Does the National Prayer Breakfast promote bipartisanship?

The National Prayer Breakfast offers the president and other leaders the chance to share from the heart. But does it rise above political divisions?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama smiles while attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.

President Obama is attending the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning, an annual event now entering its 64th year. He will deliver an address, as will other leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Members of Congress also hold weekly prayer meetings, less well-publicized, attended by a broad mix of government figures. In an era dominated by perceptions of partisanship in the US halls of power, do these gatherings offer a glimmer of something different, an occasion to set aside political rancor?

Rep. Juan Vargas (D) of California, co-chair of this year’s National Prayer Breakfast and former Jesuit missionary, says yes.

“Here we all sit, as Democrats, Republicans, Congress members, senators, and for that short moment of time we're all together, we're unified,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

“We're praying for the president, we're praying for the nation, we're praying for the world. That spirit is one that I wish we had all the time. We don't, but I wish that we did."

He also described the Thursday morning events, where 30 to 40 members of Congress gather together for a weekly hour of peace and prayer.

“It's hard to pray with someone on Thursday and then attack him or her on Friday,” said Rep. Vargas. “I have some people on the Republican side that I just love. I know their story now.”

This year’s National Prayer Breakfast will include remarks not only from Mr. Obama, but also from Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

These addresses do not always foster bipartisanship. Take the words of Obama last year, as he talked of the horrors inflicted by the so-called Islamic State. He cautioned against casting a blanket of blame over a whole religion, or suggesting that violence is endemic to Islam:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

In his defense of Obama's speech, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic quoted Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens justifying the approaching Civil War:

With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place.... It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory."

Despite the historical context, Obama’s words angered and even infuriated some Republicans. Former GOP presidential candidates and conservative commentators pilloried the speech. A model of bipartisanship it was not.

Nonetheless, looking back over the decades, examining the words of the presidential addresses, this National Prayer Breakfast does seem to offer an opportunity to rise above political or religious leanings.

It is a chance to take a different view, to depart for a time from the anger and bitterness that can seem so prevalent, and to seek something higher.

“In a world today that is so torn with strife where the divisions seem to be increasing, not people coming together, within countries, divisions within the people, themselves and all," said President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 National Prayer Breakfast address, "I wonder if we have ever thought about the greatest tool that we have — that power of prayer and God's help.”

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