President Obama is projected on a screen at the National Prayer Breakfast… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama, making a pointed appeal for "a spirit of civility" at the annual National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, called on Americans to debate the most important issues without demonizing opponents.
Civility, the president suggested, is not a sign of weakness.
"Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith -- or, for that matter, my citizenship," he said to laughter, alluding to the persistent claim of some critics that the Hawaiian-born president is not a natural-born American, as the Constitution requires.
The president said God's grace is expressed through U.S. military relief efforts in Haiti, through the military at large and through the actions of the government.
That grace is carried out "by Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose -- a higher purpose," Obama said. "It's inspiring. This is what we do as Americans in times of trouble. We unite, recognizing that such crises call on all of us to act, recognizing that there but for the grace of God go I."
Yet in everyday life, the president said, people become "numbed" by daily crises such as poverty.
"Too often that spirit is missing without the spectacular catastrophe that can shake us out of complacency," he said in his appearance at the Washington Hilton. "And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God's voice."
The president's call for a return to civility, underscored with repeated emphasis on the importance of prayer, was applauded at the breakfast attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. The event has been held since 1953.
The past shouldn't be "over-romanticized," the president told his audience, "but there is a sense that something is different now, something is broken -- that those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should."