(RNS) — President Joe Biden vowed to keep working and praying for resolutions to global conflicts as he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. He also urged congressional leaders not to treat those with whom they disagree as enemies.
“My prayer, my hope, is we continue to believe our best days are ahead of us, that as a nation we continue to believe in honesty, decency, dignity, and respect,” he said in remarks Thursday (Feb. 1) in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. “We see each other not as enemies but as fellow human beings, each made in the image of God, each precious in his sight.”
The event, sponsored by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation for the second year on Capitol Hill, follows a tradition that dates to the Eisenhower administration when U.S. presidents began attending the annual event long held on the first Thursday of February.
“We’re all blessed to live in a nation where we can practice our many faiths and practice them freely and where we can come together and lift up our nation and each other — each other — in our own prayers, especially in tough times,” Biden said in remarks carried by C-SPAN2 and CBN News.
As other presidents have, he used the occasion to give thanks for others’ prayers for him even as he described the subject of his own faithful petitions.
Biden said his prayers are with the families of three U.S. service members killed in an attack on Sunday in Jordan at a military base near the Syrian border.
“Not only do we pray for peace, we are actively working for peace, security, dignity for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people,” he said. “I’m engaged in this day and night, working as many of you in this room are, to find the means to bring our hostages home, to ease the humanitarian crisis, and to bring peace to Gaza and Israel — an enduring peace with two states for two peoples — just as we worked for peace, security and dignity for the Ukrainian people as they show incredible resolve and resilience against Putin’s aggression. We must continue to help them.”
Biden also described standing against hate — including antisemitism, Islamophobia, and discrimination against Arab Americans and South Asian Americans — as a “calling.”
“We’ve never as a nation fully lived up to that and we’ve never walked away from it either,” he said. “It’s a covenant we have with one another to hold this nation together.”
The refashioned National Prayer Breakfast is a scaled-down version of an event that has drawn thousands to the Washington Hilton and was previously hosted by a group often known as “The Family,” but that called itself the International Foundation.
Since last year, there have been two events, one sponsored by the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, after years of controversy following the 2018 breakfast and accusations that the gathering of national and international political and religious leaders had become vulnerable to espionage.
The second event, dubbed the NPB Gathering, and held again this year at the Hilton, drew about 2,000 people from more than 125 countries, including heads of state, and featured a livestream of Biden’s remarks, said A. Larry Ross, media representative for the International Foundation.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame was the keynote speaker at that event, and former Reps. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., and Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., were the co-emcees.
The first event, however, had a shift of location, and there are proposals for it to have another.
Last year, it was held at the Capitol Visitor Center. On Thursday, it was held in Statuary Hall, which is just south of the Rotunda.
Rep. Tracey Mann, R-Kan., introduced a resolution in November to authorize use of the Rotunda for the event. It has been referred to the House Committee on House Administration.
Mann and Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Ind., were honorary co-chairs of the 2024 breakfast, where they jointly read a prayer and members of Congress from both parties read Scripture and prayed for the president. House Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben said the closing prayer and Senate Chaplain Barry Black was the keynote speaker.
Black described how people working on Capitol Hill turn to fasting and prayer, especially in times of crisis, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Hamas-Israel war, and the last two U.S. presidential elections.
“I’m talking about representatives, senators, chiefs of staff, waiters, waitresses, janitors were fasting and praying,” he said. “Hundreds of us have been doing that.”
He cited numerous religions that include the practice of fasting and prayer — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism — and suggested people in the nation and world should adopt the guidance of British Methodist leader John Wesley of not eating until 3 p.m. twice a week.
“It’s easier than it sounds,” he said.
The existence of the breakfast on Capitol Hill — and at all — has been opposed by church-state separationists.
“Using the U.S. Capitol as the venue would incontrovertibly give the distasteful appearance that this private, Christian-dominated event is an official governmental function of Congress,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, in a statement to Religion News Service ahead of the events. “Conducting a ‘National Prayer Breakfast’ at the conspicuous seat of federal government is what would be expected in a theocracy, not a republic predicated on a secular Constitution.”
On X, formerly Twitter, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Thursday: “As the Senator Chaplain opens the National Prayer Breakfast w/a sermon, American flags as his backdrop, I ask again: Why do we have chaplains in Congress? Why do we have a National Prayer Breakfast? Church-state separation protects religion as much as taxpayers’ religious freedom.”
Tenor Andrea Bocelli opened the event by singing the Lord’s Prayer and concluded it with a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that prompted Biden to stand up and shake the musician’s hand before the president returned to his front-row seat for Kibben’s prayer.
Biden, a Roman Catholic, ended his remarks by calling for unity among those in the room, paraphrasing the words of the song “On Eagle’s Wings.”
“Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand: That’s sincerely my prayer to all of you,” the president said. “We have really tough, tough differences. We really go at one another. But remember — let’s remember who the hell we — hell we are. We’re the United States of America. It’s all about dignity and respect so let’s practice it.”
As he moved to his seat, the members of Congress and guests in attendance stood and applauded.