(Photo: AP Images / Charles Dharapak)
There is one law that all major religions share, President Barack Obama contended on Thursday. That is, to love thy neighbors.
Religion too often is a source of division and animosity, he said to thousands of attendees, including several world leaders and hundreds of members of Congress, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, D.C. But the holy scriptures of the world’s major religions all teach the Golden Rule, he said.
"There is one law that binds all great religions together," Obama said, according to ABC News. "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."
"Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and 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."
He acknowledged that people of different faiths can’t avoid having differences on some beliefs, on the text used, or teaching on the afterlife, but he stressed that "no matter what we choose to believe … there is no religion whose central tenet is hate."
The President spoke at the prayer breakfast just hours before officially establishing the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new office, he emphasized at the event, will work with organizations “no matter their religious or political beliefs” and adhere to a strict separation of 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," Obama said.
"People trust them," he added. "Communities rely on them. And we will help them."
Obama spoke from personal experience, having been a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago after graduating from college. It was while he worked with churches as a community organizer that he found faith in Jesus Christ - a story he often told on the campaign trail last year.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the keynote speaker at the prayer breakfast, also emphasized that religion should motivate people to unite in doing good rather than divide.
"For billions of people, faith motivates, galvanizes, compels and inspires," Blair said. "Not to exclude, but to embrace. Not to provoke conflict, but to try to do good."
"This is faith in action and you can see it in countless local communities," he continued. "Where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples tend the sick, care for the afflicted, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing and salvation to the lost."
Obama said he plans to reach out to religious leaders and scholars around the world to facilitate productive dialogues on faith.
“I don’t expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish," Obama said. "But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge.”
The National Prayer Breakfast was founded in 1953 by Frank Carlson, a former U.S. representative, governor and senator from Kansas. The event draws thousands of guests, including high-profile religious and political leaders. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has participated in the breakfast.