At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Biden repeatedly pondered an objective so important to him that it drove him to run for president, became a recurring theme of his campaign, has inspired his approach to problems political and legislative — and ultimately has eluded him still: uniting the country.
“As I stand in this citadel of democracy that was attacked one year ago, the issue for us is unity,” Biden told the crowd of lawmakers, faith leaders and others in Washington at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, for a pared-down version of the annual event.
“How do we unite us again?” Biden continued. “Unity is elusive, but it’s really actually necessary. Unity doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but unity is where enough of us, enough of us, believe in a core of basic things.”
The National Prayer Breakfast was for decades a Washington tradition where politicians could set aside their partisan differences and find commonalities in their faiths. However, last year’s prayer breakfast was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Biden gave prerecorded remarks where he acknowledged the “dark, dark time.” Weeks before, a pro-Trump mob had overrun the Capitol, seeking to stop the confirmation of Biden’s electoral college win, in an attack that led to the deaths of five people and injuries to dozens of law enforcement officers.
The last time the breakfast was held in person, in 2020, President Donald Trump questioned the faith of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who the day before had cited his Mormon faith as one of the reasons he had joined with Democrats to vote to impeach Trump. At his first prayer breakfast in 2017, Trump had asked the crowd to “pray for Arnold” Schwarzenegger to get better ratings on “The Apprentice.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally and one of the organizers of the prayer breakfast, promised this year’s event would be a “positive reset.” With Trump gone, the breakfast returned to its roots as an event to showcase unity and tradition, however unusual in these times. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who co-chaired this year’s event, opened the breakfast with Rounds joking that you could tell the Senate was in charge because they were already running 20 minutes late.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stood side by side to give readings from the Old and New Testaments. Later, Biden lavished warm praise on McConnell, who has repeatedly attacked the president’s and Democrats’ agenda.
“Mitch, I don’t want to hurt your reputation, but we really are friends,” Biden said. “You’ve always done exactly what you’ve said. You’re a man of your word, and you’re a man of honor.”
Biden quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his late son, Beau Biden, who on his deathbed made his father promise him that he would stay engaged. The president noted near the opening of his remarks that Thursday was Beau’s birthday, and that his family and faith had always helped him endure difficult times.
And though he has been criticized for it in the past, Biden once again lamented the erosion of civility in the Senate, seeming to long for a time when senators still dined together even when they disagreed on issues like segregation.
“We had a lot of flat-out old segregationists still in our caucus,” Biden said, speaking of his time as a senator. “Didn’t agree with one another, but they treated each other with respect, even in that day.”
There were plenty of indications that there were at least fissures in the institutions about which Biden so fondly reminisced. Biden spoke about the country living in “a moment of great division” and warned that “democracy is at grave, grave risk.”
“We pray for our nation as we face an inflection point in our history. So much is going to change no matter who’s sitting in my job. The world is changing. The world is changing,” Biden said. “I pray that we follow what Jesus taught us: to serve rather than be served. I don’t always do it. I hope I try … I pray to keep the faith.”
Biden recalled last month, when a gunman took four worshipers hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., “violence and vengeance didn’t pierce the goodness and grace of that scene.” He noted a nearby Catholic Church had opened its doors for the hostages’ families, and that at sunset, a group of Muslim women walked in with one of the favorite foods of the rabbi who had been taken hostage. All hostages were freed after a nearly 11-hour standoff.
“It was interesting to hear [the rabbi] describe the scene and how faith mattered,” Biden said. “Whether in a synagogue or a church or a mosque or a temple, whether you’re religious or not, we’re all imperfect human beings trying our best, the best we can because we can’t know the future. We can’t know what’s coming. We also can’t live in fear every step of the way. That’s America.”