President Obama invoked the memory and faith of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, in calling for a spirit of humility among America’s leaders Thursday in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama reflected on the life of Lincoln and other faith leaders and their turning to God in their darkest hours. “I thought about their humility and how we don’t seem to live that out the way we should.”
His speech delved deeply into his own search for meaning in the Bible and his belief that all Americans are “joined together in common purpose, believing in something bigger than ourselves.”
President Obama’s call for unity echoed Lincoln’s famous second inaugural address, sometimes called Lincoln’s Sermon on the Mount. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s own faith has been the subject of countless studies. Although it seems clear that while Lincoln never formally joined a church, his faith played a significant role in his life after the death of his 4-year-old son, Edward. His reliance on prayer and the Scriptures deepened during the Civil War and following the death of a second son, Willie, in 1862.
“In Lincoln’s eyes, the power of faith was humbling, allowing us to embrace our limits in knowing God’s will,” President Obama told the group of political and religious leaders in Washington. “And as a consequence, he was able to see God in those who vehemently opposed him.”
In drawing a parallel to today’s polarized political environment, President Obama encouraged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to “keep that same humility” that is at “the core of true leadership.” In the past, the president described his own view of faith as something that can “express itself in people in many ways”, saying faith should be a unifying element on our lives, not a divisive one. We must “spend our days with open hearts and open minds to seek out the truth that exists in an opposing view,” he said.
In the very next breath, however, President Obama admitted the difficulty of carrying out God’s word on a daily basis, especially in modern America. “I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the Prayer Breakfast, everything we’ve been talking about..seems to be forgotten…on the same day. You’d like to think the shelf life wasn’t so short.”
President Lincoln offered a similar sentiment in the spring of 1863. “We have become all too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us,” Lincoln said. “It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” 250 years later, the sentiment still rings true.