President Obama Speaks at National Prayer Breakfast

President Obama:
Thank you. Thank you very much. Please be seated. Thank you so much. Heads of state,
Cabinet members, my outstanding Vice President, members of Congress, religious leaders, distinguished
guests, Admiral Mullen — it’s good to see all of 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. They’re two of my favorite senators. Let me
also acknowledge the director of my faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, who is here. Where’s Joshua?
He’s out there somewhere. He’s doing great work. (applause) I want to commend Secretary Hillary Clinton
on her outstanding remarks, and her outstanding leadership at the State Department.
She’s doing good every day. (applause) I’m especially pleased to see my dear friend,
Prime Minister Zapatero, and I want him to relay America’s greetings to the people of
Spain. And Johnny, you are right, I’m deeply blessed, and I thank God every day
for being married to Michelle Obama. (applause) I’m 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’m also here for the
same reason that all of 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 and
peace and prosperity. Perhaps especially in such times prayer is needed — to guard against
pride and to guard against complacency. But rightly or wrongly, most of us are inclined
to seek out the divine not in the moment when the Lord makes His face shine upon us, but
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. 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 water and food and aid to the injured.
One such translator was an American of Haitian descent, representative of the extraordinary
work that our men and women in uniform do all around the world — Navy Corpsman Christian
Brossard. And lying on a gurney aboard the USNS Comfort, a woman asked Christopher: “Where
do you come from? What country? After my operation,” she said, “I will pray for that country.”
And in Creole, Corpsman Brossard responded, “Etazini.” The United States of America. God’s
grace, and the compassion and decency of the American people is expressed through the men
and women like Corpsman Brossard. It’s expressed through the efforts of our Armed Forces, through
the efforts of our entire government, through similar efforts from Spain and other countries
around the world. It’s 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,
the United Sikhs. By Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose,
a higher purpose. It’s inspiring. This is what we do, as Americans, 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, as Hillary said, 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 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. Now, for those of us here in Washington, let’s acknowledge that democracy has
always been messy. Let’s not be overly nostalgic. (laughter) 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. And I’m profoundly mindful that a loyal opposition, a vigorous back and forth,
a skepticism of power, all of that is what makes our democracy work. And we’ve seen actually
some improvement in some circumstances. We haven’t seen any canings on the floor
of the Senate any time recently. (laughter) So we shouldn’t over-romanticize the past.
But 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. (laughter and applause) 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. 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
when they get 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 out of 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 or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that
are being proposed most recently in Uganda. Surely we can agree to find common ground
when possible, parting ways when necessary. But 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;
while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle — and I assure you I’m praying
a lot these days — (laughter) — prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts
with humility. It can fill us with a spirit of brotherhood. It can remind us that each
of us are children of a awesome and loving God. Through faith, but not through faith
alone, we can unite people to serve the common good. And that’s why my Office of Faith-Based
and Neighborhood Partnerships has been working so hard 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. And through that office
we’ve turned the faith-based initiative around to find common ground among people of all
beliefs, allowing them to make an impact in a way that’s civil and 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. That’s what I’m praying for. I know in difficult times like
these — when people are frustrated, when pundits start shouting and politicians start
calling each other names — it can seem like a return to civility is not possible, like
the very idea is a relic of some bygone era. The word itself seems quaint — civility.
But let us remember those who came before; those who believed in the 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 a friend.” In the eyes of those who denied his humanity, he saw the face of
God. Remember Abraham Lincoln. On the eve of the 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; he was vilified, derided, attacked; but he 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. 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’s not born in 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 all the time, not just some of the time — is my fervent prayer for our nation
and the world. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (applause)

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