The nation got a rare glimpse into President Obama’s private faith Thursday when he told lawmakers gathered at the National Prayer Breakfast that religion can help them overcome differences and tackle political problems the same way Americans come together in the wake of disaster.
“Through faith, but not through faith alone, we can unite people to serve the common good,” Mr. Obama said. “It is this spirit of civility that we are called to take up when we leave here today. That’s what I’m praying for.”
Mr. Obama appeared at the breakfast, a Washington institution for a half-century, alongside Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a bipartisan group of public officials.
Calling for a “serious and civil debate,” Mr. Obama bemoaned the state of relations between Republicans and Democrats, arguing that it harms the trust Americans have in their political system.
“This erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion,” he said. “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.”
Mr. Obama and his family have attended church services in Washington only a handful of times in the past year, but the White House has said they maintain their faith privately and continue to look for a regular church in the area. In an interview with ABC News this month, Mr. Obama has said he starts his morning by reading daily devotionals on his BlackBerry.
His appearance at the breakfast Thursday drew fire from some critics of the event’s organizer, the Fellowship Foundation, which they call secretive. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington earlier this week called on public officials to stay home.
“The National Prayer Breakfast uses the suggested imprimatur of the elected leaders who attend to give the fellowship greater credibility and facilitate its networking and fundraising,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group. “The president and members of Congress should not legitimatize this cultlike group – the head of which has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Laden by attending the breakfast.”
During his remarks, Mr. Obama cited areas where both parties differ, but said they should be able to agree on certain core principles.
“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 or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda,” he said, referring to an effort by some in that African nation to pass a law that would allow the death penalty for gays.
CREW has accused the fellowship of supporting the Ugandan proposal.
Star college quarterback Tim Tebow, known for evangelical beliefs as well as his success with the University of Florida Gators, was a special guest at the event. Mr. Tebow recently earned praise from Christian groups for filming an anti-abortion ad set to air during the Super Bowl this weekend.
Mr. Obama and other speakers invoked the devastating earthquake in Haiti last month, saying people must keep faith even “in moments when God’s grace can seem farthest away.”
“Last month God’s grace, God’s mercy seemed far away from our neighbors in Haiti,” Mr. Obama said, “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, servicemen and women bringing food and water and aid to the injured.”
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