President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, with a plea for civility in our political discourse. Noting how Americans come together in times of danger or tragedy, he spoke specifically about the response to the recent earthquake in Haiti. Then he went on to note that such a spirit seems lacking when dealing with other long-term issues:
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.
This year's gathering had become more controversial than usual because of allegations that some members of the sponsoring organization, a loosely affiliated network of Christian leaders known as The Fellowship (or The Family), had connections to Ugandan lawmakers advocating imprisonment and execution of homosexuals. Other members of The Fellowship have condemned the legislation, and those who advocated it were disinvited from the prayer breakfast. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized this legislation in her speech to the breakfast, and following her, President Obama said:
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.
Despite the controversy, the National Prayer Breakfast has a history as a forum for some of the most profound statements of faith in public life, including Bono's speech in 2006, Sen. Mark Hatfield's prophetic challenge against the moral "shame" of the Vietnam War with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in attendance, and when Mother Theresa spoke on abortion and the sacredness of life.
And, as the president concluded:
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.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.