WASHINGTON –– President Barack Obama decried the use of “twisted and distorted” faith as a wedge or a weapon in remarks Feb. 5 at the National Prayer Breakfast.
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., applaud as President Barack Obama takes the stage to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Feb. 5. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)The president also lauded the faith-based work typified by others on the program for the annual event, including the Sister of Mercy who co-founded Project HOME, a Philadelphia program that aims to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty; and Dr. Kent Brantly, the physician affiliated with Samaritan’s Purse, who returned from Liberia last year with Ebola.
“Around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another –– to feed the hungry and care for the poor, comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife,” Obama said, pointing to Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home and Brantly as epitomizing “faith driving us to do right.”
Sister Mary and Brantly each delivered prayers at the event.
But faith also is distorted and sometimes used as a weapon, Obama said.
“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, … but, in fact, are betraying it,” Obama said. He singled out the Islamic State, calling it “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism –– terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
He pointed to sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic and “a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.”
Obama’s remarks followed keynote speaker Darrell Waltrip, a former NASCAR driver who now works as a racing commentator. In lighthearted comments laced with stories from the racing circuit, Waltrip talked about learning to rely on God and taking lessons drawn from faith to reshape his behavior.
“The hardest thing is to look back and see things, like how I acted,” Waltrip said, quoting a litany of what he said people called him: “brash, ruthless, pushy, cocky, conceited, aloof, boastful, arrogant and downright annoying.”
One of his wrecks while racing prompted the reevaluation of himself and led him to turn to God, Waltrip said. He and his wife, Stevie, founded Motor Racing Outreach, which provides opportunities for faith expression on the racing circuit, such as through church services at racetracks.
In his remarks, Obama picked up on Waltrip’s list of what people used to say about him, joking: “I was thinking, well, you’re a piker. … I mean, if you really want a list, come talk to me.”
On a more serious note, Obama said that just as modern society struggles with religion being used in less-than-honorable ways, humans have been grappling with distortions of faith throughout 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.”
“This is not unique to one group or one religion,” he said. “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.”
He suggested starting with “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,” Obama said. 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.”
Obama acknowledged that Pope Francis would be visiting the United States in September, including a stop in Washington, as he reiterated some of the pope’s messages.
“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,” Obama said. “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 challenges us to press on in what he calls our ‘march of living hope.'”
Earlier, one of the event’s co-chairs, Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pennsylvania, read an excerpt of greetings from Pope Francis. The entire text was later read at another event during the conference that surrounds the breakfast.
In the text, obtained from Casey’s office, Pope Francis said the one thing he would propose for the gathering is to remember the poor.
“Faith calls us to be protectors of one another,” the letter said, “to show concern for the least of our brothers and sisters, and to bring the balm of God’s peace to all, especially the most vulnerable and those in greatest need.”
Lazarus, as in the biblical story, “continues to knock at our door,” the pope’s message said. “He is there in the immigrant, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, the outcast living at the fringes of our affluent society, and indeed in the most vulnerable and innocent members of our human family.”
There is no middle ground, the letter said. “In all that we do, we are either gathering or scattering, building or tearing down.”
Later that morning, House Speaker John Boehner announced in his weekly news conference that Pope Francis would address a joint session of Congress Sept. 24, becoming the first pontiff to do so.
The National Prayer Breakfast is a multiday, nondenominational, but heavily Christian event highlighted by the breakfast itself. It is attended by a global representation of political, diplomatic and religious leaders, including every U.S. president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower. Limited news coverage is allowed only for the main breakfast, which is open only to reporters admitted with the White House press.
The titular hosts each year are members of Congress, typically one Republican and one Democrat, who are active in prayer groups in the House or Senate. Casey’s co-chair this year was Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.