National Prayer Breakfast
The annual event was held yesterday, and it hasn’t received much coverage, it seems, because it’s not usually the most riveting event of the year. But this year was different, I thought, and the politics and the optics of the event were certainly remarkable, as the breakfast is organized by the secretive evangelical network known as The Family or The Fellowship.
But The Family has had its share of scandal and turmoil this year, and the president, who is always the main speaker, is Barack Obama, who can preach with the best of them–and the event was an impressive showcase for a “religious left,” if you will. I wrote it up for PoliticsDaily (with a lot of inside baseball stuff), and I also saw Obama’s talk (as well as that of Hillary Clinton–text here) as building on the same themes as his State of the Union address and his open mike dismantling of the GOP leadership at their retreat last Friday–challenging Republicans to move beyond obstructionism and ugly falsehoods, saying both sides have learned many things, and that faith should draw even politicians together to work for the common good.
“Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God,” he said, in one of several faith-based passages. Full text here–I think it’s worth a read. Here are a few passages, one of which takes off from his lament that the spirit of generosity that animates Americans to help Haiti is often absent at home:
“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 the 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 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…”
“…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. That begins with stepping out of our comfort zones in an effort to bridge divisions. We see that in many conservative pastors who are helping lead the way to fix our broken immigration system. It’s not what would be expected from them, and yet they recognize, in those immigrant families, the face of God. We see that in the evangelical leaders who are rallying their congregations to protect our planet. We see it 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 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.”
“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 am the first to confess I am not always right. Michelle will testify to that. (Laughter.) But surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship.”
“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. We forget that we share at some deep level the same dreams — even when we don’t share the same plans on how to fulfill them…”
I think this is both a good and mature vision of faith and a wise move politically–challenging the opposition to engage on the field of battle. Smart tactics when you have superior numbers but your foe, who is smaller, wages a guerrilla campaign. So what would be the GOP’s motive to come out and engage? I don’t see one, at least in the short-term, which is what they seem to be concerned with. So Obama can either fight by their rules, a la’ Clinton post-1994, or he can stick to his higher ground/common ground vision–and try to win the battle for public opinion that way. He’d clearly prefer the latter, but again, can it work?
One last point: The theme of faith and reason made for a very Catholic undercurrent to the event, and it seemed most overt in remarks by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who cited Aquinas’ dictum that “A man has free choice only to the extent that he is rational”– which could also be the motto of Obamaism. Mullen added:
“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. 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.”