Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast
Thank you very much. Congressman Emerson and distinguished guests at the head table; to my friend Reverend Billy Graham and Ruth; and to all those who have given such moving presentations. This has been a wonderful morning, I think, for all of us.
When I heard Wentley Phipps recounting our first, rather awkward meeting, I thought that I would admit to being Governor of Alabama just to hear him sing. [Laughter]
My mind has been full of memories this morning. I helped to start the first Governor's prayer breakfast in my State; it became a very important part of our life there. And every year I had the pleasure of delegating two Arkansans, one a clergyman or -woman and one a citizen, to come to this wonderful event.
I thought about the first time I ever saw Billy Graham—appropriate to mention now. He came in the 1950's, in the heat of all our racial trouble, to Arkansas to have a crusade. And the white citizens council tried to get him, because of the tensions of the moment, to agree to segregate his crusade in the fifties in the South. And he said, "If I have to do that, I'm not coming." And I remember I got a Sunday school teacher in my church—and I was about 11 years old—to take me 50 miles to Little Rock so I could hear a man preach who was trying to live by what he said. And then I remember, for a good while thereafter, trying to send a little bit of my allowance to the Billy Graham crusade because of the impression he made on me then.
I am honored that all of you are here not for a political purpose. We come here to seek the help and guidance of our Lord, putting aside our differences, as men and women who freely acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. And we come here seeking to restore and renew and strengthen our faith.
In this town, as much as any place on the face of the Earth, we need that. We need faith as a source of strength. "The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen," the Scripture says. What it means to me is that here, if we have enough faith, in spite of all the pressures to the contrary, we can define ourselves from the inside out, in a town where everybody tries to define you from the outside in.
We need our faith as a source of hope because it teaches us that each of us is capable of redemption and, therefore, that progress is possible—not perfection, for all the reasons Reverend Graham said, but progress. We need our faith as a source of challenge because if we read the Scriptures carefully, it teaches us that all of us must try to live by what we believe or, in more conventional terms, to live out the admonition of President Kennedy that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own.
But perhaps most important of all for me, we need our faith, each of us, President, Vice President, Senator, Congressman, General, Justice, as a source of humility, to remember that, as Bishop Sheen said, we are all sinners. St. Paul once said in an incredibly moving Scripture in the Bible, "The very thing which I would not do, that I do, and that which I would, that I do not." And even more, not only because we do wrong but because we don't always know what is right.
In funerals and weddings and other important ceremonies, you often hear that wonderful verse from Corinthians cited: "Now abideth faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love." But the important thing is often left out, which is the verse above. Why is the greatest of these love? Because "now I see through a glass, darkly ... now I know only in part." None of us know all that we need to know to do what we need to do.
I have always been touched by the living example of Jesus Christ and moved particularly by all the religious leaders of His day who were suspicious of Him and always trying to trap Him because He was so at ease with the hurting and the hungry and the lonely and, yes, the sinners. And in one of those marvelous attempts to trick Christ, He was asked, "What is the greatest Commandment?" And He answered, quoting Moses, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." And then He added, as we should add, "This is the great and foremost Commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Just 2 weeks and a day ago, I took the oath of office as President. You know the last four words, for those who choose to say it in this way, are "so help me God." And the Chief Justice was giving me the oath, and I was trying to remember the words. And I said, you know, when I get to the end I'm going to think of the ringing voice of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and the Roosevelts and Kennedy and all the other great Presidents through the ages, and I will say "so help me God" with all the strength at my command. And I did. But deep down inside I wanted to say it the way I was thinking it, which was, "So, help me, God." [Laughter]
So today my prayer for you as we begin this great new adventure, and I pray that your prayer for me, will be that God will help us to have the strength to define ourselves from the inside out, not the outside in, to have the hope that it takes never to give up and the determination it takes always to make progress in an imperfect world and the humility to walk by faith and not by sight.
Thank you very much.
NOTE: The President spoke at 9:30 a.m. at the Washington Hilton.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/220485