Of Bibles, politics and prayer

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During the eight years I served in the Congress, including several years during which President Bill Clinton resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I always enjoyed attending the National Prayer Breakfast, held around this time each year. The breakfasts were massive events with thousands of attendees, including most members of Congress, the Washington diplomatic corps, religious leaders from all faiths and all countries and the president and vice president of the United States.

These events were a rare opportunity for those of us who toiled in the partisan vineyards of Capitol Hill to check our party labels and our denominational membership cards at the door. Then, in the calm atmosphere of a light breakfast and rare camaraderie, we could spend a couple of hours listening to non-partisan and non-political remarks by those at the head table, including the president.

Even during the tense “Impeachment Years” from late 1997 to early 1999, the National Prayer Breakfast was never used by participants as a forum from which to press or defend a political agenda. This followed in the long tradition of insulating at least this one event from politics — a tradition that began with the first formal National Prayer Breakfast convened by President Eisenhower.

That wonderful tradition, which has served as an inspiration and a moral oasis to so many in Washington for more than five decades, was shattered by the speech that President Barack Obama delivered last Thursday. The president took advantage of being invited to deliver the keynote at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast to press a political agenda that had no business rearing its head at such a forum.

The entire central portion of Obama’s remarks dealt with themes he championed most recently in quite a different forum — one that clearly is political — his State of the Union speech last month. Indeed, phrases delivered by the president last week were lifted virtually verbatim from his recent State of the Union address and from several of his other recent political speeches.

For example, Obama blasted “financial institutions” for not “playing by the rules.” He excoriated “insurance companies” for discrimination against “people already sick.” He verbally crucified “unscrupulous lenders” for “taking advantage” of the “vulnerable.”

After identifying his targets, Obama pressed his agenda of “shared responsibility” and “fair … opportunity,” citing no less an authority for support than Jesus Christ as recounted in the Bible at Luke 12:48: “unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” The president even stretched this analogy (which in Luke’s recounting of the words of Jesus had nothing whatsoever to do with taxation or government programs) to support his foreign aid proposals.

Finally, but not surprisingly, Obama brought forth the familiar refrain for countless generations of big-government advocates – that we all are our “brother’s keeper.” The president then used the Bible as a verbal club to pound home the theme that government is biblically justified in taking from those “who have been given so much” and redistributing it to our “sisters and brothers” whose keepers we are.

The president may actually believe all this. And he has every right to advocate for his views in whatever forum he wants. But his failure to recognize that certain forums are not, have not been and should not be employed to press an overtly political agenda is truly shameful.

Hopefully, future presidents will not politicize the National Prayer Breakfast. Unfortunately, however, once a political precedent has been set, it is usually followed by those who come after.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.