-known members of Congress spoke, prayed or preached to the enormous crowd in the International Ballroom.
There was still bacon in a lot of serving dishes when James Wright, majority leader of the House, preached a sermon to the general effect that all humans are sinners and need forgiveness and grace. The showpiece of his message was the edifying story of King David, who seduced and impregnated Bathesda, then had her husband killed.
The prophet Nathan (as Wright pointed out) went to David adn told him a parallel a story of gross injustice and evil and asked David what should be done. David said the man who did such a thing and showed no pity should be executed.
At this point Wright dramatically quoted the prophet who was prepared to shame King David: "Thou art the man."
Wright went on to stay that often we get righteously indignant at the sins of others, not aware our own, yet all men, he said, are sinners.
Not everyone, of course, has seduced a woman and then had her husband killed when she got pregnant, but the vast audience seemed to respond well to the moral.
President Carter said Wright's comments made him "proud to be a brother" with him, and added that his own first visit to the National Prayer Breakfast had been in 1967.
He had just lost the Georgia election for governor, Carter said, and at that breakfast certainly understood humility.
He alluded to the ultimate humility of King David in Wrigth's sermon, and said he had had a paragraph from the Bible about humility in his first two drafts for his Inaugural Address, but his staff "rose up" and talked him into deleting the passage. He wound up using the line from the prophet Micah ("to walk humbly with thy God") but the one he had wanted to use was this, from II Chronicles (Chapter 7, verse 14):
If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
The President said his staff insisted the passage would confuse people or be widely misunderstood, and some would think he was Solomon or God or that he was pointing out sins from some high plateau of superior virtue.
So Carter dropped those lines, he said. A pity, some thought, since their beauty is so great and people will always find one thing or another to be confused about.
So great was the crowd that hundreds overflowed into rooms outside the ballroom and watched on screens.
Two men who arrived a bit late were astonished to find a waitress running over to serve them, just as a third late-comer, a young man in a sweater with bright red hair and an intelligent face, sat down between them.
"I'm a vegetarian," he said, as the men tried to share some cheese blintzes and bacon with him. The men seemed to feel gross, shoveling down the bacon on both sides of the meatless youth, but kept eating anyway. The young man rose and left after a bit.
He was noticed later in a press room, smoking cigarettes madly. Then bacon-eaters felt a little better. Later the young man marched through dispersing crowds with several hard dinner rolls in his hand, so he cannot have starved.
"I thought it (the breakfast) memorable," said the Marchioness of Winchester, an Indian woman who married a British peer.
Her brother, Dr. Jal Bavry, identified as a Parsi leader of Bombay, accompanied her and said he too found it memorable and regarded America as the world's "spiritual hope." They said they both attended Columbia University in the 1920s where they knew Arthur Burns as a fellow student (now chairman of the Federal Reserve).
Ruth McCorkle, former staffer for William Brock, recently defeated Republican senator from Tennessee, said she had been looking for a job, though not at the breakfast, and another brisk young woman, Meredith Preston, works for Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash). "Are you going to the seminar?" she asked a reporter, "Well, you should," she said.
A gradual trend in the annual breakfasts, according to old-timer Clarence W. Hottel of Baltimore, who is a wheel in the Baltimore Breakfast Group that meets every Friday at the Downtown Hilton up there, is for the limelight to be given to leading politicians rather than religious organizers:
"So that it looks as if the President and Sens. Percy and Domenici and Randolph and Bert lance are up there inviting the whole nation to come."
He himself sat in the overflowing room because he and many other old-timers there wanted people who were coming for the first time to sit in the huge ballroom and catch something of the air of a great crowd praying together.
President Carter concluded his informal comments with a call for the nation to be "better - not necessarily more powerful" but "more filled with love." he said he and his wife were both struck by the military guests at the recent White House receptions - far more than any other group, he said, they said "God be with you" when they came up to shake hands, and said more than others, "You are in our prayers."
Ruth Hedgecock, one of the 140 "ushers" who helped people find their way about, said it is hard to believe how many prayer groups there are in Washington now, especially in people's homes.She attends many, "but I could go morning, noon and night."
In recent years, she had detected a "more spiritual" tone to the prayer breakfasts, but quickly added:
"Maybe it's me. The more you grow, the more you notice the signs of it in others."