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Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast

January 27, 1977

Jim Wright's comments made me proud to be a brother with him, to be an American, to be a child of God. And I think what he said exemplifies the finest aspirations of those who are assembled here this morning.

Jim, I thank you for what your talk meant to me. The first time I came to this prayer breakfast was in 1967. One of the Christian attributes to which many have referred this morning is one that I had in great abundance then, more than I do now--and that's humility. I had just been defeated in my first campaign for Governor.

I thought, in response to some of the things Jim said, I would talk about humility this morning.

The first draft of my Inaugural speech did not include the reference to Micah's admonition about justice and mercy and humility. But I had chosen instead First [Second] Chronicles, 7: 14, which Congressman Wright quoted this morning: "If my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land."

When my staff members read the first draft of my speech they rose up in opposition to that verse. The second time I wrote my Inaugural draft I had the same verse in it. And they came to me en masse and said, "The people will not understand that verse. It's as though you, being elected President, are condemning the other people of our country, putting yourself in the position of Solomon and saying that all Americans are wicked."

So, correctly or wrongly, I changed it to Micah. And I think this episode, which is true, is illustrative of the problem that we face. Sometimes we take for granted that an acknowledgment of sin, an acknowledgment of the need for humility permeates the consciousness of our people. But it doesn't. But if we know that we can have God's forgiveness as a person, I think as a nation it makes it much easier for us to say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner," knowing that the only compensation for sin is condemnation. Then we just can't admit an error or a weakness or a degree of hatred or forgo pride. We as individuals--and we as a nation--insist that we are the strongest and the bravest and the wisest and the best. And in that attitude, we unconsciously, but in an all-pervasive way, cover up and fail to acknowledge our mistakes and in the process forgo an opportunity constantly to search for a better life or a better country.

Paul Tillich said that religion is a search for a closer relationship with God and our fellow man, and when we lose the inclination to search, to a great degree we lose our own religion.

As those of us who are Christians know, the most constantly repeated admonition from Christ was against pride. Sometimes it's easier for us to be humble as individuals than it is for us to admit that our Nation makes mistakes.

In effect, many of us worship our Nation. We politicians, we leaders, in that sometimes excessive degree of patriotism, equate love of others with love of ourselves. We tend to say that, because I am a Congressman, because I am a Governor, because I am a Senator, because I am a Cabinet member, because I am President of the people, and because I love the people and because I represent them so well, then I can justify their love myself. We tend to take on for ourselves the attributes of the people we represent. But when the disciples struggled among themselves for superiority in God's eyes, Jesus said, "Whosoever would be chief among you, let him be His servant." And although we use the phrase, sometimes glibly, "public servant," it's hard for us to translate the concept of a President of the United States into genuine servant.

Another theologian that I read very often, who could penetrate the pride of a nation in the most effective way in trying to analyze what democracy was, said a kind of prideful thing. But I think it brings to us a consciousness of our own capability. He said: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's capacity for injustice make democracy necessary."

If we, as leaders of our Nation, can search out and extract and discern and proclaim a new spirit, derived not from accumulated goodness or badness of people, which is only equal to individual goodness or badness--not even to the noble concept of our Nation, which is superlative, without doubt--but from the ultimate source of goodness and kindness and humility and love--and that's from God--then we can indeed be good leaders and servants. We can indeed be strong enough and sure enough to admit our sinfulness and our mistakes. We can indeed be constantly searching for a way to rectify our errors and let our Nation exemplify what we as individuals ought to be in the eyes of God. But that's a hard thing to do.

One of the books that made a great impression on me was "The Ugly American," written a number of years ago, about people from our own country who, in a sense of unwarranted superiority, would travel around the world and despise others in an ostentatious way because they were not Americans.

I haven't traveled as much as I would like--10 or 12 foreign countries. But I've seen in my own travels a respect of us, a respect for our Nation because of the same vision of our forefathers that has inspired us, but at the same time, quite often a deep sense of disappointment that we don't live up to those original hopes and expectations and ideals.

Not too long ago I was in South America with my wife, and we had a chance to learn at first hand about the deep sense of religion there. We saw the impact of our own missionaries, when people could speak fluent English because missionaries have been there. And an elevator operator in Manaus, Brazil, and I visited the equivalent of their Speaker of the House, and that evening in his home we spent time on our knees worshipping the same God.

I preached one evening in a church in Rio de Janeiro, and a couple of years later my wife and I were in what's thought to be the tomb of Christ, by ourselves, and a woman came up behind me and looked at me in a strange way and said, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" I said, "No, ma'am, I don't think so." She said, "I think you preached in my husband's church in Rio." It was the pastor's wife.

A sense of communion that we can have under God throughout the world .ought to convince us that we are not superior, that we ought constantly to search out national and human individual consciousness and strive to be better, which doesn't mean more powerful and autocratic, but more filled with love and understanding and compassion and humaneness and humility.

But in the last week, my wife and I and Vice President Mondale and Joan have shaken hands with literally thousands of people--Members of Congress and the diplomatic corps, and people who worked with us in the campaign, and distinguished visitors from around-the last receiving line we met was of the military officers of our country, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff down through a very large representative group of enlisted persons.

And afterwards, one of the news people who had their cameras focused on us all the time said, "Have you noticed any difference among the receiving line groups?" And I said, "Yes, I have, a very strange difference. My wife and I both noticed it. A tremendous and startling proportion of the military people, when they passed by me, said, God be with you. We remember you in our prayers much more from the military, the symbol of our Nation's strength, than from any other group, all fine people."

So, a search for peace, I believe, can only be successful if we recognize the commonality of the aspirations of human beings throughout the world and if we remember that cumulative humility ought never to be equated to dominant national pride.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:09 a.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Representative James C. Wright, Jr., of Texas.

The breakfast was sponsored by the United States Senate and House prayer breakfast groups.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/243131

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