WASHINGTON (OSV News) — President Joe Biden called for national unity in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2, the first time the annual event has been held since it was overhauled by a new organizer instead of the private religious group that put on the event in the past.
In a speech to members of Congress and with a remote audience tuning in from a nearby hotel, Biden said at the interfaith event that different religious groups in the U.S. often share a calling to help their fellow man.
‘Care for one another, look out for one another, love one another’
“Whether you’re Christian, whether you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other faith, or no faith at all, it speaks to all of us as human beings who are here on this earth primarily to care for one another, look out for one another, and to love one another,” Biden said. “And it’s not always easy. It’s hard. But that’s our mission.”
Biden said that common mission is especially important “during tough times like what we’ve been through the last three, four, five years,” citing the COVID-19 pandemic “that’s taken so much from us.”
“We’ve lost so much with one another,” Biden said. “We lost so many people. Over a million lives lost in America alone — a million lives lost — and they say for every one life lost, there are nine significant people who cared greatly about that lost person.”
Biden also cited extreme weather events and “violence in our communities,” including the mass shootings during the Lunar New Year at Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in California, and the killing of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. They have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in connection to his death.
“Look, in our politics and our lives, we too often see each other as opponents and not competitors,” Biden said. “We see each other as enemies, not neighbors. And as tough as these times have been, if we look closer, we see the strength, the determination that has long defined America.”
Unity in the political climate
In a political climate often marked by intense partisanship, Biden made his own nod to unity by saying he had “a good meeting” with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Feb. 1.
“Let’s start treating each other with respect,” Biden said. “That’s what Kevin and I are going to do. Not a joke.”
“I think we got to do it across the board,” Biden added. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree, and fight like hell, but let’s treat each other with respect.”
Biden acknowledges Catholic faith
In an aside thanking the choir at the event, Biden, a Catholic, invoked “St. Augustine, of my church,” saying the saint said “singing is praying twice.”
“I can only pray once because I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow,” he said.
Biden also referenced the faith of his grandparents, telling the audience, “Every time I’d walk out of my Grandfather Finnegan’s house in Scranton, he’d yell, ‘Joey, keep the faith.’ And my grandmother would yell, ‘No, Joey, spread it. Spread it.'”
Event reorganized after concerns from lawmakers
The National Prayer Breakfast was previously organized by the International Foundation, a Christian group also using the name the Fellowship Foundation, or sometimes the nickname “The Family.” But the 2023 event was reorganized after concerns among some lawmakers that the event was becoming too divisive following several controversial moments at its recent events. One such took place in 2013 when Dr. Ben Carson delivered remarks criticizing then-President Barack Obama’s health care policies while he was sitting nearby.
This year’s event was organized by the new National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, led by former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.