President Obama: "I'm praying a lot these days"

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama called for civility in the public square, and encouraged people to pray, during his address at the National Prayer Breakfast attended by 3,000 in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton on Thursday.

“For while prayer can buck us up when we are down, keep us calm in a storm; while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle – and I assure you I’m praying a lot these days – prayer can also do something else,” Obama said.

“It can touch our hearts with humility. It can fill us with a spirit of brotherhood. It can remind us that each of us are children of a awesome and loving God.”

Obama called on Washington lawmakers to overcome division and learn how to “disagree without being disagreeable”. He said no political party had a “monopoly on truth” and that lawmakers needed to leave their comfort zones to bridge divisions.

“Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship,” he said, drawing laughter.

The president gave examples of civility that included conservative pastors helping to fix the country’s broken immigration system, evangelical leaders mobilising churches to protect the environment and progressive Christians promoting responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage as an anti-poverty solution.

“It’s not what would be expected from them,” he said. “Stretching out of our dogmas, our prescribed roles along the political spectrum, that can help us regain a sense of civility.”

The annual National Prayer Breakfast has been attended by every US president since 1953. Bono, Mother Teresa and Tony Blair have all been speakers.

The event is sponsored by the secretive evangelical Christian organisation The Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family. Its members include high ranking US government officials, corporate executives, and heads of religious organisations as well as non-US leaders and ambassadors.

Some religious and gay rights groups have accused The Fellowship Foundation of being directly tied to the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which  seeks to strengthen the criminalisation of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty and imprisonment of those suspected of "aggravated homosexuality". The Foundation is said to have close ties to David Bahati, the Ugandan politician who sponsored the controversial legislation.

A number of campaigning groups urged Obama to boycott the Breakfast, and held alternative prayer events.

Although Obama went ahead with his plan to address the prayer breakfast for the second consecutive year, he took care to condemn the Ugandan draft legislation, saying: “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 . . . more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”

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