WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden on Thursday called for unity in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a Washington tradition that calls on politicians to set aside their differences for one morning.
The nation’s second Catholic president appeared in a taped video, reflecting on the growing coronavirus death toll in the country, calls for racial justice, the threat of the climate crisis and the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol last month. Biden asked Americans to not view one another as Democrats or Republicans, but rather as human beings.
“For me, in the darkest moments, faith provides hope and solace. It provides clarity, and purpose as well,” Biden said. “It shows the way forward as one nation in a common purpose, to respect one another, to care for one another, to leave no one behind.”
Every president has attended the breakfast since Dwight D. Eisenhower made his first appearance in 1953. The event was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.
It comes as Biden struggles to win significant support from congressional Republicans for a coronavirus response package, raising the likelihood that he will rely only on Democrats to pass the legislation.
“In this moment, we cannot be timid or tired. We have too much work to do,” Biden said Thursday. “And it’s by our work, not just our words, that we’re going to be judged.”
The breakfast has drawn pushback from gay and civil rights activists since President Barack Obama’s administration, with much of the opposition focused on the Fellowship Foundation, the conservative faith-based organization that has long supported the event.
Norman Solomon, co-founder and national director of the progressive activist group RootsAction, had warned Biden not to “reach across any aisle to bigotry.”
“We don’t need any unity with bigotry,” Solomon said. “I fear a subtext of this engagement is, ‘Can’t we all get along.’ But that’s not appropriate in this case given the well-known right-wing and anti-gay background of the event’s sponsors.”
Solomon said Democratic presidents have continued a tradition of attending an event where their Republican counterparts often felt more comfortable because they feared being labeled as “anti-religious or nonreligious.” He said that Biden, a devout Catholic who attends Mass every week, could better send a unifying message by skipping the event and instead attending one that is truly bipartisan.
“God knows there are many religious leaders and gatherings that are devout and affirm human equality,” he said. “This isn’t one of them.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the breakfast would be “an inclusive and positive event” that “recognizes the teachings of Jesus but is not limited to Christianity.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a GOP co-chair of this year’s breakfast, pointed to regular faith-based gatherings that draw senators from both ends of the ideological spectrum as a model.
“We don’t see eye to eye philosophically, politically, but we do embrace each other as brothers of faith,” Scott, who also offered virtual remarks at the breakfast, said in an interview.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. All reporting by Elana Schor and Will Weissert.