Prayer Breakfasts – Barack Obama
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 5, 2009
Good morning. I want to thank the cochairs of this breakfast, Representatives Heath Shuler and Vernon Ehlers. And I also want to thank my good friend Tony Blair for coming today, somebody who did it first, and perhaps, did it better than I will do. He has been an example for so many people around the world of what dedicated leadership can accomplish, and we are very grateful to him.
I want to thank my outstanding Vice President, Joe Biden, my wonderful members of the Cabinet, Members of Congress, clergy, friends, and dignitaries from across the world.
Michelle and I are honored to join you in this prayer breakfast. I know this breakfast has a long history in Washington, and faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life, so we feel very much at home and look forward to keeping this tradition alive during our time here.
It’s a tradition that I’m told actually began many years ago in the city of Seattle. It was at the height of the Great Depression, and most people found themselves out of work. Many fell into poverty. Some lost everything.
The leaders of the community did all that they could for those who were suffering in their midst. And then they decided to do something more: They prayed. It didn’t matter what party or religious affiliation to which they belonged, they simply gathered one morning as brothers and sisters to share a meal and talk with God.
And these breakfasts soon sprouted up throughout Seattle and quickly spread to cities and towns across America, eventually making their way to Washington. A short time after President Eisenhower asked a group of Senators if he could join their prayer breakfast, it became a national event. And today, as I see Presidents and dignitaries here from every corner of the globe, it strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still bring much of the world together in a moment of peace and good will.
I raise this history because far too often, we’ve seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another, as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. It’s a theme that we heard from Tony. Wars have been waged; innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.
There’s no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we are going next, and some subscribe to no faith at all. But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There’s no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know. We know–[applause].
We know as well that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. And Tony and I did not coordinate here–there’s a little serendipity–Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is the hadith that reads, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” The same is true for Buddhists and Hindus, for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule: the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
It is an ancient rule, a simple rule, but also perhaps the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know, or worship with, or agree with on every issue or any issue. Sometimes it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do, to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.
In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America and our duty as citizens of the world. And it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I’m announcing later today.
The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another, or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities and to do so without blurring the line that our Founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure, or faith-based groups providing job training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.
We will also reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialog on faith. I’m not naive; I don’t expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish. The work of Prime Minister Blair and the work of so many here underscores how difficult it can be to overcome our differences. But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, and if perhaps we allow God’s grace to enter into that space that lies between us, then the old rifts will start to mend, new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of excessive zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding.
This is my hope; this is my prayer.
I believe this good is possible because my faith teaches me that all is possible, but I also believe because of what I have seen and what I have lived.
Prime Minister Blair shared a story of his awakening to his faith. Perhaps like him, I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, and grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even though she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the south side of Chicago after college. And it happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck, no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose, His purpose.
In different ways and in different forms, it is that spirit and sense of purpose that drew friends and neighbors to that first prayer breakfast in Seattle all those years ago, during another trying time for our Nation. It is what led friends and neighbors from so many faiths and nations here today. We come to break bread and to give thanks, but most of all to seek guidance and to rededicate ourselves to the mission of love and service that lies at the heart of all humanity. St. Augustine once said: “Pray as though everything depend on God, then work as though everything depended on you.”
So let us pray together on this February morning, but let us also work together in all the days and months ahead. For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God. I ask you to join me in that effort, and I also ask that you pray for myself, for Michelle, for my family, and for the continued perfection of our Nation.
Thank you so much. God bless you. God bless the United States of America.
Remarks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast
June 19, 2009
The President. Thank you. Buenos dias.
Audience members. Buenos dias.
The President. It is good to see everybody here. Just a few quick acknowledgments. Our outstanding Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, is here. Please give her a big round of applause; the great Governor of the State of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell. Two special members of my staff that I want all of you to get to know. First of all, we have a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, if you haven’t already met him, Joshua DuBois is just a wonderful young man. Please give him a big round of applause. He helps to organize a lot of our faith outreach. And our Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, one of my favorite people, Cecilia Munoz, please give her a big round of applause.
I want to thank Reverend Cortes for the wonderful introduction and the wonderful prayer for me and my family. I want to thank Esperanza and all of you who worked so hard to put together the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference. And I also want to join you in honoring the work of Adolfo Carrion, Sr., on this Father’s Day weekend. On this Father’s Day weekend I know that my Director of Urban Affairs, Adolfo’s son, is particularly proud of his dad. I also want to thank all of you for the work that you do each and every day. Through your service to your communities, you represent the very best in our country. And I’m honored to join you in prayer this morning.
At a time when there’s no shortage of challenges to occupy our time, it’s even more important to step back and to give thanks and to seek guidance from each other, but most importantly from God. That’s what we’ve come here to do.
We can begin by giving thanks for the legacy that allows us to come together, for it was the genius of America’s Founders to protect the freedom of all religion and those who practice no religion at all. So as we join in prayer, we remember that this is a nation of Christians and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. It is this freedom that allows faith to flourish within our borders. It is this freedom that makes our Nation stronger.
For those of us who draw on faith as a guiding force in our lives, prayer has many purposes. For many, it’s a source of support when times are hard. President Lincoln, who Reverend Cortes mentioned, once said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” And while the challenges that I’ve faced pale in comparison to Lincoln’s, I know that more than once I’ve been filled with the same conviction over the last 5 months.
But prayer is more than a last resort. Prayer helps us search for meaning in our own lives, and it helps us find the vision and the strength to see the world that we want to build. And that’s what I’d like to talk about for just a few minutes today.
As I look out at this audience, I’m reminded of the power of faith in America; faith in God, and a faith in the promise of this great country. Each of us come from many different places. We trace our roots back to different nations, and we represent a broad spectrum of personal and political beliefs. But all of us pray to God. All of us share a determination to build a better future for our children and for our grandchildren. That must be a starting point for common ground and for the America that we want to build.
Like some of you, I am the son of a parent who came to these shores in search of a better future. And while I may be the first African American President, there is nothing unique or unusual about the opportunities that this country gave to me. Instead, like generations of Americans, I could count on the basic promise that no matter what you look like or where you come from, America will let you go as far as your dreams and your hard work will carry you.
And that promise is at the heart of the American story. It’s a story shared by many of you: by clergy and Members of Congress; by business leaders and community organizers. It’s a story of every young child who has the opportunity to go farther in life than their parents were able to go. It’s the story of a young girl who could rise from a public housing project to be nominated for the highest court in the land. And I am confident that it’s a story that will someday be told by the first Hispanic President of the United States of America.
But we know there is much more work to be done to extend the promise of a better life to all our children and grandchildren. In all that we do, we must be guided by that simple command that binds all great religions together: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
In the 21st century, we’ve learned that this truth is central not just to our own lives, but to our success as a nation. If our children cannot get the world-class education they need to succeed, then America will not be able to compete with other countries. If our families cannot afford health care, then the costs go up for all of us: individuals, businesses, and government. If folks down the street can’t pay their mortgage and folks across town can’t find a job, then that pain is going to trickle into other parts of our economy.
And that’s why we’ve come together on behalf of the future that we want to build, one where all of our children go to the best schools, all our people can go to work and make a living, all our families can afford health care, and prosperity is extended to everybody. Together we must build a future where the promise of America is kept for a new generation.
We also know that keeping this promise means upholding America’s tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. Those things aren’t contradictory; they’re complementary. That’s why I’m committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform as President of the United States.
The American people believe in immigration, but they also believe that we can’t tolerate a situation where people come to the United States in violation of the law, nor can we tolerate employers who exploit undocumented workers in order to drive down wages. That’s why we’re taking steps to strengthen border security, and we must build on those efforts. We must also clarify the status of millions who are here illegally, many who have put down roots. For those who wish to become citizens, we should require them to pay a penalty and pay taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules. That is the fair, practical, and promising way forward, and that’s what I’m committed to passing as President of the United States.
We must never forget that time and again, the promise of America has been renewed by immigrants who make their story part of the American story. We see it in every State of our country. We see it in our families and in our neighborhoods. And as President, I’ve been honored to see it demonstrated by the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States.
You know, last month, I had the honor of welcoming a group of our servicemembers as citizens for the very first time. In that crowd, there were faces from every corner of the world. And one man from Nicaragua, Jeonathan Zapata, had waited his whole life to serve our country even though he was not yet a citizen. “By serving in the military,” he said, “I can also give back to the United States.” He’s done so in Afghanistan, and he even helped man the 400,000th aircraft landing aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
And Jeonathan’s story is not unique either. He’s part of a proud legacy of service. For generations, Hispanic Americans have served with great commitment and valor, and there are now nearly 150,000 Hispanic Americans serving under our flag. And today we are proud to welcome several of them who are wounded warriors recovering at Walter Reed. Please join me in honoring their service and in keeping them and all of our troops in our thoughts and prayers–please.
These troops have dedicated their lives to serving their fellow Americans. And their example, like those of all of our men and women in uniform, should challenge us to ask what we can do to better serve our communities and our country, because the greatest responsibility that we have as citizens is to one another.
That’s the spirit we need to build; that’s the America that we seek. And to do so, we must look past our divisions to serve the hopes and dreams that we hold in common. We must give life to that fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, that I am my sister’s keeper.
Scripture tells us, “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” Today let us pray for the strength to find the word in our hearts and for the vision to see the America that we can build together as one nation and as one people.
Thank you for your partnership. Thank you for your prayers. May God bless all of you, and may God bless the United States of America.
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 4, 2010
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. Now, let me begin by acknowledging the cochairs 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.
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. 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 am deeply blessed, and I thank God every day for being married to Michelle Obama.
Now, I’m privileged to join you once again, as my predecessors have for over half a century. And 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, service men and women bringing food and water 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 [Christopher]* 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, “Zetazini”–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. 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 overromanticize 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 antipoverty 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]
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–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 redtape 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.
Remarks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 6, 2010
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you. Please have a seat. Have a seat. What a great honor and pleasure it is to have all of you here today. Before I begin, I want to just acknowledge two members of my Cabinet who I believe are here — Secretary Gary Locke — is that correct? Where’s Gary? There he is — our Commerce Secretary. (Applause.) And Secretary Janet Napolitano, who’s keeping us safe each and every day. (Applause.)
I also want to acknowledge the Mount Ennon Clinton Children’s Chorus for being here. They’re going to be giving us a medley later on. There they are up there, looking very serious. (Applause.)
Before I begin, I want to send my deepest condolences, our thoughts and prayers to the families and the friends of the workers who lost their lives after an explosion took place in a West Virginia mine yesterday. At this moment, there are still people missing. There are rescue teams that are searching tirelessly and courageously to find them.
I spoke with Governor Manchin of West Virginia last night and told him that the federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort. So I would ask the faithful who’ve gathered here this morning to pray for the safe return of the missing, the men and women who put their lives on the line to save them, and the souls of those who have been lost in this tragic accident. May they rest in peace, and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead.
One of my hopes upon taking this office was to make the White House a place where all people would feel welcome. To that end, we held a Seder here to mark the first Passover. We held an Iftar here with Muslim Americans to break the daily fast during Ramadan. And today, I’m particularly blessed to welcome you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for this Easter breakfast.
With us are Christian leaders from all across America, men and women who lead small-town churches and big-city congregations, and major organizations in service of others; folks whose sermons are heard and whose examples are followed by millions all across the country. So I wanted to join you for a brief moment today to continue the Easter celebration of our risen Savior, and to reflect on the work to which His promise calls all of us.
I can’t tell any of you anything about Easter that you don’t already know. (Laughter.) I can’t shed light on centuries of scriptural interpretation or bring any new understandings to those of you who reflect on Easter’s meaning each and every year and each and every day. But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.
For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye. The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire. The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves. The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.
We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him. We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.
And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect. Each of us errs — by accident or by design. Each of us falls short of how we ought to live. And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.
It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption. But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.
Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.
“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today. Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children.
So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer.
Many of you are living out that commitment every day. So we want to honor you through this brief program, celebrating both the meaning of Easter and the spirit of service that embodies so much of your work. And our first celebrant today is Reverend Dr. Cynthia Hale, who will deliver our opening prayer.
Thank you all for being here. (Applause.)
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 3, 2011
Thank you so much. To the cochairs, Jeff and Ann; to all the Members of Congress who are here; the distinguished guests who’ve traveled so far to be here this morning; to Randall for your wonderful stories and powerful prayer; to all who are here providing testimony: Thank you so much for having me and Michelle here. We are blessed to be here.
I want to begin by just saying a word to Mark Kelly who’s here. We have been praying for Mark’s wife, Gabby Giffords, for many days now. But I want Gabby and Mark and their entire family to know that we are with them for the long haul, and God is with them for the long haul.
And even as we pray for Gabby in the aftermath of a tragedy here at home, we’re also mindful of the violence that we’re now seeing in the Middle East, and we pray that the violence in Egypt will end and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized and that a better day will dawn over Egypt and throughout the world.
For almost 60 years, going back to President Eisenhower, this gathering has been attended by our President. It’s a tradition that I’m proud to uphold not only as a fellow believer, but as an elected leader whose entry into public service was actually through the church. This may come as a surprise, for as some of you know, I did not come from a particularly religious family. My father, who I barely knew–I only met once for a month in my entire life–was said to be a nonbeliever throughout his life.
My mother, whose parents were Baptist and Methodist, grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion, and she usually only took me to church on Easter and Christmas–sometimes. And yet my mother was also one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew. She was somebody who was instinctively guided by the Golden Rule and who nagged me constantly about the homespun values of her Kansas upbringing, values like honesty and hard work and kindness and fair play.
And it’s because of her that I came to understand the equal worth of all men and all women and the imperatives of an ethical life and the necessity to act on your beliefs. And it’s because of her example and guidance that despite the absence of a formal religious upbringing, my earliest inspirations for a life of service ended up being the faith leaders of the civil rights movement.
There was, of course, Martin Luther King and the Baptist leaders, the ways in which they helped those who had been subjugated to make a way out of no way and transform a nation through the force of love. But there were also Catholic leaders like Father Theodore Heshburgh and Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Muslim leaders and Hindu leaders. Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me just a few years out of college to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the South Side of Chicago. And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior.
Now, that was over 20 years ago. And like all of us, my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn’t always been a straight line. I have thanked God for the joys of parenthood and Michelle’s willingness to put up with me. [Laughter] In the wake of failures and disappointments, I’ve questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own shortsighted desires.
And let me tell you, these past 2 years, they have deepened my faith. [Laughter] The Presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. [Laughter] Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” [Laughter]
Fortunately, I’m not alone in my prayers. Pastor friends like Joel Hunter and T.D. Jakes come over to the Oval Office every once in a while to pray with me and pray for the Nation. The chapel at Camp David has provided consistent respite and fellowship. The Director of our Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office, Joshua DuBois–a young minister himself–he starts my morning off with meditations from Scripture.
Most of all, I’ve got friends around the country–some who I know, some who I don’t know, but I know they’re friends–who are out there praying for me. One of them is an old friend named Kaye Wilson. In our family we call her Mama Kaye, and she happens to be Malia and Sasha’s godmother. And she has organized prayer circles for me all around the country. She started small with her own Bible study group, but once I started running for President and she heard what they were saying about me on cable, she felt the need to pray harder. [Laughter] By the time I was elected President, she says, “I just couldn’t keep up on my own.” [Laughter] “I was having to pray eight, nine times a day just for you.” [Laughter] So she enlisted help from around the country.
It’s also comforting to know that people are praying for you who don’t always agree with you. Tom Coburn, for example, is here. He is not only a dear friend, but also a brother in Christ. We came into the Senate at the same time. Even though we are on opposite sides of a whole bunch of issues, part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God. And I keep praying that God will show him the light and he will vote with me once in a while. [Laughter] It’s going to happen, Tom. [Laughter] A ray of light is going to beam down. [Laughter]
My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years. All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that, ultimately, what matters is not what other people say about us, but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
As I travel across the country, folks often ask me what is it that I pray for. And like most of you, my prayers sometimes are general: “Lord, give me the strength to meet the challenges of my office.” Sometimes, they’re specific: “Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance–[Laughter]–where there will be boys.” [Laughter] “Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance.” [Laughter]
But while I petition God for a whole range of things, there are a few common themes that do recur. The first category of prayer comes out of the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling. Christian tradition teaches that one day the world will be turned right side up and everything will return as it should be. But until that day, we’re called to work on behalf of a God that chose justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.
We’ve seen a lot of hardship these past 2 years. Not a day passes when I don’t get a letter from somebody or meet someone who’s out of work or lost their home or without health care. The story Randall told about his father–that’s a story that a whole lot of Americans have gone through over these past couple of years.
Sometimes, I can’t help right away. But sometimes, what I can do to try to improve the economy or to curb foreclosures or to help deal with the health care system–sometimes, it seems so distant and so remote, so profoundly inadequate to the enormity of the need. And it is my faith, then, that biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed. It’s faith that reminds me that despite being just one very imperfect man, I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can, for as long as I can, and that somehow God will buttress these efforts.
It also helps to know that none of us are alone in answering this call. It’s being taken up each and every day by so many of you–back home, your churches, your temples and synagogues, your fellow congregants–so many faith groups across this great country of ours.
I came upon a group recently called “charity: water,” a group that supports clean water projects overseas. This is a project that was started by a former nightclub promoter named Scott Harrison, who grew weary of living only for himself and feeling like he wasn’t following Christ as well as he should.
And because of Scott’s good work, “charity: water” has helped 1.7 million people get access to clean water. And in the next 10 years, he plans to make clean water accessible to a hundred million more. That’s the kind of promoting we need more of, and that’s the kind of faith that moves mountains. And there’s stories like that scattered across this room of people who’ve taken it upon themselves to make a difference.
Now, sometimes, faith groups can do the work of caring for the least of these on their own; sometimes, they need a partner, whether it’s in business or government. And that’s why my administration has taken a fresh look at the way we organize with faith groups, the way we work with faith groups through our Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
And through that office, we’re expanding the way faith groups can partner with our Government. We’re helping them feed more kids who otherwise would go hungry. We’re helping fatherhood groups get dads the support they need to be there for their children. We’re working with nonprofits to improve the lives of people around the world. And we’re doing it in ways that are aligned with our constitutional principles. And in this work, we intend to expand it in the days ahead, rooted in the notions of partnership and justice and the imperatives to help the poor.
Of course, there are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need, all those who need help making a mortgage payment or avoiding foreclosure or making sure their child can go to college. There’s only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.
And that’s why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love, and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our Government and in our politics.
Over the past 2 years, the nature of these obligations, the proper role of government has obviously been the subject of enormous controversy. And the debates have been fierce as one side’s version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom.
And that’s why a second recurring theme in my prayers is a prayer for humility. Now, God answered this prayer for me early on by having me marry Michelle. [Laughter] Because whether it’s reminding me of a chore undone or questioning the wisdom of watching my third football game in a row on Sunday, she keeps me humble. [Laughter]
But in this life of politics, when debates have become so bitterly polarized and changes in the media lead so many of us just to listen to those who reinforce our existing biases, it’s useful to go back to Scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers–none of us–no matter what our political party or our station in life.
The full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God’s hands. And there are some mysteries in this world we cannot fully comprehend. As it’s written in Job: “God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways. He does great things beyond our understandings.”
The challenge I find, then, is to balance this uncertainty, this humility, with the need to fight for deeply held convictions, to be open to other points of view but firm in our core principles. And I pray for this wisdom every day.
I pray that God will show me and all of us the limits of our understanding and open our ears and our hearts to our brothers and sisters with different points of view, that such reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God will reveal the way forward that we can travel together.
And the last recurring theme, one that binds all prayers together, is that I might walk closer with God and make that walk my first and most important task.
In our own lives, it’s easy to be consumed by our daily worries and our daily concerns. And it is even easier at a time when everybody is busy, everybody is stressed, and everybody–our culture–is obsessed with wealth and power and celebrity. And often it takes a brush with hardship or tragedy to shake us out of that, to remind us of what matters most.
We see an aging parent wither under a long illness, or we lose a daughter or a husband in Afghanistan, we watch a gunman open fire in a supermarket, and we remember how fleeting life can be. And we ask ourselves how have we treated others, whether we’ve told our family and friends how much we love them. And it’s in these moments, when we feel most intensely our mortality and our own flaws and the sins of the world, that we most desperately seek to touch the face of God.
So my prayer this morning is that we might seek His face not only in those moments, but each and every day; that every day as we go through the hustle and bustle of our lives, whether it’s in Washington or Hollywood or anywhere in between, that we might every so often rise above the here and now, and kneel before the Eternal; that we might remember, Kaye, the fact that those who wait on the Lord will soar on wings like eagles, and they will run and not be weary, and they will walk and not faint.
When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people. And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to forgive me my sins and look after my family and the American people and make me an instrument of His will.
I say these prayers hoping they will be answered, and I say these prayers knowing that I must work and must sacrifice and must serve to see them answered. But I also say these prayers knowing that the act of prayer itself is a source of strength. It’s a reminder that our time on Earth is not just about us, that when we open ourselves to the possibility that God might have a larger purpose for our lives, there’s a chance that somehow, in ways that we may never fully know, God will use us well.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, and may He bless this country that we love.
Remarks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 19, 2011
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, please have a seat.
Well, it is absolutely wonderful to be here with all of you today. I see so many good friends all around the room.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge one particular member of my administration who I’m extraordinarily proud of and does not get much credit, and that is USAID Administrator, Dr. Raj Shah, who is doing great work with faith leaders. (Applause.) Where’s Raj? Where is he? There he is right there. Raj is doing great work with faith leaders on our Feed the Future global hunger program, as well as on a host of other issues. We could not be prouder of the work that he’s doing. I also want to acknowledge Congressman Mike McIntyre and his wife, Dee. (Applause.) Mike — as some of you know, obviously, North Carolina was ravaged by storms this past weekend, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families who have been affected down there. I know that Mike will be helping those communities rebuild after the devastation.
To all the faith leaders and the distinguished guests that are here today, welcome to our second annual — I’m going to make it annual, why not? (Laughter and applause.) Our second Easter Prayer Breakfast. The Easter Egg Roll, that’s well established. (Laughter.) The Prayer Breakfast we started last year, in part because it gave me a good excuse to bring together people who have been such extraordinary influences in my life and such great friends. And it gives me a chance to meet and make some new friends here in the White House.
I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.
We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work. And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways. And I admit that my plate has been full as well. (Laughter.) The inbox keeps on accumulating. (Laughter.)
But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.
And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.
In the words of the book Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.
And that’s why we have this breakfast. Because in the middle of critical national debates, in the middle of our busy lives, we must always make sure that we are keeping things in perspective. Children help do that. (Laughter.) A strong spouse helps do that. But nothing beats scripture and the reminder of the eternal.
So I’m honored that all of you have come here this Holy Week to join me in a spirit of prayer, and I pray that our time here this morning will strengthen us, both individually as believers and as Americans. And with that, let me introduce my good friend, Bishop Vashti McKenzie, for our opening prayer. (Applause.)
Remarks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast
May 12, 2011
Thank you so much. Well, good morning. This is just an extraordinary gathering. I have to say to Reverend Cortes and all the other organizers of this prayer breakfast, I think it’s getting bigger, huh? I think this thing is growing.
I just want to thank Reverend Cortes. I just got a extraordinary gift, a bilingual Bible. It is beautiful. I was told this will help improve my Spanish. [Laughter] And I said, “I’ll pray on it.” [Laughter] Amen.
To all the clergy, lay leaders, administration officials, and distinguished guests who are here today, it is an extraordinary pleasure to join you. We’ve had a number of prayer breakfasts over the past several months, and I’ve got to say, there is no more inspiring way to begin a day than by praying with fellow believers. And so I’m grateful to all of you to give me this opportunity.
I also know that these past few days have not only been a time of prayer and a time of reflection for all of you, they’ve also been a time to lend your voices to the causes that you’re passionate about. And I want you to know that I’m listening. When you lend your voice to the cause of creating jobs and opening opportunity for all communities, I hear you. When you lend your voice to the cause of educating all of our children, not just some, to succeed in the 21st century, I’m listening. And when you lend your voice to the cause of immigration reform, I am listening.
As some of you probably heard, I flew down to El Paso a couple of days ago to give a speech on this topic. And what I said in that speech was that we define ourselves as a nation of immigrants, as a nation that’s open to anyone who’s willing to embrace America’s precepts and America’s ideals. That’s why so many men and women have braved hardship and great risk to come here, picking up and leaving behind the world that they knew, carrying nothing but the hope that here in America, their children might live a better life.
Our heritage as a nation of immigrants is part of what has always made America strong. “Out of many, one”–that is our creed. And we are also a nation of laws–a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. And what I went down to El Paso to say is that we are enforcing our laws and we’re securing our borders. In fact, we have more manpower down at the Southwest border than at any time in our history.
And so what we need to do going forward is to address some of the broader problems in our immigration system. And that means changing minds and changing votes, one at a time. I know there are some folks who wish I could just bypass Congress. [Laughter] I can’t. But what I can do is sign a law. What you can do is champion a law. What we can do together is make comprehensive immigration reform the law of the land. That’s what we can do.
Comprehensive reform is not only an economic imperative or a security imperative, it’s also a moral imperative. It’s a moral imperative when kids are being denied the chance to go to college or serve their military because of the actions of their parents. It’s a moral imperative when millions of people live in the shadows and are made vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses or with nowhere to turn if they are wronged. It’s a moral imperative when simply enforcing the law may mean inflicting pain on families who are just trying to do the right thing by their children.
So yes, immigration reform is a moral imperative, and so it’s worth seeking greater understanding from our faith. As it is written in the Book of Deuteronomy, “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To me, that verse is a call to show empathy to our brothers and our sisters, to try and recognize ourselves in one another.
And it’s especially important that we try to do that when it comes to immigration, because this is a subject that can expose raw feelings and feed our fears of change. It can be tempting to think that those coming to America today are somehow different from us. And we need to not have amnesia about how we populated this country. What this verse reminds us to do is to look at that migrant farmer and see our own grandfather disembarking at Ellis Island or Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and to look at that young mother, newly arrived in this country, and see our own grandmothers leaving Italy or Ireland or Eastern Europe in search of something better.
That sense of connection, that sense of empathy, that moral compass, that conviction of what is right, is what led the National Association of Evangelicals to shoot short films to help people grasp the challenges facing immigrants. It’s what led the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to launch a Justice for Immigrants campaign and the Interfaith Immigration Coalition to advocate across religious lines. It’s what led all the Latino pastors at the Hispanic Prayer Breakfast to come together around reform.
Ultimately, that’s how change will come. At critical junctures throughout our history, it’s often been men and women of faith who’ve helped to move this country forward. It was our–in our Episcopal churches of Boston that our earliest patriots planned our Revolution. It was in the Baptist churches of Montgomery and Selma that the civil rights movement was born. And it’s in the Catholic and Evangelical and mainline churches of our Southwest and across our entire continent that a new movement for immigration reform is taking shape today.
So I’ll keep doing my part. I’ll keep pushing and working with Congress. But the only way we are going to get this done is by building a widespread movement for reform. That’s why I’m asking you to keep preaching and persuading your congregations and communities. That’s why I’m asking you to keep on activating, getting involved, mobilizing. That’s why we all need to keep praying. I’m asking you to help us recognize ourselves in one another. And if you can do that, I’m absolutely confident that we will not only make sure America remains true to its heritage as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws, but we’ll make sure we remain true to our founding ideals and that we build a beloved community here on this Earth.
God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much.
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 2, 2012
Thank you. Please, please, everybody have a seat. Well, good morning, everybody. It is good to be with so many friends united in prayer. And I begin by giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today.
I want to thank our cochairs, Mark and Jeff; to my dear friend, the guy who always has my back, Vice President Biden; all the Members of Congress—[applause]—Joe deserves a hand—all the Members of Congress and my Cabinet who are here today; all the distinguished guests who’ve traveled a long way to be part of this. I’m not going to be as funny as Eric—[laughter]—but I’m grateful that he shared his message with us. Michelle and I feel truly blessed to be here.
This is my third year coming to this prayer breakfast as President. As Jeff mentioned, before that, I came as Senator. I have to say, it’s easier coming as President. [Laughter] I don’t have to get here quite as early. But it’s always been an opportunity that I’ve cherished. And it’s a chance to step back for a moment, for us to come together as brothers and sisters and seek God’s face together. At a time when it’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and clamor of our own lives or get caught up in the noise and rancor that too often passes as politics today, these moments of prayer slow us down. They humble us. They remind us that no matter how much responsibility we have, how fancy our titles, how much power we think we hold, we are imperfect vessels. We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to Him, avoiding phony religiosity, and listening to Him.
This is especially important right now, when we’re facing some big challenges as a nation. Our economy is making progress as we recover from the worst crisis in three generations, but far too many families are still struggling to find work or make the mortgage, pay for college or, in some cases, even buy food. Our men and women in uniform have made us safer and more secure, and we were eternally grateful to them, but war and suffering and hardship still remain in too many corners of the globe. And a lot of those men and women who we celebrate on Veterans Day and Memorial Day come back and find that, when it comes to finding a job or getting the kind of care that they need, we’re not always there the way we need to be.
It’s absolutely true that meeting these challenges requires sound decisionmaking, requires smart policies. We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face.
But in my moments of prayer, I’m reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems, in keeping us going when we suffer setbacks, and opening our minds and our hearts to the needs of others.
We can’t leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our Nation together for centuries and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy or they had done good analysis or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action, sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance.
This is no different today for millions of Americans, and it’s certainly not for me.
I wake up each morning, and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in Scripture and devotion. And from time to time, friends of mine, some of who are here today, friends like Joel Hunter or T.D. Jakes, will come by the Oval Office or they’ll call on the phone or they’ll send me a e-mail, and we’ll pray together, and they’ll pray for me and my family and for our country.
But I don’t stop there. I’d be remiss if I stopped there, if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try—imperfectly, but I must try—to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great Nation.
And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I know that a version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs, from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.
And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.
But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.
When I talk about giving every American a fair shot at opportunity, it’s because I believe that when a young person can afford a college education or someone who’s been unemployed suddenly has a chance to retrain for a job and regain that sense of dignity and pride and contributing to the community as well as supporting their families, that helps us all prosper.
It means maybe that research lab on the cusp of a lifesaving discovery or the company looking for skilled workers is going to do a little bit better, and we’ll all do better as a consequence. It makes economic sense. But part of that belief comes from my faith in the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper, that as a country, we rise and fall together. I’m not an island. I’m not alone in my success. I succeed because others succeed with me.
And when I decide to stand up for foreign aid, or prevent atrocities in places like Uganda or take on issues like human trafficking, it’s not just about strengthening alliances or promoting democratic values or projecting American leadership around the world, although it does all those things and it will make us safer and more secure. It’s also about the Biblical call to care for the least of these, for the poor, for those at the margins of our society; to answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” And for others, it may reflect the Jewish belief that the highest form of charity is to do our part to help others stand on their own.
Treating others as you want to be treated, requiring much from those who have been given so much, living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper, caring for the poor and those in need, these values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many nonbelievers. And they’re values that have always made this country great when we live up to them, when we don’t just give lip service to them, when we don’t just talk about them 1 day a year. And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.
And today, with as many challenges as we face, these are the values I believe we’re going to have to return to in the hopes that God will buttress our efforts.
Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity is not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.”
Our goal should not be to declare our policies as Biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. [Laughter] So instead, it is our hope that people of good will can pursue their values and common ground—and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other. And I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.
But each and every day, for many in this room, the Biblical injunctions are not just words, they are also deeds. Every single day, in different ways, so many of you are living out your faith in service to others.
Just last month, it was inspiring to see thousands of young Christians filling the Georgia Dome at the Passion Conference to worship the God who set the captives free and work to end modern slavery. Since we’ve expanded and strengthened the White House faith-based initiative, we’ve partnered with Catholic Charities to help Americans who are struggling with poverty, worked with organizations like World Vision and American Jewish World Service and Islamic Relief to bring hope to those suffering around the world.
Colleges across the country have answered our Interfaith Campus Challenge, and students are joined together across religious lines in service to others. From promoting responsible fatherhood to strengthening adoption, from helping people find jobs to serving our veterans, we’re linking arms with faith-based groups all across the country.
I think we all understand that these values cannot truly find voice in our politics and our policies unless they find a place in our hearts. The Bible teaches us to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers.” We’re required to have a living, breathing, active faith in our own lives. And each of us is called on to give something of ourselves for the betterment of others and to live the truth of our faith not just with words, but with deeds.
So even as we join the great debates of our age—how we best put people back to work, how we ensure opportunity for every child, the role of Government in protecting this extraordinary planet that God has made for us, how we lessen the occasions of war—even as we debate these great issues, we must be reminded of the difference that we can make each day in our small interactions, in our personal lives.
As a loving husband or a supportive parent or a good neighbor or a helpful colleague—in each of these roles, we help bring His kingdom to Earth. And as important as government policy may be in shaping our world, we are reminded that it’s the cumulative acts of kindness and courage and charity and love, it’s the respect we show each other and the generosity that we share with each other that in our everyday lives will somehow sustain us during these challenging times. John tells us that, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
Mark read a letter from Billy Graham, and it took me back to one of the great honors of my life, which was visiting Reverend Graham at his mountaintop retreat in North Carolina when I was on vacation with my family at a hotel not far away.
And I can still remember winding up the path up a mountain to his home. Ninety-one years old at the time, facing various health challenges, he welcomed me as he would welcome a family member or a close friend. This man who had prayed great prayers that inspired a nation, this man who seemed larger than life, greeted me and was as kind and as gentle as could be.
And we had a wonderful conversation. Before I left, Reverend Graham started praying for me, as he had prayed for so many Presidents before me. And when he finished praying, I felt the urge to pray for him. I didn’t really know what to say. What do you pray for when it comes to the man who has prayed for so many? But like that verse in Romans, the Holy Spirit interceded when I didn’t know quite what to say.
And so I prayed—briefly, but I prayed from the heart. I don’t have the intellectual capacity or the lung capacity of some of my great preacher friends here to pray for a long time, but I—[laughter]—I prayed. And we ended with an embrace and a warm goodbye.
And I thought about that moment all the way down the mountain, and I’ve thought about it in the many days since. Because I thought about my own spiritual journey: growing up in a household that wasn’t particularly religious, going through my own period of doubt and confusion, finding Christ when I wasn’t even looking for him so many years ago, possessing so many shortcomings that have been overcome by the simple grace of God. And the fact that I would ever be on top of a mountain, saying a prayer for Billy Graham, a man whose faith had changed the world and that had sustained him through triumphs and tragedies and movements and milestones, that simple fact humbled me to my core.
I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment, asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this Nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong. I know that He will guide us. He always has, and He always will. And I pray his richest blessings on each of you in the days ahead.
Thank you very much.
Remarks at the Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 4, 2012
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. (Applause.) Please, have a seat. Have a seat. Well, welcome to the White House. It is a pleasure to be with all of you this morning.
In less than a week, this house will be overrun by thousands of kids at the Easter Egg Roll. (Laughter.) So I wanted to get together with you for a little prayer and reflection — some calm before the storm. (Laughter.)
It is wonderful to see so many good friends here today. To all the faith leaders from all across the country — from churches and congregations large and small; from different denominations and different backgrounds — thank you for coming to our third annual Easter prayer breakfast. And I’m grateful that you’re here.
I’m even more grateful for the work that you do every day of the year — the compassion and the kindness that so many of you express through your various ministries. I know that some of you have joined with our Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I’ve seen firsthand some of the outstanding work that you are doing in your respective communities, and it’s an incredible expression of your faith. And I know that all of us who have an opportunity to work with you draw inspiration from the work that you do.
Finally, I want to just express appreciation for your prayers. Every time I travel around the country, somebody is going around saying, we’re praying for you. (Laughter.) We got a prayer circle going. Don’t worry, keep the faith. We’re praying. (Laughter.) Michelle gets the same stuff. And that means a lot to us. It especially means a lot to us when we hear from folks who we know probably didn’t vote for me — (laughter) — and yet, expressing extraordinary sincerity about their prayers. And it’s a reminder not only of what binds us together as a nation, but also what binds us together as children of God.
Now, I have to be careful, I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon. It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals. (Laughter.) But in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning. And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”
It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace. And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being.
For like us, Jesus knew doubt. Like us, Jesus knew fear. In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection. It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!”
So the struggle to fathom that unfathomable sacrifice makes Easter all the more meaningful to all of us. It helps us to provide an eternal perspective to whatever temporal challenges we face. It puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems He was dealing with. And it gives us courage and it gives us hope.
We all have experiences that shake our faith. There are times where we have questions for God’s plan relative to us — (laughter) — but that’s precisely when we should remember Christ’s own doubts and eventually his own triumph. Jesus told us as much in the book of John, when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” I heard an amen. (Laughter.) Let me repeat. “In this world, you will have trouble.”
THE PRESIDENT: “But take heart!” (Laughter.) “I have overcome the world.” (Applause.) We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live. And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation.
And with that, I’d like to invite my good friend, Dr. Cynthia Hale, to deliver our opening prayer. Dr. Hale. (Applause.)
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 7, 2013
Thank you very much. Please have a seat.
Mark, thank you for that introduction. I thought he was going to talk about my gray hair. [Laughter] It is true that my daughters are gorgeous. [Laughter] That’s because my wife is gorgeous. And my goal is to improve my gene pool.
To Mark and Jeff, thank you for your wonderful work on behalf of this breakfast. To all of those who work so hard to put this together, to the heads of state, Members of Congress, and my Cabinet, religious leaders, and distinguished guests, to our outstanding speaker, to all the faithful who’ve journeyed to our Capital: Michelle and I are truly honored to be with you this morning.
But before I begin, I hope people don’t mind me taking a moment of personal privilege. I want to say a quick word about a close friend of mine and yours, Joshua Dubois. Now, some of you may not know Joshua, but Joshua has been at my side—in work and in prayer—for years now. He is a young reverend, but wise in years. He’s worked on my staff. He’s done an outstanding job as the head of our Faith-Based Office.
Every morning, he sends me, via e-mail, a daily meditation: a snippet of Scripture for me to reflect on. And it has meant the world to me. And despite my pleas, tomorrow will be his last day in the White House. So this morning I want to publicly thank Joshua for all that he’s done, and I know that everybody joins me in wishing him all the best in his future endeavors, including getting married.
It says something about us—as a nation, as a people—that every year, for 61 years now, this great prayerful tradition has endured. It says something about us that every year, in times of triumph and in tragedy, in calm and in crisis, we come together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as brothers and sisters and as children of God. Every year, in the midst of all our busy and noisy lives, we set aside one morning to gather as one community, united in prayer.
And we do so because we’re a nation ever humbled by our history and we’re ever attentive to our imperfections, particularly the imperfections of our President. We come together because we’re a people of faith. We know that faith is something that must be cultivated. Faith is not a possession, faith is a process.
I was struck by the passage that was read earlier from the Book of Hebrews: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and He rewards those who diligently seek Him.” He rewards those who diligently seek Him, not just for one moment or one day, but for every moment and every day.
As Christians, we place our faith in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ. But so many other Americans also know the close embrace of faith: Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. And all Americans, whether religious or secular, have a deep abiding faith in this Nation.
Recently, I had occasion to reflect on the power of faith. A few weeks ago, during the Inauguration, I was blessed to place my hand on the Bibles of two great Americans, two men whose faith still echoes today. One was the Bible owned by President Abraham Lincoln and the other, the Bible owned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I prepared to take the sacred oath, I thought about these two men, and I thought of how, in times of joy and pain and uncertainty, they turned to their Bibles to seek the wisdom of God’s words and thought of how, for as long as we’ve been a nation, so many of our leaders, our Presidents and our preachers, our legislators and our jurists have done the same. Each one faced their own challenges, each one finding in Scripture their own lessons from the Lord.
And as I was looking out on the crowd during Inauguration, I thought of Dr. King. We often think of him standing tall in front of the endless crowds, stirring the Nation’s conscience with a bellowing voice and a mighty dream. But I also thought of his doubts and his fears, for those moments came as well: the lonely moments when he was left to confront the presence of long-festering injustice and undisguised hate; imagined the darkness and the doubt that must have surrounded him when he was in that Birmingham jail and the anger that surely rose up in him the night his house was bombed with his wife and child inside and the grief that shook him as he eulogized those four precious girls taken from this Earth as they gathered in a house of God.
And I was reminded that, yes, Dr. King was a man of audacious hope and a man of relentless optimism. But he was always—he was also a man occasionally brought to his knees in fear and in doubt and in helplessness. And in those moments, we know that he retreated alone to a quiet space so he could reflect and he could pray and he could grow his faith.
And I imagine he turned to certain verses that we now read. I imagine him reflecting on Isaiah: that we wait upon the Lord; that the Lord shall renew those who wait; that they shall mount up with wings as eagles, and they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.
We know that in Scripture, Dr. King found strength, and in the Bible, he found conviction. In the words of God, he found a truth about the dignity of man that, once realized, he never relinquished.
We know Lincoln had such moments as well. To see this country torn apart, to see his fellow citizens waging a ferocious war that pitted brother against brother, family against family, that was as heavy a burden as any President will ever have to bear.
We know Lincoln constantly met with troops and visited the wounded and honored the dead. And the toll mounted day after day, week after week. And you can see in the lines of his face the toll that the war cost him. But he did not break. Even as he buried a beloved son, he did not break. Even as he struggled to overcome melancholy, despair, grief, he did not break.
And we know that he surely found solace in Scripture, that he could acknowledge his own doubts, that he was humbled in the face of the Lord. And that, I think, allowed him to become a better leader. It’s what allowed him in what may be one of the greatest speeches ever written, in his Second Inaugural, to describe the Union and the Confederate soldier alike—both reading the same Bible, both prayed to the same God, but “the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
In Lincoln’s eyes, the power of faith was humbling, allowing us to embrace our limits in knowing God’s will. And as a consequence, he was able to see God in those who vehemently opposed him.
Today, the divisions in this country are, thankfully, not as deep or destructive as when Lincoln led, but they are real. The differences in how we hope to move our Nation forward are less pronounced than when King marched, but they do exist. And as we debate what is right and what is just, what is the surest way to create a more hopeful—for our children, how we’re going to reduce our deficit, what kind of tax plans we’re going to have, how we’re going to make sure that every child is getting a great education. And, Doctor, it is very encouraging to me that you turned out so well by your mom not letting you watch TV. I’m going to tell my daughters that when they complain. [Laughter] In the midst of all these debates, we must keep that same humility that Dr. King and Lincoln and Washington and all our great leaders understood is at the core of true leadership.
In a democracy as big and as diverse as ours, we will encounter every opinion. And our task as citizens—whether we are leaders in government or business or spreading the word—is to spend our days with open hearts and open minds, to seek out the truth that exists in an opposing view, and to find the common ground that allows for us as a nation, as a people, to take real and meaningful action. And we have to do that humbly, for no one can know the full and encompassing mind of God. And we have to do it every day, not just at a prayer breakfast.
I have to say I’ve—this is now our fifth prayer breakfast, and it is always just a wonderful event. But I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we’ve been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten, on the same day of the prayer breakfast. [Laughter] I mean, you’d like to think that the shelf life wasn’t so short. [Laughter] But I go back to the Oval Office, and I start watching the cable news networks, and it’s like we didn’t pray. [Laughter]
And so my hope is that humility, that that carries over every day, every moment. While God may reveal His plan to us in portions, the expanse of His plan is for God, and God alone, to understand: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Until that moment, until we know and are fully known, all we can do is live our lives in a godly way and assume that those we deal with every day, including those in an opposing party, they’re groping their way, doing their best, going through the same struggles we’re going through.
And in that pursuit, we are blessed with guidance. God has told us how He wishes for us to spend our days. His Commandments are there to be followed. Jesus is there to guide us, the Holy Spirit to help us. Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. See in everyone, even in those with whom you disagree most vehemently, the face of God. For we are all His children.
That’s what I thought of as I took the oath of office a few weeks ago and touched those Bibles: the comfort that Scripture gave Lincoln and King and so many leaders throughout our history, the verses they cherished, and how those words of God are there for us as well, waiting to be read any day that we choose. I thought about how their faith gave them the strength to meet the challenges of their time, just as our faith can give us the strength to meet the challenges of ours. And most of all, I thought about their humility and how we don’t seem to live that out the way we should every day, even when we give lip service to it.
As President, sometimes I have to search for the words to console the inconsolable. Sometimes I search Scripture to determine how best to balance life as a President and as a husband and as a father. I often search for Scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better President. And I believe that we are united in these struggles. But I also believe that we are united in the knowledge of a redeeming Savior, whose grace is sufficient for the multitude of our sins and whose love is never failing.
And most of all, I know that all Americans—men and women of different faiths and, yes, those of no faith that they can name—are, nevertheless, joined together in common purpose, believing in something that is bigger than ourselves and the ideals that lie at the heart of our Nation’s founding, that as a people we are bound together.
And so this morning, let us summon the common resolve that comes from our faith. Let us pray to God that we may be worthy of the many blessings He has bestowed upon our Nation. Let us retain that humility not just during this hour, but for every hour. And let me suggest that those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble. And let us promise Him and to each other, every day as the sun rises over America that it will rise over a people who are striving to make this a more perfect Union.
Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Remarks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 5, 2013
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you all for being here today. And welcome to the White House, and a belated happy Easter — this time of the year when we celebrate renewal and we reflect on the faith that brings us together.
For me, the essence of my faith is tolerance: not being judgmental about people of different faiths. When I was in Rome a few weeks ago, Pope Francis spoke movingly in his homily about our commitments to each other, not just as people of faith, but, he went on to say, but as human beings.
I grew up in a tradition of Catholic social doctrine, and I was incredibly impressed by His Holiness’s homily, his sense of social justice. But I believe his message reads something essential about all faiths, and that is ultimately we all believe that we have a responsibility to one another and we all are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
When it comes down to it, we all know that we’re connected by much more than divides us, although the focus is always on what divides us. As we move forward as a nation, I do believe we’re going to be judged on how we answer that call — that call of moral responsibility, to whether we stand up for those who have the least among us, whether we act on their behalf.
And one of the things that I think at least the President and I believe has been the essence of this administration is the most animating principle of the administration has been just that: to look out for the least among us. Those are the values that I know that the President — and I personally know — the President holds extremely close to his heart.
So I’d like to introduce to you now, my friend, and our President, President Barack Obama. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Everybody, please have a seat. Thank you.
Well, good morning, everybody.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
THE PRESIDENT: Welcome, once again, to the White House. It is always wonderful to see so many friends from all across the country. I want to thank you for joining us today. I want to thank everybody for their prayers, but, most importantly, I want to thank everybody for their good works through your ministries. It’s making a difference in communities all across this nation, and we could not be more proud to often have a chance to work with you.
To all the pastors in the house, I hope you’ve enjoyed some well-deserved rest after a very busy Holy Week. I see some chuckles, so maybe not. (Laughter.) Here at the White House, I’m pleased to say that we survived yet another Easter Egg Roll. (Laughter.)
Now, if you’ve been to this breakfast before, you know that I always try to avoid preaching in front of people who do it for a living. That’s sound advice. So this morning, I’m just going to leave the sermon to others and offer maybe a few remarks as we mark this — the end of this Easter season.
In these sacred days, those of us as Christians remember the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for each of us –- how, in all His humility and His grace, He took on the sins of the world and extended the gift of salvation. And we recommit ourselves to following His example –- to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s the eternal spirit of Easter. And this year, I had — I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land. And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth.
It brings Scripture to life. It brings us closer to Christ. It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.
And so for Christians to walk where He walked and see what He saw are blessed moments. And while I had been to Jerusalem before, where Jesus healed the sick, and cured the blind, and embraced the least of these, I also had a chance to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And those of you who have been there know that entering the church is a remarkable experience, although it is a useful instruction to see how managing different sections of the church and different clergy — it feels familiar. (Laughter.) Let’s just put it that way. (Laughter.)
And as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, “the place where heaven and Earth met.”
And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection. I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing — giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next. I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know.
And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal. His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions. When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us.
So this morning, let us pray that we’re worthy of His many blessings, that this nation is worthy of His many blessings. Let us promise to keep in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, on this day and on every day, the life and lessons of Christ, our Lord.
And with that, I’d like to ask Father Larry Snyder to deliver our opening prayer.
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 6, 2014
The President. Thank you. Please, everyone have a seat and give an all praise and honor to God, who brought us here this morning.
Thank you so much for our two outstanding cochairs, Louie and Jan. And I have to say, I would have enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the two of these folks getting this breakfast organized this morning. [Laughter] But there does seem to be that sibling thing a little bit, Louie. [Laughter] They love each other, but they’ve got to go at each other a little bit. I, by the way, have always found Louie to be unbelievably gracious every time I’ve seen him. Now, I don’t watch TV, I’ve got to admit, so—[laughter]. But he is a good man and a great storyteller, and Janice was just reminding me, the first time we saw each other was at one of my first events when I first ran for office.
It’s wonderful to see all of the dignitaries and friends who are here today. To the Presidents and Prime Ministers, the leaders of business and the nonprofit community; to my incredible friend and Vice President, Joe Biden; to my Cabinet members who are here and members of the administration who do such great work every single day; to my fellow Hawaiian, it is wonderful to see you. I should tell you that I—my surfing is not that good. [Laughter] I just want to be clear.
Senator Mazie K. Hirono. But your bodysurfing—[inaudible].
The President. But my bodysurfing is pretty good. See, that we—knows.
Sen. Hirono. That’s just as fun. [Laughter]
The President. Yes, it is. [Laughter] And to Raj Shah, who is just such an incredible young leader and is out there every single day, I could not be more proud of his outstanding leadership at USAID. And it’s a good reminder—[applause]—of the dedicated public servants that I have the chance to interact with every single day. And they do great work, don’t always get a lot of credit, sometimes get subject to the sort of criticism that you do when you’re in public life, but Raj is single minded in terms of trying to help as many people as possible all around the world and is an extraordinary representative for our country. So I’m very, very proud of him, although he does always make me feel like an underachiever whenever I listen to him. [Laughter] I’m thinking, I should have been working harder and not slouching. [Laughter]
Dale Jones and everyone else who worked on this breakfast this morning, thank you, and obviously, I’m thrilled to be joined by my extraordinary wife, and she does a great job every single day keeping me in line.
Just two other thank yous. To our men and women in uniform all around the world, we pray for them, many of them doing such great work to keep us safe. And then there is one colleague of mine who is missing today. A great friend of mine who I came into the Senate with, Senator Tom Coburn. Tom is going through some tough times right now, but I love him dearly even though we’re from different parties. And he’s a little closer to Louie’s political perspective than mine, but he is a good man, and I’m keeping him and his family in my prayers all the time. So just a shout-out to my good friend Tom Coburn.
So each time we gather, it’s a chance to set aside the rush of our daily lives; to pause with humility before an Almighty God; to seek His grace; and mindful of our own imperfections, to remember the admonition of the Book of Romans, which is especially fitting for those of us in Washington: “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
So here we put aside labels of party and ideology and recall what we are first: all children of a loving God, brothers and sisters called to make His work our own. But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.
And here we give thanks for His guidance in our own individual faith journeys. In my life, He directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. And I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else. It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It led me to Michelle—the love of my life—and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters. It led me to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.
Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. And yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way too, because religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.
So many of you carry on this good work today: for the child who deserves a school worthy of his dreams; for the parents working overtime to pull themselves out of poverty; for the immigrants who want to step out of the shadows and become a full member of our American family; and for the young girl who prays for rescue from the modern slavery of human trafficking, an outrage that we must all join together to end.
Through our Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, led by Melissa Rogers, we’re proud to work with you on this and many other issues. And I invite you to join us in a new initiative that I announced in my State of the Union Address, an effort to help more young men of color overcome the odds, because so many boys in this country need that mentor to help them become a man and a good father.
I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem, sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims. I’ve felt it in houses of worship, whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. And I’ve felt the compassion of so many faith leaders around the world, and I am especially looking forward to returning to the Vatican next month to meet His Holiness Pope Francis, whose message about caring for the “least of these” is one that I hope all of us heed. Like Matthew, he has answered the call of Jesus, who said, “Follow me,” and he inspires us with his words and deeds, his humility, his mercy, and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice.
Yet even as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat. And that is what I want to reflect on this morning. We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are or how they pray or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, as we’ve seen in the Central African Republic recently, even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God. Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they came—claim to profess. For the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.
Today we profess the principles we know to be true. We believe that each of us is “wonderfully made” in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being, dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion: the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all and to do this free from persecution and fear.
Our faith teaches us that in the face of suffering, we can’t stand idly by and that we must be that Good Samaritan. In Isaiah, we’re told “to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” The Torah commands: “Know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Koran instructs: “Stand out firmly for justice.” So history shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people—including the freedom of religion—are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful. Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So freedom of religion matters to our national security.
As I’ve said before, there are times when we work with governments that don’t always meet our highest standards, but they’re working with us on core interests such as the security of the American people. At the same time, we also deeply believe that it’s in our interest, even with our partners, sometimes with our friends, to stand up for universal human rights. So promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy. And I’m proud that no nation on Earth does more to stand up for the freedom of religion around the world than the United States of America.
It is not always comfortable to do, but it is right. When I meet with Chinese leaders—and we do a lot of business with the Chinese, and that relationship is extraordinarily important not just to our two countries, but to the world—but I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.
When I meet with the President of Burma, a country that is trying to emerge out of a long darkness into the light of a representative government, I’ve said that Burma’s return to the international community depends on respecting basic freedoms, including for Christians and Muslims. I’ve pledged our support to the people of Nigeria, who deserve to worship in their churches and mosques in peace, free from terror. I’ve put the weight of my office behind the efforts to protect the people of Sudan and South Sudan, including religious minorities.
As we support Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in direct talks, we’ve made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths. I want to take this opportunity to thank Secretary Kerry for his extraordinary passion and principled diplomacy for this cause—that he’s brought to the cause of peace in the Middle East. [Applause] Thank you, John.
More broadly, I’ve made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities, whether they’re Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan or Baha’i in Iran or Coptic Christians in Egypt. And in Syria, it means ensuring a place for all people: Alawites and Sunni, Shia and Christian.
So going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world. And that includes, by the way, opposing blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities. We continue to stand for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace and in freedom. And we will continue to stand against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head all too often.
I look forward to nominating our next Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to help lead these efforts. And we’re moving ahead with our new strategy to partner more closely with religious leaders and faith communities as we carry out our foreign policy. And I want to thank Shaun Casey, from the Wesley Theological Seminary, for leading this work at the State Department. Shaun, I think, is here today, and we want to thank him for the outstanding work that he’s doing. Thank you, Shaun.
So around the world, we’re elevating our engagement with faith leaders and making it a regular part of our diplomacy. And today I invite you to join us in focusing on several pressing challenges. Let’s do more together to advance human rights, including religious freedom. Let’s do more to promote the development that Raj describes, from ending extreme poverty to saving lives, from HIV/AIDS to combating climate change so that we can preserve God’s incredible creation. On all these issues, faith leaders and faith organizations here in the United States and around the world are incredible partners, and we’re grateful to them.
And in contrast to those who wield religion to divide us, let’s do more to nurture the dialogue between faiths that can break cycles of conflict and build true peace, including in the Holy Land.
And finally, as we build the future we seek, let us never forget those who are persecuted today, among them Americans of faith. We pray for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who’s been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His family wants him home. And the United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free.
We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to 8 years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs. And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian Government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho.
And as we pray for all prisoners of conscience, whatever their faiths, wherever they’re held, let’s imagine what it must be like for them. We may not know their names, but all around the world there are people who are waking up in cold cells, facing another day of confinement, another day of unspeakable treatment, simply because they are affirming God. Despite all they’ve endured, despite all the awful punishments if caught, they will wait for that moment when the guards aren’t looking and when they can close their eyes and bring their hands together and pray.
In those moments of peace, of grace, those moments when their faith is tested in ways that those of us who are more comfortable never experience—in those faraway cells—I believe their unbroken souls are made stronger. And I hope that somehow they hear our prayers for them, that they know that, along with the spirit of God, they have our spirit with them as well and that they are not alone.
Today we give humble thanks for the freedoms we cherish in this country. And I join you in seeking God’s grace in all of our lives. I pray that His wisdom will give us the capacity to do right and to seek justice and defend the oppressed wherever they may dwell.
I want to thank all of you for the extraordinary privilege of being here this morning. I want to God—I want to ask you for your prayers as I continue in this awesome privilege and responsibility as President of the United States. May God bless the United States of America, and God bless all those who seek peace and justice. Thank you very much.
Remarks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 14, 2014
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. (Applause.) Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Please, please have a seat. Thank you so much. Well, good morning, everybody.
Welcome to the White House and welcome to our annual Easter prayer breakfast. As always, we are blessed to be joined by so many good friends from around the country. We’ve got distinguished guests. We’ve got faith leaders, members of my administration who are here. And I will once again resist the temptation to preach to preachers. (Laughter.) It never works out well. I am reminded of the admonition from the Book of Romans — “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (Laughter.) So this morning, I want to offer some very brief reflections as we start this Easter season.
But as I was preparing my remarks, something intervened yesterday. And so I want to just devote a few words about yesterday’s tragedy in Kansas. This morning our prayers are with the people of Overland Park. And we’re still learning the details, but this much we know. A gunman opened fire at two Jewish facilities — a community center and a retirement home. Innocent people were killed. Their families were devastated. And this violence has struck the heart of the Jewish community in Kansas City.
Two of the victims — a grandfather and his teenage [grand] son — attended the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, which is led by our friend Reverend Adam Hamilton. Some of you may know that during my inauguration, Reverend Hamilton delivered the sermon at the prayer service at the National Cathedral. And I was grateful for his presence and his words. He joined us at our breakfast last year. And at the Easter service for Palm Sunday last night, he had to break this terrible news to his congregation.
That this occurred now — as Jews were preparing to celebrate Passover, as Christians were observing Palm Sunday –makes this tragedy all the more painful. And today, as Passover begins, we’re seeing a number of synagogues and Jewish community centers take added security precautions. Nobody should have to worry about their security when gathering with their fellow believers. No one should ever have to fear for their safety when they go to pray.
And as a government, we’re going to provide whatever assistance is needed to support the investigation. As Americans, we not only need to open our hearts to the families of the victims, we’ve got to stand united against this kind of terrible violence, which has no place in our society. And we have to keep coming together across faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance, including anti-Semitism that can lead to hatred and to violence, because we’re all children of God. We’re all made in His image, all worthy of his love and dignity. And we see what happens around the world when this kind of religious-based or tinged violence can rear its ugly head. It’s got no place in our society.
So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God. We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him. And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life.
And more than 2,000 years later, it inspires us still. We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us. And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example. And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
I’ll tell you, I felt this spirit when I had the great honor of meeting His Holiness, Pope Francis, recently. I think it’s fair to say that those of us of the Christian faith, regardless of our denomination, have been touched and moved by Pope Francis. Now, some of it is his words — his message of justice and inclusion, especially for the poor and the outcast. He implores us to see the inherent dignity in each human being. But it’s also his deeds, simple yet profound — hugging the homeless man, and washing the feet of somebody who normally ordinary folks would just pass by on the street. He reminds us that all of us, no matter what our station, have an obligation to live righteously, and that we all have an obligation to live humbly. Because that’s, in fact, the example that we profess to follow.
So I had a wonderful conversation with Pope Francis, mostly about the imperatives of addressing poverty and inequality. And I invited him to come to the United States, and I sincerely hope he will. When we exchanged gifts he gave me a copy of his inspiring writings, “The Joy of the Gospel.” And there is a passage that speaks to us today: “Christ’s resurrection,” he writes, “is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world.” And he adds, “Jesus did not rise in vain. May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”
So this morning, my main message is just to say thank you to all of you, because you don’t remain on the sidelines. I want to thank you for your ministries, for your good works, for the marching you do for justice and dignity and inclusion, for the ministries that all of you attend to and have helped organize throughout your communities each and every day to feed the hungry and house the homeless and educate children who so desperately need an education. You have made a difference in so many different ways, not only here in the United States but overseas as well. And that includes a cause close to my heart, My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative that we recently launched to make sure that more boys and young men of color can overcome the odds and achieve their dreams.
And we’re joined by several faith leaders who are doing outstanding work in this area mentoring and helping young men in tough neighborhoods. We’re also joined by some of these young men who are working hard and trying to be good students and good sons and good citizens. And I want to say to each of those young men here, we’re proud of you, and we expect a lot of you. And we’re going to make sure that we’re there for you so that you then in turn will be there for the next generation of young men.
And I mention all this because of all of our many partners for My Brother’s Keeper, it’s clergy like you and your congregations that can play a special role to be that spiritual and ethical foundation, that rock that so many young men need in their lives.
So I want to thank all of you who are already involved. I invite those who are not to get more information, see if you can join in this effort as brothers and sisters in Christ who “never tire of doing good.”
In closing, I’ll just recall that old prayer that I think more than one preacher has invoked at the pulpit: “Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and nudge me when I’ve said enough.” (Laughter.) The Almighty is nudging me. I thank you for joining us this morning of prayer. I wish you all a blessed Holy Week and Easter, and I’d like to invite my friend Joel Hunter to deliver the opening prayer. Come on up, Joel. (Applause.)
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 5, 2015
Thank you very much. Please, please. Thank you. Well, good morning. Giving all praise and honor to God. It is wonderful to be back with you here. I want to thank our cochairs, Bob and Roger. These two don’t always agree in the Senate, but in coming together and uniting us all in prayer, they embody the spirit of our gathering today.
Thank you very much. Please, please. Thank you. Well, good morning. Giving all praise and honor to God. It is wonderful to be back with you here. I want to thank our cochairs, Bob and Roger. These two don’t always agree in the Senate, but in coming together and uniting us all in prayer, they embody the spirit of our gathering today.
I also want to thank everybody who helped organize this breakfast. And it’s wonderful to see so many friends and faith leaders and dignitaries, and Michelle and I are truly honored to be joining you here today.
I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion and who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings. I’ve been pleased to welcome him to the White House on many occasions, and we’re grateful he’s able to join us here today.
There aren’t that many occasions that bring His Holiness under the same roof as NASCAR. [Laughter] This may be the first. [Laughter] But God works in mysterious ways. [Laughter] And so I want to thank Darrell for that wonderful presentation. Darrell knows that when you’re going 200 miles an hour, a little prayer cannot hurt. [Laughter] I suspect that more than once, Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives: Jesus, take the wheel. [Laughter] Although, I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that. [Laughter]
He and I obviously share something in having married up. And we are so grateful to Stevie for the incredible work that they’ve done together to build a ministry where the fastest drivers can slow down a little bit and spend some time in prayer and reflection and thanks. And we certainly want to wish Darrell a happy birthday. [Laughter] So happy birthday.
I will note, though, Darrell, when you were reading that list of things folks were saying about you, that—I was thinking, well, you’re a piker. I mean, that—[laughter]—I mean, if you really want a list, come talk to me. [Laughter] Because that ain’t nothing. [Laughter] That’s the best they can do at NASCAR? [Laughter]
Slowing down and pausing for fellowship and prayer, that’s what this breakfast is about. I think it’s fair to say Washington moves a lot slower than NASCAR. Certainly, my agenda does sometimes. [Laughter] But still, it’s easier to get caught up in the rush of our lives and in the political back and forth that can take over this city. And we get sidetracked with distractions, large and small. We can’t go 10 minutes without checking our smartphones, and for my staff, that’s every 10 seconds. And so for 63 years, this prayer tradition has brought us together, giving us the opportunity to come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is that we share as children of God.
And certainly for me, this is always a chance to reflect on my own faith journey. Many times as President, I’ve been reminded of a line of prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of. She said, “Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength.” Keep us at tasks too hard for us that we may be driven to Thee for strength. I’ve wondered at times if maybe God was answering that prayer a little too literally. [Laughter] But no matter the challenge, He has been there for all of us. He’s certainly strengthened me “with the power through his Spirit,” as I’ve sought His guidance not just in my own life, but in the life of our Nation.
Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges, certainly, over the last 6 years. But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.
As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another: to feed the hungry and care for the poor and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. We heard from—the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done. We see faith driving us to do right.
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge, or worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith; professed to stand up for Islam, but in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism: terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
And so how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities, the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion, and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?
Now, humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And 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. Michelle and I returned from India, an incredible, beautiful country, full of this magnificent diversity, but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faiths, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs, acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.
And first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt: not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth; our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression or violence or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion—any religion—for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom, freedom of religion: the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
There’s wisdom in our Founders writing in those documents that helped found this Nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if in fact we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they too are full and equal members of our countries.
So humility, I think, is needed. And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments, between church and between state. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, far more religious than most Western developed countries. And one of the reasons is that our Founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state. Our Government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear or coercion. So that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey, you know it’s real. You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance or because somebody told him to. It’s from the heart.
That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith. It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people or, in some cases, above the concept of God Himself. So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.
Last year, we joined together to pray for the release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, held in North Korea for 2 years. And today we give thanks that Kenneth is finally back where he belongs, home with his family.
Last year, we prayed together for a pastor, Saeed Abedini, detained in Iran since 2012. And I was recently in Boise, Idaho, and had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Abedini’s beautiful wife and wonderful children and to convey to them that our country has not forgotten brother Saeed and that we’re doing everything we can to bring him home. And then, I received an extraordinary letter from Pastor Abedini. And in it, he describes his captivity and expressed his gratitude for my visit with his family and thanked us all for standing in solidarity with him during his captivity.
And Pastor Abedini wrote, “Nothing is more valuable to the Body of Christ than to see how the Lord is in control and moves ahead of countries and leadership through united prayer.” And he closed his letter by describing himself as “prisoner for Christ, who is proud to be part of this great nation of the United States of America that cares for religious freedom around the world.”
And we’re going to keep up this work, for Pastor Abedini and all those around the world who are unjustly held or persecuted because of their faith. And we’re grateful to our new Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, who has hit the ground running and is heading to Iraq in a few days to help religious communities there address some of those challenges. Where’s David? I know he’s here somewhere. Thank you, David, for the great work you’re doing.
Humility. A suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths or trying to dictate our faiths or elevate one faith over another. And finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths and people who are still finding their way towards faith, but have a sense of ethics and morality in them—that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. The Torah says, “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” In Islam, there is a hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Put on love.
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness and sowing love where there is hatred. And this is the loving message of His Holiness Pope Francis. And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable, to walk with the Lord and ask, “Who am I to judge?” He challenged us to press on in what he calls our “march of living hope.” And like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.
His Holiness expresses that basic law: Treat thy neighbor as yourself. The Dalai Lama—anybody who’s had an opportunity to be with him senses that same spirit. Kent Brantly expresses that same spirit. Kent was with Samaritan’s Purse, treating Ebola patients in Liberia, when he contracted the virus himself. And with world-class medical care and deep reliance on faith, with God’s help, Kent survived.
And then, by donating his plasma, he helped others survive as well. And he continues to advocate for a global response in West Africa, reminding us that “our efforts need to be on loving the people there.” And I could not have been prouder to welcome Kent and his wonderful wife Amber to the Oval Office. We are blessed to have him here today, because he reminds us of what it means to really “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Not just words, but deeds.
So each of us has a role in fulfilling our common and greater purpose: not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully. And this is perhaps our greatest challenge: to see our own reflection in each other, to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another. As children of God, let’s make that our work, together. As children of God, let’s work to end injustice: the injustice of poverty and hunger. No one should ever suffer from such want amidst such plenty. As children of God, let’s work to eliminate the scourge of homelessness, because as Sister Mary says, “None of us are home until all of us are home.” None of us are home until all of us are home.
As children of God, let’s stand up for the dignity and value of every woman and man and child, because we are all equal in His eyes, and work to send the scourge and the sin of modern-day slavery and human trafficking and “set the oppressed free.”
If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly,” grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
And I pray that we will. And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary and walk and not be faint and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”
May the Lord bless you and keep you, and may He bless this precious country that we love.
Thank you all very much.
Remarks at an Easter Prayer Breakfast
April 7, 2015
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the White House. Religious leaders, lay faithful, it’s an honor — it’s an honor to join you in a morning of prayer and reflection, and it’s a delight to have many of you back.
For me, reflection is what Holy Week is all about. And I never fail to get a renewed sense of hope and possibilities when I attend Mass on Easter Sunday.
I believe Pope Francis got it right in his Easter Vigil homily when he said, “We cannot live Easter without entering into mystery. To enter into mystery means the ability to wonder, to contemplate, the ability to listen to the silence and hear the tiny whisper amid the great silence by which God speaks to us.”
I think that’s who we are as Christians, and quite frankly, I think that’s who we are as Americans. We’re constantly renewed as a people and as individuals by our ability to enter into the mystery. We live our faith when we instill in our children the ability to wonder, to contemplate, and to listen to that tiny whisper amid the great silence. We live our faith when we nurture the hope and possibilities that have always defined us as a country. We live Easter — and to live Easter is to live with the constant notion that we can always do better. We can always do better.
That’s why I’m so grateful for what everyone in this room does to transform hope into possibilities, and possibilities into opportunity. And that’s why I’ve been so honored to work every single day for the last six-plus years with a man who encompasses that faith to his core. A man who knows what it is to enter into the mystery with a deep and unyielding conviction that it’s within each of our reach to make real the promise of the ongoing miracle that is the United States of America.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to introduce you to my friend, the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Everybody, have a seat. Thank you. Well, we give thanks for this day that the Lord has made. Good morning, everybody.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
THE PRESIDENT: Welcome to the White House. It is wonderful to see so many friends from all across the country. My first concern was whether you actually got something to eat. (Laughter.) Sometimes prayer breakfasts are advertised — (laughter) — and then you get there and there’s like a little muffin. (Laughter.) A couple of berries. (Laughter.) And though your soul may be nourished, you leave hungry. So I hope that is not happening here.
I want to thank everybody here for their prayers, which mean so much to me and Michelle. Particularly at a time when my daughters are starting to grow up and starting to go on college visits, I need prayer. (Laughter.) I start tearing up in the middle of the day and I can’t explain it. (Laughter.) Why am I so sad? (Laughter.) They’re leaving me.
And I want to thank everybody here for the wonderful work that you do all across the country with your remarkable ministries.
We hold this Easter Prayer Breakfast every year to take a moment from our hectic lives for some fellowship, friendship, prayer and reflection. I know pastors here have had a very busy Holy Week, and so for you to travel here and take the time to spend with us is extraordinary after what I know is difficult. I can’t say that our work during this season is comparable, but you should try dealing with thousands of people in your backyard on an Easter egg roll. (Laughter.) After that you need quiet reflection — particularly because I had some of my nephews — 6 and 4 — in my house all weekend. And you need quiet reflection after that. (Laughter.) Girls are different than boys.
This morning, we also remember a man of God who we lost this weekend, a man known and loved by many of you — the dean of American preaching, Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. Anybody who had the privilege of hearing him speak knows what power he had. He was a civil rights hero. He was a friend of Dr. King, who used his spellbinding sermons to spread the Gospel and open people’s hearts and minds. He taught and mentored countless young ministers. So as we mourn his absence today, we also take solace knowing that he leaves a living legacy and that he is in a better place.
I am no preacher. I can’t tell anything to this crowd about Easter that you don’t already know. I can offer just a couple of reflections very quickly before we begin the program.
For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective. With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior. We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us. And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.
And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday. The story keeps on going. On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior.
“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love. Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so.
Through God’s mercy, Peter the Apostle said, we are given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” It’s an inheritance that calls on us to be better, to love more deeply, to serve “the least of these” as an expression of Christ’s love here on Earth.
That’s the spirit we feel in the example of His Holiness, Pope Francis, who encourages us to seek peace, to serve the marginalized, and be good stewards of God’s creation. Like millions of Americans, I’m honored that we will be welcoming him to our country later this year.
I want to quote him. He says that we should strive “to see the Lord in every excluded person who is thirsty, hungry, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith… imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper — whether in body or soul — who encounters discrimination.”
Isn’t that how Jesus lived? Isn’t that how He loved? Embracing those who were different; serving the marginalized; humbling Himself to the last. This is the example that we are called to follow — to love Him with all our hearts and mind and soul, and to love our neighbors — all of our neighbors — as ourselves. As it says in the first letter of John, “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
On Easter, I do reflect on the fact that as a Christian, I am supposed to love. And I have to say that sometimes when I listen to less than loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned. But that’s a topic for another day. (Laughter and applause.)
Where there is injustice — I was about to veer off. (Laughter.) I’m pulling it back. Where there is injustice we defend the oppressed. Where there is disagreement, we treat each other with compassion and respect. Where there are differences, we find strength in our common humanity, knowing that we are all children of God.
So today, we celebrate the magnificent glory of our risen Savior. I pray that we will live up to His example. I pray that I will live up to His example. I fall short so often. Every day I try to do better. I pray that we will be strengthened by His eternal love. I pray that we will be worthy of His many blessings.
With that, I’d like to invite Reverend Dr. Amy Butler to offer our opening prayer.
Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
February 4, 2016
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Thank you. (Applause.) You’re very kind. Thank you very much. Well, good morning.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
THE PRESIDENT: Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here this morning.
I want to thank everyone who helped organize this breakfast, especially our co-chairs, Robert and Juan, who embody the tradition of friendship, fellowship, and prayer. I will begin with a confession: I have always felt a tinge of guilt motorcading up here at the heart of D.C.’s rush hour. (Laughter.) I suspect that not all the commuters were blessing me as they waited to get to work. (Laughter.) But it’s for a good cause. A National Prayer Brunch doesn’t have the same ring to it. (Laughter.)
And Michelle and I are extremely honored, as always, to be with so many friends, with members of Congress, with faith leaders from across the country and around the world, to be with the Speaker, Leader. I want thank Mark and Roma for their friendship and their extraordinary story, and sharing those inspiring words. Andre, for sharing his remarkable gifts.
And on this occasion, I always enjoy reflecting on a piece of scripture that’s been meaningful to me or otherwise sustained me throughout the year. And lately, I’ve been thinking and praying on a verse from Second Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
We live in extraordinary times. Times of extraordinary change. We’re surrounded by tectonic shifts in technology and in our economy; by destructive conflict, disruptions to our climate. And it all reshapes the way we work and the way we live. It’s all amplified by a media that is unceasing, and that feeds 24/7 on our ever-shrinking attention spans.
And as a student of history, I often remind people that the challenges that we face are not unique; that in fact, the threats of previous eras — civil war or world war or cold war, depressions or famines — those challenges put our own in perspective. Moreover, I believe that our unique strengths as a nation make us better equipped than others to harness this change to work for us, rather than against us.
And yet, the sheer rapidity of change, and the uncertainty that it brings, is real. The hardship of a family trying to make ends meet. Refugees fleeing from a war-torn home. Those things are real. Terrorism, eroding shorelines — those things are real. Even the very progress that humanity has made, the affluence, the stability that so many of us enjoy, far greater prosperity than any previous generation of humanity has experienced, shines a brighter light on those who still struggle, reveal the gap in prospects that exist for the children of the world.
And that gap between want and plenty, it gives us vertigo. It can make us afraid, not only of the possibility that progress will stall, but that maybe we have more to lose. And fear does funny things. Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different, or lead us to try to get some sinister “other” under control. Alternatively, fear can lead us to succumb to despair, or paralysis, or cynicism. Fear can feed our most selfish impulses, and erode the bonds of community.
It is a primal emotion — fear — one that we all experience. And it can be contagious, spreading through societies, and through nations. And if we let it consume us, the consequences of that fear can be worse than any outward threat.
For me, and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear. Jesus is a good cure for fear. God gives believers the power, the love, the sound mind required to conquer any fear. And what more important moment for that faith than right now? What better time than these changing, tumultuous times to have Jesus standing beside us, steadying our minds, cleansing our hearts, pointing us towards what matters. (Applause.)
His love gives us the power to resist fear’s temptations. He gives us the courage to reach out to others across that divide, rather than push people away. He gives us the courage to go against the conventional wisdom and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not popular. To stand up not just to our enemies but, sometimes, to stand up to our friends. He gives us the fortitude to sacrifice ourselves for a larger cause. Or to make tough decisions knowing that we can only do our best. Less of me, more of God. And then, to have the courage to admit our failings and our sins while pledging to learn from our mistakes and to try to do better.
Certainly, during the course of this enormous privilege to have served as the President of the United States, that’s what faith has done for me. It helps me deal with the common, everyday fears that we all share. The main one I’m feeling right now is that our children grow up too fast. (Laughter.) They’re leaving. (Laughter.) That’s a tough deal. (Laughter.) And so, as a parent, you’re worrying about will some harm befall them, how are they going to manage without you, did you miss some central moment in their lives. Will they call? (Laughter.) Or text? (Laughter.) Each day, we’re fearful that God’s purpose becomes elusive, cloudy. We try to figure out how we fit into his broader plan. They’re universal fears that we have, and my faith helps me to manage those.
And then my faith helps me to deal with some of the unique elements of my job. As one of the great departed heroes of our age, Nelson Mandela, once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it… The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
And certainly, there are times where I’ve had to repeat that to myself while holding this office. When you hear from a parade of experts, just days after you’re elected, that another Great Depression is a very real possibility — that will get your attention. (Laughter.) When you tell a room full of young cadets that you’ve made a decision to send them into harm’s way, knowing that some of them might not return safely — that’s sobering. When you hold in your arms the mothers and fathers of innocent children gunned down in their classroom — that reminds you there’s evil in the world. And so you come to understand what President Lincoln meant when he said that he’d been driven to his knees by the overwhelming conviction that he had no place else to go.
And so like every President, like every leader, like every person, I’ve known fear. But my faith tells me that I need not fear death; that the acceptance of Christ promises everlasting life and the washing away of sins. (Applause.) If Scripture instructs me to “put on the full armor of God” so that when trouble comes, I’m able to stand, then surely I can face down these temporal setbacks, surely I can battle back doubts, surely I can rouse myself to action.
And should that faith waver, should I lose my way, I have drawn strength not only from a remarkable wife, not only from incredible colleagues and friends, but I have drawn strength from witnessing all across this country and all around this world, good people, of all faiths, who do the Lord’s work each and every day, Who wield that power and love, and sound mind to feed the hungry and heal the sick, to teach our children and welcome the stranger.
Think about the extraordinary work of the congregations and faith communities represented here today. Whether fighting global poverty or working to end the scourge of human trafficking, you are the leaders of what Pope Francis calls “this march of living hope.”
When the Earth cleaves in Haiti, Christians, Sikhs, and other faith groups sent volunteers to distribute aid, tend to the wounded, rebuild homes for the homeless.
When Ebola ravaged West Africa, Jewish, Christian, Muslim groups responded to the outbreak to save lives. And as the news fanned the flames of fear, churches and mosques responded with a powerful rebuke, welcoming survivors into their pews.
When nine worshippers were murdered in a Charleston church basement, it was people of all faiths who came together to wrap a shattered community in love and understanding.
When Syrian refugees seek the sanctuary of our shores, it’s the faithful from synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches who welcome them, the first to offer blankets and food and open their homes. Even now, people of different faiths and beliefs are coming together to help people suffering in Flint.
And then there’s the most — less spectacular, more quiet efforts of congregations all across this country just helping people. Seeing God in others. And we’re driven to do this because we’re driven by the value that so many of our faiths teach us -– I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. As Christians, we do this compelled by the Gospel of Jesus — the command to love God, and love one another.
And so, yes, like every person, there are times where I’m fearful. But my faith and, more importantly, the faith that I’ve seen in so many of you, the God I see in you, that makes me inevitably hopeful about our future. I have seen so many who know that God has not given us a spirit of fear. He has given us power, and love, and a sound mind.
We see that spirit in people like Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned for no crime other than holding God in his heart. And last year, we prayed that he might be freed. And this year, we give thanks that he is home safe. (Applause.)
We pray for God’s protection for all around the world who are not free to practice their faith, including Christians who are persecuted, or who have been driven from their ancient homelands by unspeakable violence. (Applause.) And just as we call on other countries to respect the rights of religious minorities, we, too, respect the right of every single American to practice their faith freely. (Applause.) For this is what each of us is called on to do: To seek our common humanity in each other. To make sure our politics and our public discourse reflect that same spirit of love and sound mind. To assume the best in each other and not just the worst — and not just at the National Prayer Breakfast. To begin each of our works from the shared belief that all of us want what’s good and right for our country and our future.
We can draw such strength from the quiet moments of heroism around us every single day. And so let me close with two such stories that I’ve come to know just over the past week.
A week ago, I spoke at a ceremony held at the Israeli Embassy for the first time, honoring the courage of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. And one of the recipients was the grandson — or the son of an American soldier who had been captured by the Nazis. So a group of American soldiers are captured, and their captors ordered Jewish POWs to identify themselves. And one sergeant, a Christian named Roddie Edmonds, from Tennessee, ordered all American troops to report alongside them. They lined up in formation, approximately 200 of them, and the Nazi colonel said, “I asked only for the Jewish POWs,” and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” And Master Sergeant Edmonds stood there and said, “We are all Jews.” And the colonel took out his pistol and held it to the Master Sergeant’s head and said, “Tell me who the Jews are.” And he repeated, “We are all Jews.” And faced with the choice of shooting all those soldiers, the Nazis relented. And so, through his moral clarity, through an act of faith, Sergeant Edmonds saved the lives of his Jewish brothers-in-arms. (Applause.)
A second story. Just yesterday, some of you may be aware I visited a mosque in Baltimore to let our Muslim-American brothers and sisters know that they, too, are Americans and welcome here. (Applause.) And there I met a Muslim-American named Rami Nashashibi, who runs a nonprofit working for social change in Chicago. And he forms coalitions with churches and Latino groups and African Americans in this poor neighborhood in Chicago. And he told me how the day after the tragedy in San Bernardino happened, he took his three young children to a playground in the Marquette Park neighborhood, and while they were out, the time came for one of the five daily prayers that are essential to the Muslim tradition. And on any other day, he told me, he would have immediately put his rug out on the grass right there and prayed.
But that day, he paused. He feared any unwelcome attention he might attract to himself and his children. And his seven year-old daughter asked him, “What are you doing, Dad? Isn’t it time to pray?” And he thought of all the times he had told her the story of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Robert Marx, and 700 other people marched to that very same park, enduring hatred and bigotry, dodging rocks and bottles, and hateful words, in order to challenge Chicago housing segregation, and to ask America to live up to our highest ideals.
And so, at that moment, drawing from the courage of men of different religions, of a different time, Rami refused to teach his children to be afraid. Instead, he taught them to be a part of that legacy of faith and good conscience. “I want them to understand that sometimes faith will be tested,” he told me, “and that we will be asked to show immense courage, like others have before us, to make our city, our country, and our world a better reflection of all our ideals.” And he put down his rug and he prayed. (Applause.)
Now, those two stories, they give me courage and they give me hope. And they instruct me in my own Christian faith. I can’t imagine a moment in which that young American sergeant expressed his Christianity more profoundly than when, confronted by his own death, he said “We are all Jews.” (Applause.) I can’t imagine a clearer expression of Jesus’s teachings. I can’t imagine a better expression of the peaceful spirit of Islam than when a Muslim father, filled with fear, drew from the example of a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi to teach his children what God demands. (Applause.)
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. I pray that by His grace, we all find the courage to set such examples in our own lives — not just during this wonderful gathering and fellowship, not just in the public piety that we profess, but in those smaller moments when it’s difficult, when we’re challenged, when we’re angry, when we’re confronted with someone who doesn’t agree with us, when no one is watching. I pray, as Roma* so beautifully said, that our differences ultimately are bridged; that the God that is in each of us comes together, and we don’t divide.
I pray that our leaders will always act with humility and generosity. I pray that my failings are forgiven. I pray that we will uphold our obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation — this beautiful planet. I pray that we will see every single child as our own, each worthy of our love and of our compassion. And I pray we answer Scripture’s call to lift up the vulnerable, and to stand up for justice, and ensure that every human being lives in dignity.
That’s my prayer for this breakfast, and for this country, in the years to come.
May God bless you, and may He continue to bless this country that we love. (Applause.)