February 7, 2015
Words Don't Lie
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (The first President to speak at the newly inaugurated National Prayer Breakfast): First, there is a need we all have in these days and times for some help which comes from outside ourselves as we face the multitude of problems that are part of this confusing situation. I do not mean merely help for your leaders or the people in Congress, in the Cabinet and others in authority, because these problems are part of all of us. They face each one of us because we are a free country ... Once in a while it might be a good thing for us to turn back to history. Let us study a little bit of what happened at the founding of this Nation ... We have begun in our grasp of that basis of understanding, which is that all free government is firmly founded in a deeply-felt religious faith ... (Read full speech here.)
President John F. Kennedy: You and I are charged with obligations to serve the Great Republic in years of great crisis. The problems we face are complex; the pressures are immense, and both the perils and the opportunities are greater than any nation ever faced. In such a time, the limits of mere human endeavor become more apparent than ever. We cannot depend solely on our material wealth, on our military might, or on our intellectual skill or physical courage to see us safely through the seas that we must sail in the months and years to come.
Along with all of these we need faith. We need the faith with which our first settlers crossed the sea to carve out a state in the wilderness, a mission they said in the Pilgrims' Compact, the Mayflower Compact, undertaken for the glory of God. We need the faith with which our Founding Fathers proudly proclaimed the independence of this country to what seemed at that time an almost hopeless struggle, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence. We need the faith which has sustained and guided this Nation for 175 long and short years. We are all builders of the future, and whether we build as public servants or private citizens, whether we build at the national or the local level, whether we build in foreign or domestic affairs, we know the truth of the ancient Psalm, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it." (Read full speech here).
President Ronald Reagan: We all in this room, I know, and we know many millions more everywhere, turn to God in prayer, believe in the power and the spirit of prayer. And yet so often, we direct our prayers to those problems that are immediate to us, knowing that He has promised His help to us when we turn to Him. And yet in a world today that is so torn with strife where the divisions seem to be increasing, not people coming together, within countries, divisions within the people, themselves and all, I wonder if we have ever thought about the greatest tool that we have—that power of prayer and God's help.
This power of prayer can be illustrated by a story that goes back to the fourth century. The Asian monk living in a little remote village, spending most of his time in prayer or tending the garden from which he obtained his sustenance—I hesitate to say the name because I'm not sure I know the pronunciation, but let me take a chance. It was Telemacmus, back in the fourth century. And then one day, he thought he heard the voice of God telling him to go to Rome. And believing that he had heard, he set out. And weeks and weeks later, he arrived there, having traveled most of the way on foot.
And it was at a time of a festival in Rome. They were celebrating a triumph over the Goths. And he followed a crowd into the Colosseum, and then there in the midst of this great crowd, he saw the gladiators come forth, stand before the Emperor, and say, "We who are about to die salute you." And he realized they were going to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. And he cried out, "In the name of Christ, stop!" And his voice was lost in the tumult there in the great Colosseum.
And as the games began, he made his way down through the crowd and climbed over the wall and dropped to the floor of the arena. Suddenly the crowds saw this scrawny little figure making his way out to the gladiators and saying, over and over again, "In the name of Christ, stop." And they thought it was part of the entertainment, and at first they were amused. But then, when they realized it wasn't, they grew belligerent and angry. And as he was pleading with the gladiators, "In the name of Christ, stop," one of them plunged his sword into his body. And as he fell to the sand of the arena in death, his last words were, "In the name of Christ, stop."
And suddenly, a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at this tiny form lying in the sand. A silence fell over the Colosseum. And then, someplace up in the upper tiers, an individual made his way to an exit and left, and others began to follow. And in the dead silence, everyone left the Colosseum. That was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Never again did anyone kill or did men kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd.
One tiny voice that could hardly be heard above the tumult. "In the name of Christ, stop." It is something we could be saying to each other throughout the world today.
And then President Reagan quoted the farewell message of the Ambassador from the Philippines, General Romulo, as he returned to his home after 17 years in diplomatic service: "Never forget, Americans, that yours is a spiritual country. Yes, I know you're a practical people. Like others, I've marveled at your factories, your skyscrapers, and your arsenals. But underlying everything else is the fact that America began as a God-loving, God-fearing, God-worshiping people, knowing that there is a spark of the divine in each one of us. It is this respect for the dignity of the human spirit which keeps America invincible. May you always endure and, as I say again in parting, thank you, America, and farewell. May God keep you always, and may you always keep God."
President Reagan informed the Congressional crowd at the National Prayer Breakfast, that this farewell address was a tribute, as well as a warning. (Read full speech here).
President William J. Clinton: I helped to start the first Governor's prayer breakfast in my State ... And every year I had the pleasure of delegating two Arkansans, one a clergyman or -woman and one a citizen, to come to this wonderful event.
I thought about the first time I ever saw Billy Graham—appropriate to mention now. He came in the 1950's, in the heat of all our racial trouble, to Arkansas to have a crusade. And the white citizens council tried to get him, because of the tensions of the moment, to agree to segregate his crusade in the fifties in the South. And he said, "If I have to do that, I'm not coming." And I remember I got a Sunday school teacher in my church—and I was about 11 years old—to take me 50 miles to Little Rock so I could hear a man preach who was trying to live by what he said. And then I remember, for a good while thereafter, trying to send a little bit of my allowance to the Billy Graham crusade because of the impression he made on me then.
I am honored that all of you are here not for a political purpose. We come here to seek the help and guidance of our Lord, putting aside our differences, as men and women who freely acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. And we come here seeking to restore and renew and strengthen our faith.
I have always been touched by the living example of Jesus Christ and moved particularly by all the religious leaders of His day who were suspicious of Him and always trying to trap Him because He was so at ease with the hurting and the hungry and the lonely and, yes, the sinners. And in one of those marvelous attempts to trick Christ, He was asked, "What is the greatest Commandment?" And He answered, quoting Moses, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." And then He added, as we should add, "This is the great and foremost Commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Read full speech here).
President George W. Bush: We are a nation of prayer; America prays. Each day, millions of our citizens bow their heads in silence and solitude, or they offer up prayers in fellowship with others. They pray for themselves; they pray for their families; they pray for their neighbors and their communities. In many congregations and homes across this great land, people also set a time—set aside time to pray for our Nation and those entrusted with authority, including our elected leaders...
The greatest gift a citizen of this country can give those of us entrusted with political office is to pray for us. And I thank those in our Nation who lift all of us up in prayer...
Many in our country know the power of prayer. Prayer changes hearts, prayer changes lives, and prayer makes us a more compassionate and giving people. When we pray, we surrender our will to the Almighty and open ourselves up to His priorities and His touch. His call to love our neighbors as we would like to be loved ourselves is something that we hear when we pray. And we answer that call by reaching out to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and aid the widow and the orphan. By helping our brothers and sisters in need, we find our own faith strengthened and we receive the grace to lead lives of dignity and purpose...
In the quiet of prayer, we leave behind our own cares, and we take up the cares of the Almighty. And in answering His call to service, we find that, in the words of Isaiah: "We will gain new strength. We will run and not get tired. We will walk and not become weary." (Read full speech here).
President Barack Obama (Let me say that it was more difficult to extract the essence of this President's speech than it was the other Presidents. His speech was three or four times longer, and seemed to be crafted to present an underlying message. Read it in its entirety yourself, to get the full impression; but here are the highlights that jumped out at me):
Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges -- certainly over the last six years. But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil...
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human 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. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation...
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. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And 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...
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both...
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries...
Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another. And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them -- that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: "None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Put on love.
As children of God, let’s work to end injustice -- injustice of poverty and hunger. No one should ever suffer from such want amidst such plenty. As children of God, let’s work to eliminate the scourge of homelessness, because, as Sister Mary says, “None of us are home until all of us are home.” None of us are home until all of us are home.
As children of God, let’s stand up for the dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child, because we are all equal in His eyes, and work to send the scourge and the sin of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and “set the oppressed free.” (Applause.)
If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” -- grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS: If you have taken the time to read my selected highlights, or waded through the speeches in their entirety, I think you get a sense of those who were genuinely expressing faith, and those who saw it as a somewhat political function of the Office. There were a couple of glaringly obvious aspects of the speeches that I would like to point out.
First, to a man, each President introduced the historical significance that faith has played in either his life or the history of our nation. All of the Presidents, except one, lauded the great lengths to which the Christian faith had positively influenced the world and/or the founding of this great nation.
Most of the Presidents refrained from bringing their political agendas into a speech whose purpose is to acknowledge the importance of prayer in our national dialogue and administration of government. However, the Presidents who have held office since 9/11 inserted both their personal and political agendas into the conversation.
All the Presidents, save one, painted positive pictures of our national history. All the Presidents, save one, shed the spotlight on Christianity alone, which is the historical bedrock of this nation. Only one President attempted to equalize other religions with our Christian faith, and then point out that, historically, "evil deeds were done in the name of Christ". Instead of pointing out that evil deeds have been done by men throughout history in the name of religion, this is a duplicitous tactic to smear the name of Christ.
Our national history and that of the world is not perfect. On that, we can all agree. But to insinuate that the Crusades had anything to do with the teachings of Christ is a gross misinterpretation of the political and unholy wars fought by both Christians and Muslims. Furthermore, to connect slavery and Jim Crow laws to the "injustice" of Christianity is ludicrous. It was the Christian faith that led the way to the repudiation of slavery. The obvious attempt to equivocate recent Muslim atrocities had no place at an annual U.S. Prayer breakfast.
Of course, there will be a momentary uproar among the talking heads of the media circus; ironically, it is obvious that many of them are speaking from a position of unbelief. And I can sum up the lack of true concern with this statement by Lynn Sweet, of The Chicago Sun-Times: "Did [the President's remarks] merit being mentioned on the nightly news? I don't think so. There's a lot going on in the world."
That's right. The focus of most people is on the world. Perhaps we should re-focus on the original intent of the National Prayer Breakfast --- our need for national prayer to our God. I would suggest we do more than "drop to our knees on occasion" as was suggested in the latest Prayer Breakfast address. I would also disagree with the statement that "we [will] acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose". The One True God's purpose is clear if you read the Bible --- not the Koran, nor the Hindu Vedas, or the Buddhist Tipitaka. His purpose is to reconcile His creation with Himself through our acceptance of His son, Jesus Christ, and His sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
It is all so sad to me. What was once an occasion for the Leader of our country to give thanks to the providence of God, and to exhort the nation to pray for His continued guidance and protection, has turned into a self-serving excuse to promote personal ideologies and insult YHWH. Now, more than ever, we need to heed the warning of the Philippine Ambassador: May God keep you always, and may you always keep God.
Psalm 2:1-4 "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision."