Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast

January 18, 1979

Fairly early in my naval career, we moved from Hawaii back to this country, about the time of the advent of television. We had doubts about its value, because the reports said that it was going to destroy the moral fabric of our Nation.

But one of the delights of my life, one of the greatest contributions of this technological miracle was the presentation by Bishop Fulton Sheen, on his regularly scheduled program, of the religious interrelationships in his own life and how they related to a modern world.

And I'm deeply grateful to him for being willing to come this morning to share with us the dynamism and the strength and the sensitivity and commitment of his own life again with us.
Thank you very much, Bishop Sheen.

It even boosts my spirits when he refers to me as a "fellow sinner." [Laughter]

I listened with great care to him this morning as he talked about the liberty, the love, the duties, responsibilities, the constraints that bind us, as believers in God, and that offer us a guide to the future.

Last year was a year of turmoil. I noticed one public opinion poll that asked news reporters and American citizens what were the three most interesting news events of the year. All three had some religious connotation. One was a story of great tragedy—almost disgrace for the world of believers—where hundreds of people, simple people, searching for an elusive element of truth at Jonestown, perished because of misguided leadership. That was the top story of the year.

Another story in this last year demonstrated a great change in leadership, as a Cardinal from Poland, outside Rome, behind the Iron Curtain, became the leader of a great Christian faith.

And the third most important story to the people of our country was the Camp 1)avid discussions between myself, President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin. We stayed there 13 days. And the first day we agreed, almost as an outpouring of mutual commitment and concern, that we would pray within Camp David and that we would call on the entire world to join us in a common prayer for peace. And we called upon the very same congressional and other leaders who put this breakfast together to coordinate that effort.

For several days, that was the only thing on which we did agree. [Laughter] And we made great progress because of those prayers. But peace is still elusive, and I hope that out of this breakfast can come a reconfirmation that all of you will continue to use your influence to revitalize that prayer for peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.

I would guess that one of the great news stories of 1979 will be the impact around the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, of religious fervor and the searching for some compatibility between a modern, rapidly changing, technological world on the one hand, and an inclination on the part of devout religious leaders to cling to stability and security predicated on past social and personal habits.

So, as you can well see, in various ways, even in a modern world when we consider it to be highly secular, the great events that move the people here and in other nations are intimately related to religion.

Our Nation requires by law that the church and the state must be separated. The church cannot dominate our government. Our government cannot dominate nor influence religion. But there is no way for a human being to separate in one's own heart and mind those inevitable correlations-responsibilities of a secular life, even in government, on the one hand, responsibilities to God on the other. They combine to form what a person is, what a person thinks, what a person hopes to be. And in international events, no matter how we try to order or separate religious trends, changes, hungers, thirsts, there is no way to sever that from public events.

In Africa, South America, Indonesia, many other nations where a crisis has not reached the tornado stage, those undercurrents of religious people searching for compatibility with the modern world, a changing world, are intense and of profound significance to everyone in this room.

Our own Nation is not impervious to this circumstance. We have suffered severely in the past because we who are Christians, others who are deeply religious in our own Nation have not been willing to accommodate those who have been deprived, who have and do suffer as they struggle for a better life.

We tend to say, "This could only happen in the past. Today, certainly, it's not a factor in our lives." I grew up in a region of the country which has in the past, and still sees quite often—too often—the Christian churches as the last bastion for racial segregation and even discrimination.

This past Sunday I went down to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and participated in a program commemorating the 50th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speakers there—Dr. Benjamin Mays, Daddy King, others—pointed out the progress that has been made, but the emphasis was on the progress yet to be made.

One of the elements that I noticed was the absolute truth that tends to come forward much more vividly in a quiet prayer.

I was honored at that meeting, but when Dr. Benjamin Mays got up to give his prayer, I sat back with the anticipation that somehow in his prayer he would compliment me and help my image with the audience there, the congregation. And as we bowed in prayer, he talked about all the troubles in our country, the poor, deprived, discrimination. And the culmination of his prayer was that at least our President has done a little something about some of these problems. [Laughter] And he thanked God for that little something. [Laughter]

Truth is a mandatory element of a sound basis for a religious life. But sometimes we cannot accept the truth.

I was intrigued by Bishop Sheen's reference to the "immaculate conception" complex of Americans. It is difficult for us as Americans to think that we might be sinful, that we might be in some ways inferior, that we might have some elements of our life not yet realized, that we might have standards that have been prescribed for us which we have not met. And there's a natural, human inclination to lower those standards to accommodate the very low achievements of our own life.

We must guard against the abuse of our own religious faith. We have seen broad changes in history. In the first few centuries after Christ's life and death on this Earth, it was a crime to be a Christian. I've been reading Barbara Tuchman's delightful history of the 14th century era. And during those days, it was a crime not to be a Christian. And the horrors of the Inquisition, the equation of a Christian commitment with a willingness to be a constant, dedicated warrior, a complete dependence on combat and bloodshed, and the abuses within the Christian Church are vividly expressed. And I'm sure at that time, there was a rationalization among devout religious believers that what we look on now with abhorrence, and sometimes so remotely with amusement, was the true teaching of Christ. And we must avoid a distortion or a rationalization because of materialistic inclinations in our own hearts, of our own religious faith and its beliefs. When any religion impacts adversely on those whom Christ described as "the least of these," it can have no firm foundation in God's sight.

The last point I want to make is the dramatic sense of how our religion pertains to a modern era. Shortly before Christmas, we had Alec McCowen, a great British actor, come to the White House. And he stood there on a bare stage, and he quoted from memory the book of Mark, I think about 16,000 verses, 2 1/2 hours. He didn't use a modern translation; he used the King James version. And there was a sense among those two or three hundred people that here came someone directly from the presence of Christ and told, almost like a newspaper, in the most vivid, moving terms, about the life of the Son of God.

There was nothing stale about it. There was nothing ancient about it. There was nothing removed about it from the existence of those assembled in that room. If you get a chance, I hope you will hear him give that recitation.

Almost everyone in this room is a leader. People have exhibited faith and trust in us not only to carry out the mundane duties of a sometimes confused government responsibility but also to carry out the responsibilities much broader than that, to set an example, to search more fervently for the truth.

Sometimes we lose our confidence. One of the great problems with the modern church is its timidity about self-assertion. We're sometimes fearful not to project ourselves as believers in God into a controversial issue, because we are fearful we might fail, we might be rebuffed. So, it's much more easy for us in the confines of our church or our synagogue to sit back and say, "I'll enjoy those around me whom I know, who trust me, with whom I share limitations and ignore limitations," than it is to project a deep belief in love, compassion, understanding, service, humility, into our broad influence among others.

It's difficult to be bold and gentle at the same time. Peace and gentleness and humility are perhaps the most difficult characteristics of a human being.

In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he said, "Since we have hope, we are very bold." And I hope that we believers in God have not lost our hope and will continue to be bold. And later on in the same chapter of Second Corinthians, he says, "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

There's no incompatibility between gentleness and boldness. There's no incompatibility between the constraints and the shackles on our lives by standards prescribed by God on the one hand, and the ultimate freedom that can come when the spirit of the Lord is present.

Note: The President spoke at 8:52 a.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The breakfast is 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/249309

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