President Obama's address at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday was a given -- the chief executive has been the main speaker since the event began in 1953. But rarely has so much been riding on what in recent years has seemed like a feel-good function for conservative Christians and a chance for a few brave Democrats to burnish their faith-based credentials.
Obama's attendance came after a freshman year of brutal economic news, ugly policy fights, declining poll numbers and election setbacks, and, not least, a relentless barrage of inflammatory criticism of his character, often by the very same Christian conservatives who have long been associated with the National Prayer Breakfast.
Moreover, the president was also facing calls from some on the left to either boycott
the event because of alleged anti-gay lobbying by the organizers, the secretive Christian network known as The Fellowship, or to deliver the liberals' talking points
to the crowd of more than 3,000 power brokers, congressmen and women, cabinet officials and international dignitaries gathered in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton.
Yet as he did in his State of the Union address a week earlier, and in his open mike exchange with the Republican leadership last Friday, Obama turned the tables on critics on both sides and signaled that he would not be dissuaded from his pursuit of bipartisanship and renewed civility in Washington. This is, he made it clear, an article of faith for him -- as it should be for the others in office -- as much as it is a political strategy.
Obama began, as most speakers did, by pointing to the disaster in Haiti and the response of Americans buoyed by faith or some higher purpose.
But that example also set up his main point, which is that Americans too are facing disasters because of the refusal of political leaders to face up to long-term problems. (Full text of talk here
Without "the spectacular tragedy, the 9/11 or the Katrina, the earthquake or the tsunami, that can shake us out of complacency," Obama said, politicians "become numb to the day-to-day crises, the slow-moving tragedies of children without food and men without shelter and families without health care. We become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power. And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God's voice."
As he has in recent days, Obama noted once again -- and drew knowing laughs in doing so -- that "democracy is messy" and no one should have messianic expectations of a quick and clean fix that is exactly to their liking.
"But," he added, "there is a sense that something is different now; that something is broken; that those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should."
"At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our 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. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the men without shelter and the families without health care."
"Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility," he added, noting that conservative Christians are backing immigration reform and environmentalism while progressives are realizing "that government can't solve all of our problems, and that talking about values like responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage are integral to any anti-poverty agenda...Stretching out of our dogmas, our prescribed roles along the political spectrum, that can help us regain a sense of civility."
It was a concise and powerful sermon, as Obama again took the fight to his opponents. He did so by couching his call for civility and collaboration in religious terms, a direct challenge to those who have attacked him or sought to derail legislative progress, often under the cover of their own interpretation of the Bible.
"[S]urely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship," Obama said in a direct rebuke to the "birthers" and to lobbies on the Religious Right who continued to fire off blistering action alerts decrying Obama's allegedly immoral agenda.
As he has before, Obama used his bully pulpit to display his talent as the nation's Preacher-in-Chief, and he in effect made the event his own. Indeed, the Democratic optics of the entire prayer breakfast were remarkable.
At this celebration of American faith and patriotism, the dais was dominated not only by Obama and the First Lady but by Vice President Joe Biden as well as Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a liberal Jew who read from the Torah about Moses and governance and used the passage to foreshadow Obama's call for cooperation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was there, and even Heisman winning quarterback and prominent evangelical Tim Tebow, who has been much in the news due to his pro-life Super Bowl ad set to air Sunday, was invited thanks to Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. (Nelson prevailed upon Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, the GOP co-host for this year's breakfast, to invite Tebow, which of course led Isakson and Tebow to joke that getting a Georgia Bulldog (Isakson) to invite a Florida Gator (Tebow) was already evidence of the Holy Spirit moving.)
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a featured speaker, two days after he had sparred sharply with conservatives during his congressional testimony arguing that the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gays should be overturned as a matter of "integrity."
In his remarks, Mullen made a plea for reasoned discourse among leaders to help the nation, saying that the best qualities of leadership are "self-reflection and sober analysis." He also cited St. Thomas Aquinas' dictum that "A man has free choice only to the extent that he is rational"-- which could also be the motto of Obamaism.
"In the heat of battle, perhaps especially in the heat of battle, we must find the time to think, and to adjust, and to improve our situation," Mullen told the gathering. "After more than four decades in uniform, in peace and in war, it's been my experience that people are guided best not by their instincts but by their reason. Leaders are most effective not when they rule passionately, but when they decide dispassionately."
Hillary Clinton was especially effective, speaking of her attendance at every National Prayer Breakfast since 1993 (she has been a periodic attendee at The Fellowship's private prayer groups) and recounting how these events and her private faith life sustain her even as she sees tragedies like those in Haiti or the ongoing gridlock in Washington.
She told a funny story about Mother Teresa twisting her arm to start a home for abandoned babies: "She proved herself to be the most relentless lobbyist I've ever met. She could not get a job in your White House, Mr. President," she said, neatly praising the late Saint of Calcutta and Obama. (Full text of her talk is here
She also sharply denounced the many "perversions" of religion around the world, when it is used "as a club" to threaten believers or, as she repeatedly stated, to subjugate women and girls, or when it is used to justify terrorism and oppression -- and in the latter case she specifically called out Iran's regime.
But in her most pointed and much-anticipated comments, she then blasted an anti-gay bill in the Ugandan parliament. The measure has led to an international uproar and to calls for Obama and others to boycott the prayer breakfast because its sponsor, The Fellowship, also known as The Family, has close connections to parliamentarians in Uganda who are backing the legislation and who cite backing from American evangelicals as an argument for the law.
The bill, which is expected to pass, would impose draconian penalties on homosexuals, including life imprisonment or execution, as well as stiff jail terms for those who do not "out" someone they suspect of being gay to authorities. International furor over the bill has led a number of prominent U.S. Christians with close ties to Ugandan Christians backing the bill to denounce it
or criticize it as too harsh.
"We are standing up for gays and lesbians to be treated as full human beings," Clinton said in a line that drew scattered applause. "I recently called [Ugandan] President [Yoweri] Museveni, whom I have known through the prayer breakfast, and expressed the strongest concerns about the law."
Another featured speaker was none other than Spanish Prime Minister José Luis RodrÍguez Zapatero, an atheist and liberal leader who has infuriated the church hierarchy in the traditional Catholic country by legalizing same-sex marriage, introducing fast-track divorce, and ending state-subsidized religious instruction in public schools.
Zapatero was effusive in his praise of the event and read from the Book of Deuteronomy as he focused on the social justice imperatives of the Bible that should inspire secular leaders. "No other task is more binding on us than that of fostering job creation," Zapatero said. He also referred to gay marriage as he championed the right of "moral autonomy" for people to live "with their loved one," and he used that same principle to reject religious fundamentalism, especially the kind that would lead to terrorism.
Zapatero's presence at the event was especially surprising. The Fellowship/Family invites an unannounced guest who is usually a famous personage -- Mother Teresa in 1994, Bono in 2006, Tony Blair last year. Jeff Sharlet, author of an investigative book
on The Family, said Family sources told him Obama lobbied strongly for Zapatero to be invited, although Clinton was apparently the official keynoter, a spot that would normally have been given to Zapatero.
Still, giving a platform to so many Democrats and liberals, and showing them as people of faith (even the ones without faith), was not only a boost for the administration but also for the organizers.
The Family was founded in 1935 but in recent years has been led by Doug Coe, a reclusive figure who has nonetheless developed extensive influence through The Family's prayer networks and through alliances with Christians around the Capitol and in other countries. But sex scandals and other misdeeds by Family associates like Nevada Sen. John Ensign, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former Mississippi Republican congressman Chip Pickering have brought unwelcome publicity to the group.
(Sanford apparently doesn't seem to think he's a problem as he showed up at the breakfast.)
So too has the uproar over The Family's connections to the Ugandan "kill-the-gays" bill. Neither Coe nor The Family has formally dissociated itself from the bill, though officials of the group made it plain they did not want the Ugandan MP and Family member David Bahati, who sponsored the legislation, to come to the National Prayer Breakfast as he has in years past.
Bahati acceded to their wishes, though Sharlet said African Christians who were at the breakfast were angry when both Clinton and Obama publicly blasted the Ugandan bill in their remarks, with Obama calling it "odious."
Still, what may seem like a rebuke to The Family could also be smart politics, says Sharlet. "Publicitywise, this has been far and away the worst year in their 70-year history." The Family likes to give the impression that it is bipartisan, transcending politics, even if it skews conservative evangelical. So "it was important to them to have as liberal a lineup as they could to stress that." Besides, he said, "when Obama goes there [to the Family-sponsored prayer breakfast] he gives them incredible juice" in terms of public credibility.
Sharlet said he spoke with Bahati by phone after the Thursday event and the Ugandan MP said he forgives his friends in The Family for the snub and the more liberal orientation of this year's breakfast.
"I understand what they are doing," Sharlet quoted Bahati as saying. "They're using it to embrace sin. But they have to do that because this is what we do in The Family. We make a big circle so that people can come in and we can lead them to Christ."
The danger for The Family and for Republicans in Washington, however, is that events like this could showcase Obama and the Democrats as people of faith whose public policies and calls for civility are another face of Christianity -- and one that could lead voters to their side if conservative decide not to answer the president's altar call.