President worries that "as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we've been talking about...seems to be forgotten"...Washington, DC - President Obama avoided politically controversial topics during his remarks on Thursday morning at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, instead making an appeal for unity and humility in the contentious halls of power as he spoke at the annual gathering run by The Fellowship, a Christian conservative group led by Members of Congress. It's a contrast to last year's breakfast, where the President made a much-criticized faith-based case for his plans to tax the richest Americans. (Above, during his remarks)
Speaking to an audience of thousands gathered in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton hotel, whom organizers said came from 160 countries and all 50 states, the President recalled his emotions at his inauguration last month, where he was sworn in on Bibles owned by Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Reading from pages placed on the podium before him, the President held up his two icons as examples of leaders whose faith and reliance on God carried them through extraordinary challenges and devastating events, a century apart.
"I was reminded that, yes, Dr. King was a man of audacious hope and a man of relentless optimism. But--he was also a man occasionally brought to his knees in fear and in doubt and in helplessness," President Obama said. "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."
Noting that Lincoln saw "this country torn apart" during the Civil War and "his fellow citizens waging a ferocious war that pitted brother against brother," he hailed his ability to "see God in those who vehemently opposed him" and urged all to follow his example.
"Today, the divisions in this country are thankfully not as deep and destructive as when Lincoln led--but they are real," President Obama said. "The differences in how we hope to move our nation forward are less pronounced than when King marched, but they do exist."
"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, to find the common ground that allows for us as a nation and as a people to take real and meaningful action."
Presidents have been attending the breakfast since Dwight D. Eisenhower's appearance in 1953, and President Obama rebuked the gathering for seeming to rapidly forget the message of the morning.
"It says something about us--as a nation and as a people--that every year, for 61 years now, this great prayerful tradition has endured," he said, adding that this year is his fifth attending the breakfast since taking office.
"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," President Obama said, to laughter.
"I mean, you'd like to think that the shelf life wasn't so short. But I go back to the Oval Office and I start watching the cable news networks and it's like we didn’t pray."
He called for a return to following scripture, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12--"through a glass darkly," and urged all to remember that God's plan is essentially unknowable.
"And so my hope is that humility, that that carries over every day, every moment," President Obama said.
"While God may reveal His plan to us in portions, the expanse of His plan is for God, and God alone, to understand...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."
First Lady Michelle Obama, clad in a green, cap-sleeved dress with a sparkling green brooch, sat at the Head Table and nodded as her husband spoke. She was joined by Vice President Joe Biden, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Olympic gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of US Naval Operations and his wife, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA), the leaders of the House Breakfast group, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, and Dr. Ben Carson, Sr., Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, who was the guest speaker.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark) shared emcee duties, and noted that guests included the Prime Minister of Serbia, and the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Above, the President on a jumbotron in the ballroom)
Sessions' introduction included praising the First Daughters, and President Obama responded as he began his remarks.
"It is true that my daughters are gorgeous because my wife is gorgeous," he said. "It's my goal to improve my gene pool."
After the President finished, Sessions, who has vocally criticized Mr. Obama, seemed to take his message to heart.
"We are one nation and we have one president who serves us all," Sessions told the crowd. "Thank you for being my president. Thank you for being our president."
Teen Olympian Douglas said the closing prayer; Mr. and Mrs. Obama bowed their heads as she spoke. Bocelli performed at the start of the program, and closed with "Ave Maria." Schumer, Dole, and others offered readings from Scripture--with Schumer reading Isaiah 55:6-13, and noting that that is also his own Hebrew name. (Above, the President and Mrs. Obama listen to Bocelli sing)
Ahed of President Obama's remarks, Salazar broached immigration reform as he spoke of President Obama's visit to California last October to dedicate the César E. Chávez National Monument. Noting that Chávez' labor movement built on the work of King and Gandhi, Salazar called on all to remember God during the immigration debates.
"Let us pray that our leaders and all of our leaders be inspired by the peopling of our nation and give voice to those who now live in fear, let us pray as César Chávez prayed as he fasted for those who had no voice," Salazar said.
During his speech, Dr. Carson spoke of his impoverished childhood, raised by a mother with a third-grade education who married at 13, but who none the less believed in him. He offered his ideas on how to settle taxation debates--and seemed to be encouraging tithing--and also addressed the debt ceiling, and urged educational opportunities for all.
President Obama shook hands with all at the Head Table before departing the ballroom with a wave to the crowd.
The President returned to the White House at 9:40 AM, and was scheduled to deliver remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Leesburg, VA at 12:50 PM.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
*Top photo by Pete Souza/White House; other photos By Obama Foodorama