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Sen. Mark Hatfield

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower's administration, each president has attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast, drawing about 3,500 invited guests including members of Congress and government officials. There are readings, prayers, a main speaker, and remarks by the president. In 1973, as the nation was exiting the agony of the Vietnam War, and President Richard Nixon was just re-elected by a landslide — before Watergate unfolded — Sen. Mark O. Hatfield was invited to give some remarks. I served on his staff at the time. We consulted about what to say with Jim Wallis, a new friend in Chicago, publishing a small, upstart magazine called The Post-American. After a lot of thought and prayer, Mark Hatfield rose to the podium, with President Nixon on his right and Billy Graham on his left, and delivered these words:

My brothers and sisters:

As we gather at this prayer breakfast let us beware of the real danger of misplaced allegiance, if not outright idolatry, to the extent we fail to distinguish between the god of an American civil religion and the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.

If we as leaders appeal to the god of civil religion, our faith is in a small and exclusive deity, a loyal spiritual Advisor to power and prestige, a Defender of only the American nation, the object of a national folk religion devoid of moral content. But if we pray to the Biblical God of justice and righteousness, we fall under God’s judgment for calling upon His name, but failing to obey His commands.

Our Lord Jesus Christ confronts false petitioners who disobey the Word of God: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not the things I say?” (Luke 6:46).

God tells us that acceptable worship and obedience are expressed by specific acts of love and justice: “Is not this what I require of you … to loose the fetters of injustice … to snap every yoke and set free those who have been crushed? Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you meet them, and never evading a duty to your kinfolk?” (Isa. 58:6-7).

We sit here today, as the wealthy and the powerful. But let us not forget that those who follow Christ will more often find themselves not with comfortable majorities, but with miserable minorities.

Today our prayers must begin with repentance. Individually, we must seek forgiveness for the exile of love from our hearts. And corporately as a people, we must turn in repentance from the sin that scarred our national soul.

“If my people … shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, … then I will forgive their sins, and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).

We need a “confessing church” –a body of people who confess Jesus as Lord and are prepared to live by their confession. Lives lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ at this point in our history may well put us at odds with values of our society, abuses of political power, and cultural conformity of our church. We need those who seek to honor the claims of their discipleship—those who lives in active obedience to the call “… do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom. 12:2). We must continually be transformed by Jesus Christ and take His commands seriously. Let us be Christ’s messengers of reconciliation and peace, giving our lives over to the power of His love. Then we can soothe the wounds of war, and renew the face of the earth and all mankind.*

Unexpectedly, Hatfield’s remarks were featured in the New York Times and evening TV news casts. Privately, officials in the Nixon White House were furious. But support for Hatfield poured in from all quarters as the statement was widely circulated. It remains, in my judgment, the best example of how to offer a genuinely prophetic and biblical word within such a setting, in contrast to what we witnessed yesterday.

*Between a Rock and a Hard Place pp. 94-95

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.

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