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Bush Speaks at Annual National Prayer Breakfast

Aired February 1, 2001 - 9:09 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now we take you live to Washington, D.C. President Bush and his wife Laura Bush, the first lady, just arriving at the National Prayer Breakfast. This is the 49th annual prayer breakfast. This is an annual gathering of members of Congress, Cabinet members, clergy, and lay people, a ritual that dates back to 1952. That's when a group of lawmakers came together to pray for then newly elected President Eisenhower and his government.

We're expecting President Bush to talk about policies and proposals he's made in the recent weeks, especially faith-based organizations being able to compete for government dollars in order to help the needy. Some are seeing this as an expansion of religious organizations that's much needed in this country; others, critics, saying that this is a bad thing for the separation of church and state.

The president making quite a few hellos today. Keep in mind there are 4,000 people that are at this event today, a number of religious leaders from a number of different roles, different groups.

And here's the president.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, thank you all very much for that warm welcome. Laura and I are honored to be here this morning. I did a pretty good job when it came to picking my wife, by the way. She's going to be a fabulous first lady.

(APPLAUSE) Mr. Vice President, it's good to see you and, of course, your wife, Lynne. And I want to thank the members of my Cabinet who are here. I appreciate you, Senator Frist, for your commitment and strong comments, And Zach, thanks for your introduction, and thank you both for organizing this important event.

I want to thank the members of the House and the Senate who are here. I appreciate the number of foreign dignitaries who are here. It just goes to show that faith crosses every border and touches every heart in every nation.

Every president, since the first one I can remember, Dwight Eisenhower, has taken part in this great tradition. It's a privilege for me to speak where they have spoken and to pray where they have prayed. All presidents of the United States have come to the National Prayer Breakfast, regardless of their religious views. No matter what our background, in prayer, we share something universal, a desire to speak and listen to our maker and to know His plan for our lives.

America's Constitution forbids a religious test for office. And that's the way it should be.

An American President serves people of every faith, and serves some with no faith at all. Yet, I have found my faith helps me in the service to people. Faith teaches humility. As Laura would say, I could use a dose occasionally.


The recognition that we are small in God's universe, yet precious in His sight. It has sustained me in moments of success and in moments of disappointment. Without it, I'd be a different person. And without it, I doubt I'd be here today.

There are many experiences of faith in this room. But most of us share a belief that we are loved and called to love; that our choices matter, now and forever; that there are purposes deeper that ambition and hopes greater than success.

These beliefs shape our lives and help sustain the life of our nation. Men and women can be good without faith, but faith is a force of goodness. Men and women can be compassionate without faith, but faith often inspires compassion. Human beings can love without faith, but faith is a great teacher of love.

Our country from its beginnings has recognized the contribution of faith. We do not impose any religion; we welcome all religions. We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayer.

This is the tradition of our nation, and it will be the standard of my administration.


We will respect every creed. We will honor the diversity of our country and the deep convictions of our people.

There's a good reason why many in our nation embrace the faith tradition. Throughout our history, people of faith have often been our nation's voice of conscience. The foes of slavery could appeal to the standard that all are created equal in sight of our Lord.

The civil rights movement had the same conviction on its side, that men and women bearing God's image should not be exploited and set aside and treated as insignificant. The same impulse over the years has reformed prisons and mental institutions, hospitals, hospices and homeless shelters.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said this: The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. As in his case, that sometimes means defying the times, challenging old ways and old assumptions.

This influence has made our nation more just and generous and decent, and our nation has need of that today.

Faith remains important to the compassion of our nation. Millions of Americans serve their neighbor because they loved their god. Their lives are characterized by kindness and patience and service to others. They do for others what no government really can ever do, no government program ever really can do, they provide love for another human being. They provide hope even when hope comes hard.

In my second week of office, we set out to promote the work of community and faith-based charities. We want to encourage the inspired to help the helper. Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals.


My administration will put the federal government squarely on the side of America's armies of compassion.


Our plan will not favor religious institutions over nonreligious institutions. As president, I'm interested in what is constitutional and I'm interested in what works.


The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end.


Faith is also important to the civility of our country. It teaches us not merely to tolerate one another, but to respect one another, to show a regard for different views and the courtesy to listen. This is essential to democracy. It is also the proper way to treat human beings created in the Divine image.

We will have our disagreements. Civility does not require us to abandon deeply held beliefs. Civility does not demand casual creeds and colorless convictions. Americans have always believed that civility and firm resolve could live easily with one another. But civility does mean that our public debate ought to be free from bitterness and anger and rancor and ill will.


We have an obligation to make our case, not to demonize our opponents.


As the book of James reminds us: Fresh water and saltwater cannot flow from the same spring.

I'm under no illusion that civility will triumph in this city all at once.


Old habits die hard, and sometimes they never die at all. But I can only pledge you this, that I will do my very best to promote civility and ask for the same in return.


These are some of the crucial contributions of faith to our nation: justice and compassion, and a civil and generous society. I thank you all here for displaying these values and defending them here in America, and across the world. You strengthen the ties of friendship and the ties of nation, and I deeply appreciate your work.

I believe in the power of prayer. It's been said, "I would rather stand against the cannons of the wicked than against the prayers of the righteous."

The prayers of a friend are one of life's most gracious gifts. My family and are blessed by the prayers of countless Americans. Over the last several months, Laura and I have been touched by the number of people who come up and say, "We pray for you." Such comforting words. I hope Americans will continue to pray that everyone in my administration finds wisdom and always remembers the common good.

When President Harry Truman took office in 1945 he said this: "At this moment, I have in my heart a prayer. I ask only to be good and faithful servant of my Lord and my people." This has been the prayer of many presidents, and it is mine today. God bless.


KAGAN: We've been listening to comments from President George W. Bush at the national prayer breakfast. A very supportive audience there of 4,000 people listening to the president speak once again about his push for faith-based initiatives, where faith-based organizations would be able to go ahead and compete for federal funds that help the needy.

With more on this let's go ahead and bring in our White House correspondent Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, as you saw, President Bush looked a bit emotional at the end of that speech; he has talked at great length in the past about the importance of faith in his life. And in this speech he did get personal, he said that his faith has sustained him in moments of success and in moments of disappointment. He said that he would be a different person without his faith. And he also said he doesn't believe he would be where he is today without it.

The president, though, also giving another plug for his proposal to allow religious organizations to compete with secular groups to obtain federal funds to provide services to the needy. He said government will never be replaced by charities, but he said that these groups should work with the government as partners instead of rivals.

He also said this proposal would be in line with the constitutional separation of church and state. He said the days of discrimination against religious institutions should come to an end, and that led to the most sustained applause that the president received at this prayer breakfast.

And finally, he talked about the importance of faith in bringing civility to the country but, in an appeal to people of all religions, as well as those who do not practice at all, Mr. Bush saying an American president serves people of all faiths as well as those who don't practice any faith at all. Now, as Mr. Bush noted, this is an event that every president, going back to President Eisenhower has attended.

It is attended by members of Congress, Cabinet heads as well as some heads of state. And in that audience today, the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- President Joseph Kabila -- we understand that President Bush was not expected to have any lengthy one-on-one meeting with President Kabila at this prayer breakfast. He will be meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the State Department later today.

So, an opportunity for the president to talk about faith; also for him to reflect on his own personal experiences, and then, Daryn, to give a plug to some of his top legislative priorities -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Kelly Wallace, at the White House, thank you very much.



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