Will Rogers once said the country “has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer” – they both can easily break stuff. But what happens when members from both sides of the aisle get together to pray?
Since our founding, generations of American leaders have been prayerful people, and our nation is much the better for it. At the beginning of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin called for the institution of daily prayer during deliberations, saying, “God governs in the affairs of men.” This eventually paved the way for the Congressional Chaplaincy and the daily practice of prayer from a variety of faith traditions in the House and Senate that continues today.
Regular prayer among our nation’s leaders is not limited to these formal proceedings. One of the best days in Washington this year took place on February 8. Some 4,000 people from all 50 states, 140 countries and every political and religious stripe came together to pray, as they have for 66 years.
Annual prayer breakfasts like this one in February also happen in most of the state capitals and in many global capitals. They’re non-partisan, non-denominational and led by regular people. This year Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) and I were co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast.
I’m always deeply encouraged walking out of the event. But don’t take my word for it, watch the full breakfast via the Washington Post below.
The morning was filled with powerful testimonies. You’ll see partisanship defeated when you listen to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, talk about their genuine friendship and love for each other. Rep. Richmond was one of the first Members of Congress to visit Rep. Scalise in the hospital following the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Virginia last summer. You’ll be inspired by the courage of a disabled Army major. You’ll see national leaders deeply concerned for the poor in the United States and other countries. And if you listen to President Trump’s thoughtful remarks, you’ll learn something about our president’s approach to life and governing that you might not have known.
The day was euphoric. With any mountaintop experience, though, you find that it’s the day-in and day-out practices which truly shape who we are. For the past year, Rep. Charlie Crist and I also co-chaired the Congressional Prayer Breakfast—a weekly event which has a history in both the House and Senate for nearly 80 years.
This is one place where the cameras are off and Members of Congress can shed party labels and see each other as people.
A couple dozen U.S. representatives attend each week from a variety of backgrounds. Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers, women, men, rich, not-so-rich, small business owners, doctors, lawyers—you name it, they’ve come.
Every week we eat, we sing, we pray and then we hear the life story of one of our colleagues. Sometimes faith is a big component of their story, sometimes not. But through these stories we get to know each other better, and we know how to pray for one another.
We walk into the room as Republicans and Democrats, people from different generations, regions and backgrounds. We do come in with our differences, with our strongly held views.
But we always walk out with a little more understanding, more together, more unified. The same is true at the National Prayer Breakfast.
We’re certainly all imperfect. But we’re on a journey together toward civility, toward reconciliation, toward that spirit of love that Jesus shows us.
That’s what prayer does. In my experience, prayer is not just asking God for stuff. It’s about a relationship with Him. And real relationships are about listening—really listening—and then trying to live out what we hear.
When Prime Minister Tony Blair was the National Prayer Breakfast keynote years ago, he put his finger on the paradox of religion in the public arena. On the one hand, religion distorted and manipulated has brought about some of the darkest days in human history—wars, genocides and persecution. On the other hand, faith is inseparable from some of the great triumphs of humankind: the abolition of slavery, determined work to care for the poor and eliminate global poverty and the beginnings of the modern movement to properly care for the world in which we live. He also reminded us that the 20th century was the world’s most secular century, and the bloodiest.
Remember these stirring words of Dr. King: “Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security…History is replete with the bleached bones of nations that refused to listen to him…. May we solemnly realize that we shall never be true sons of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
Mixing faith and politics can be toxic and dangerous to the Republic. But so can excluding the great virtues that faith teaches and the power it provides for living out the call of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”
What kind of city could our nation’s capital be if we practiced the Golden Rule when we spoke, negotiated, voted and worked for the common good? What kind of world would we have?
That’s why we gather to pray every February as a nation, and every week as Members of Congress: to ask God for the wisdom and the strength to do it.