(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
WASHINGTON – President Obama took a markedly more political tone in his address at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning than he did at the same event last year.
The president talked about his public policy stances, including barring health insurance companies from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions and reducing tax breaks for the wealthy, hand-in-hand with his faith, often citing snippets of popular Bible verses.
"[S]o when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street…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 strong for everybody," Obama said.
"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.'"
Obama's speech last year was much more about his personal faith and family life. He had shared the previous year about the godmother of his two daughters who helped organize prayer groups for him across the country, and his personal prayer habits. He had also spoke about his non-religious upbringing and how he came to become a Christian, which he mentioned in passing at this year's event.
In contrast to last year's personal faith stories, attendees of the 60th National Prayer Breakfast – which takes place 10 months before the presidential election – were treated to Obama's attempt to make a biblical case for his contentious economic policies.
"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," the president said. "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.'"
Pastor Joel C. Hunter, President Obama's spiritual adviser, commented to The Christian Post after the event on the president's decision to tie politics and his faith together in the speech.
"He (Obama) made several comments that this not only makes economic sense, but it makes moral sense," Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed near Orlando, said. "Then he made sure that we understood that it was an extension of his own Christian faith."
"I do think that the president was trying to say that this is a part of my own Christian faith, and what informs my policies," he continued.
"He is trying to make connections between what is actually happening in the decision-making realm of politics and faith. So he is saying, that these policies we are making isn't just a matter of affairs, but also a matter of what our faith have told us to do."
But for Dr. Richard D. Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Obama's speech was too political for the prayer breakfast, which emphasizes removing political labels and partisan divides to come together in prayer and worship.
"I thought it was the most political speech that I heard a president give at the prayer breakfast and I've been to several prayer breakfasts," said Land to CP. "And I thought it was by far the most political speech."
Land said he had some people share with him afterwards that they thought President Obama's speech was "unfortunate."
The annual National Prayer Breakfast is hosted by members of Congress on behalf of the organization The Family. The first prayer breakfast took place in 1953, when members of the Senate and House of Representatives, along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, established the then-named Presidential Prayer Breakfast. The tradition has continued to today, with every president since Eisenhower attending the breakfast.
The event's purpose is for the nation's leaders, including those in business and other sectors, to come together to pray to find "the better way," encourage one another and to pray and support the president and his family.
This year, the keynote speaker was Eric Metaxas, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.
President Obama during his speech gave a shout out to Pastors Joel C. Hunter and T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House, but only Hunter was present at the prayer breakfast. The Christian Post confirmed with a T.D. Jakes Ministries spokesperson that the popular Texas preacher was unable to attend the event due to a scheduling conflict.
Another prominent evangelical leader that attended the event was National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who delivered the keynote message at the prayer breakfast four years ago.
Interestingly, while Obama cited a few Bible verses, he seemed to go out of his way to acknowledge other religious faiths. He mentioned the words "Islam" or "Islamic" three times, "Judaism" or "Jewish" three times, and "Hinduism" once.
First lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were also in attendance.