President's Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast

A contact at the White House sent us these remarks, and since I'm not sure if they are on the web yet, I'll post them in full. 

Heads of state, cabinet members, Members of Congress, religious leaders, distinguished guests – it’s good to see you. Let me begin by acknowledging the co-chairs of this breakfast, Senators Isakson and Klobuchar, who embody the sense of fellowship at the heart of this gathering. Let me also acknowledge the director of my faith-based office, Joshua DuBois. I also want to commend Secretary Clinton on her excellent remarks, and outstanding leadership at the State Department. And I’m particularly pleased to see my dear friend, Prime Minister Zapatero, and ask him to relay our greetings to the Spanish people.

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I am privileged to join you once again, as my predecessors have for over half a century. Like them, I come here to speak about the ways my faith informs who I am – as a President, and as a person. But I am also here for the same reason you are.  For we all share a recognition – one as old as time – that a willingness to believe; an openness to grace; a commitment to prayer can bring sustenance to our lives. There is, of course, a need for prayer even in times of joy, peace, and prosperity.  Especially in such times is prayer needed – to guard against pride, to guard against complacency. But rightly or wrongly, many of us are most inclined to seek out the divine not in moments when the Lord makes His face to shine upon us, but in moments when God’s grace can seem farthest away.

Last month, God’s grace, and mercy, seemed far from our neighbor in Haiti. And yet, I believe that grace was not absent in the midst of tragedy. It was heard in prayers and hymns that broke the silence of an earthquake’s wake. It was witnessed among parishioners of churches that stood no more, a roadside congregation, holding bibles in their laps. It was felt in the presence of relief workers and medics; translators and servicemen and women, bringing water, food, and aid to the injured.

One such translator was an American of Haitian descent, Navy Corpsman Christopher Brossard. Lying on a gurney aboard USNS Comfort, a woman asked Christopher: “Where do you come from? What country? After my operation,” she said, “I will pray for that country.” In Creole, Corpsman Brossard responded, “Etazini.” The United States of America.

God’s grace; and the compassion, the decency, of the American people, is expressed through Corpsman Brossard. It’s expressed through the efforts of our Armed Forces, through the efforts of our entire government, and through similar efforts from Spain and other countries around the world. It is also, as Secretary Clinton said, expressed through multiple faith-based efforts. By evangelicals at World Relief. By the American Jewish World Service. By Hindu temples, and mainline Protestants, Catholic Relief Services, African-American churches, and United Sikhs.  By Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose, a higher purpose.

This is what we, as Americans, do in times of trouble. We unite, recognizing that such crises call on all of us to act, recognizing that there but for the grace of God go I, recognizing that life’s most sacred responsibility – one affirmed by all of the world’s great religions – is to sacrifice something of ourselves for a person in need.

Sadly, though, that spirit is too often absent when tackling the long-term, but no less profound issues facing our country and the world. Too often, that spirit is missing without the spectacular tragedy, the 9/11 or the Katrina, the earthquake or tsunami, that can shake us out of complacency. We become numb to the day to day crises, the slow moving tragedies of children without food, men without shelter, families without health care. We become absorbed with our abstract arguments, ideological disputes, contests for power. In this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.

Now, let’s acknowledge that democracy is always messy, and divisions are hardly new in this country. Arguments about the proper role of government, the relationship between liberty and equality, our obligations to our fellow citizens – these things have been with us since our founding.  Moreover, I am mindful that a loyal opposition, a vigorous back and forth, a skepticism of power, is part of what makes our democracy work.

Still, there is a sense that something is different now; that something is broken; that those of us in Washington are not serving the people well. At times, it seems like we’re unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. This erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all or nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth.

Empowered by faith, consistently and prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility. That begins with stepping out of our comfort zones in an effort to bridge divisions. We see that in the many conservative pastors who are helping lead the way to fix our broken immigration system. We see that in the evangelical leaders who are rallying their congregations to protect our planet. We see that in the increasing recognition among progressives that government can’t solve all of our problems, and that talking about values like responsible fatherhood and healthy marriages are integral to any anti-poverty agenda.

Civility also requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable; understanding, as President Kennedy said, that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” Now, I’m not always right. Just ask Michelle. But you can question my policies without questioning my faith. Challenging each other’s ideas can renew our democracy. But when we challenge each other’s motives, it becomes harder to see what we hold in common. It becomes harder to see that we share the same dreams – even when we do not share the same plans for how to fulfill them.

We may disagree about the best way to reform our health care system, but surely we can agree that no one ought to go broke because they got sick in the richest nation on Earth. We can take different approaches to ending inequality, but surely we can agree on the need to lift our children from ignorance; to lift our neighbors from poverty. We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are – whether it’s here in the United States of America, or more extremely, in the odious laws that have been proposed in Uganda.

Surely we can agree to find common ground when possible, while parting ways when necessary. In doing so, let us be guided by our faith, and by prayer. For while prayer can buck us up when we are down; keep us calm in a storm; and stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle, prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts with humility. Fill us with a spirit of brotherhood. And remind us that we are all – every one of us – children of an awesome God.

Through faith, but not through faith alone, we can unite people to serve the common good. That is what my Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has done since I announced it here last year. We’ve slashed red tape and built effective partnerships on a range of uses, from promoting fatherhood here at home to spearheading interfaith cooperation abroad. Through that Office, we have turned the faith-based initiative around to find common ground among people of all beliefs; and make an impact in a way that’s civil, respectful of difference, and focused on what matters most.

It is this spirit of civility that we are called to take up when we leave here today. I know that in difficult times like these – when pundits start shouting and politicians start calling each other names – it can seem like a return to civility is not possible, it can seem like the very idea is a relic of some bygone age.

But let us remember those who came before; those who believed in a brotherhood of man even when such a faith was tested. Remember Dr. Martin Luther King. Not long after an explosion ripped through his front porch, his wife and infant daughter inside, he rose to that pulpit in Montgomery, and said “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” In the eyes of those who denied his humanity, he saw the face of God.

Remember Abraham Lincoln. On the eve of civil war, with states seceding and forces gathering, with a nation divided half slave and half free, he rose to deliver his first Inaugural and said, “We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”  Even in the eyes of confederate soldiers, he saw the face of God.

Remember William Wilberforce, whose Christian faith led him to seek slavery’s abolition in Britain; who was vilified, derided, and attacked; but who called for “lessening prejudices [and] conciliating good-will, and thereby making way for the less obstructed progress of truth.”  In the eyes of those who sought to silence a nation’s conscience, he saw the face of God.

So, yes, there are crimes of conscience that call us to action. Yes, there are causes that move our hearts and offenses that stir our souls.  But progress doesn’t come when we demonize opponents.  It is not born of righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another, and see the face of God. That we might do so – that we will do so – is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

James Martin, SJ

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Helena Loflin
7 years 8 months ago
Well done, Mr. President!  May God bless you and your family, and keep you all safe.

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