The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden returns prayer breakfast to lofty tone after disruption of Trump years

President Biden departs from a church service shortly after winning the presidency. (Sarah Silbiger/For The Washington Post)

At last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump brandished newspapers headlined “Trump acquitted” and simply “ACQUITTED” to boast of his recent impeachment victory; aimed thinly veiled attacks at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah); and challenged the notion that Christians should strive to love their enemies.

At this year’s online version of the event on Thursday, President Biden took a far lower-key approach, citing the recent assault on the Capitol to criticize violence and urge bipartisanship. “We know now we must confront and defeat political extremism, White supremacy and domestic terrorism,” Biden said.

Watch: 2021 National Prayer Breakfast

Biden’s message — and the return of the event’s historically lofty tone — highlighted the president’s effort to restore Washington institutions to their traditional, pre-Trump form. For nearly seven decades, the breakfast had marked a respite from Washington’s partisan warfare, but after Trump’s barb-filled blast last year, some supporters of the event even suggested suspending it.

“Last year’s breakfast had a great spirit, and there were a lot of wonderful things that came of it — related to finding unity among Democrats and Republicans against religious persecution and about the theme of ‘love your enemy’ — and the president really blew it,” said Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.), a co-chair of the event. “He just didn’t seem to get the spirit of the occasion.”

The living former presidents also delivered remarks Thursday, other than Jimmy Carter, who sent a letter instead due to his declining health. Trump did not appear, but Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), another co-sponsor, said recently departed presidents generally are not invited to avoid eclipsing their successor.

Asked whether Trump would be invited next year, Moolenaar said, “That would be something that could certainly be an option.” Tape from a previous address Trump gave to the breakfast was played Thursday, along with snippets from other presidents’ addresses.

Even without his presence, Trump’s behavior remained a subtext, as all the presidents reflected on how the country could unify in the wake of the violence at the U.S. Capitol that Trump has been accused of inciting.

“We just witnessed images that we never imagined, images that we’ll now never forget — a violent assault in the U.S. Capitol, an assault on our democracy and our capital, a violent attack that threatened lives and took lives,” said Biden said via video.

The event was held remotely because of social distancing restrictions even as Trump is in the throes of another impeachment proceeding — this one for allegedly encouraging the mob that attacked the Capitol. Jason Miller, a spokesman for the former president, did not respond to a request for comment.

Shortly after taking office, Trump shattered tradition during his first appearance at the annual event, when he took the opportunity to mock Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had replaced him on “The Apprentice.”

“The ratings went right down the tubes. It’s been a total disaster,” Trump told the crowd. “I want to just pray for Arnold if we can, for those ratings.”

Schwarzenegger expressed incredulity at Trump’s choice of venue for leveling the insult. “The National Prayer Breakfast?” he tweeted.

If Trump used the 2017 event to announce his unorthodox style, Biden used the 2021 version to declare his hoped-for return to normalcy.

Biden taped his remarks from the White House library, with a backdrop of books and at a podium that featured the presidential seal. He noted that he had frequently attended the event in the past, and added that he was “grateful” for the participation of the past presidents.

Biden described the cascade of wrenching crises facing the country — climate change, long lines at food pantries, massive job losses and “the call for racial justice, some 400 years in the making.”

“This is a dark, dark time,” Biden said. “So where do we turn? Faith.”

Biden, an observant Catholic who regularly attends Mass, tied his personal tragedies to those facing the country. “For me, in the darkest moments, faith provides hope and solace — and provides clarity and purpose as well,” he said. “It shows the way forward as one nation in a common purpose: to respect one another, to care for one another, to leave no one behind.”

The former presidents offered similar messages, using their own experiences to talk about how the country had healed in the past and could do so again. In echoing Biden’s remarks, they created a sense of continuity that in some ways cast Trump’s presidency — not just his performances at the prayer breakfast — as a departure or aberration.

Former president George W. Bush, 74, said that prayer “helped heal and unite our nation” in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Prayer is the language of reconciliation,” Bush said. “It has the vocabulary of grace, love and peace.”

Former president Bill Clinton, also 74, said a healthier public discourse could help knit the country closer together. “We need to know each other better, to listen to each other more, to learn from one another and to go forward,” Clinton said.

He said the “violence against our seat of government in recent weeks has shaken” the country’s foundation. “Healing requires humility, understanding that we are all imperfect people in search of more perfect laws,” he added.

Former president Jimmy Carter also reached back to his White House tenure in his remarks, which came via a letter read by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). Carter is 96 .

“I’m no stranger to seeing God’s hand at work in the midst of political disagreement,” Carter wrote, referring to the Camp David Accords that brought together the leaders of Israel and Egypt for the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty. “One of the first things we could agree on was the need for prayer.”

Citing the attack on the Capitol, Carter described the deep political divisions engulfing the country. “It’s tempting to focus on what divides us, rather than those things that unite us — our commitment to democracy, freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion,” he wrote.

Former president Barack Obama, 59, turned to poetry, reciting what is quickly becoming the most famous line from a poem written by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman for Biden’s inauguration: “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

“That’s who we are and who we must be,” Obama added.

He listed problems facing the country, ticking off a widening wealth gap, a pandemic and national protests over what he called “the enduring legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment.”

“While we may never achieve perfection,” Obama said. “We can become more perfect.”