WASHINGTON (BP) -- Speakers at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in the nation's capital usually keep their talks diplomatic. After all, the room is filled with ambassadors, lawmakers from both parties, Cabinet members, and people of various faiths from around the world.
But Eric Metaxas, the featured speaker Feb. 2 and the author of biographies on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, talked to an audience of 4,000 important people about false religion, human depravity, poverty, slavery and abortion. But the New York author delivered his sharp commentary with his trademark wit, which kept the audience roaring with laughter.
The halls of the Washington Hilton, the hotel that hosts the breakfast, buzzed afterward as people discussed the speech -- Metaxas' speech, not President Obama's, which followed. Outside the hotel, a protestor asked, "Is it true what I'm hearing, that Eric Metaxas talked about Jesus?"
It was true. To end his speech, Metaxas led those in attendance in the singing of the hymn "Amazing Grace," and the president joined in. The author attacked "phony religiosity," which he struggled through as an agnostic studying at Yale before he became a Christian.
"Jesus was and is the enemy of dead religion," Metaxas said. "He came to deliver us from that." Prayer emanates from "real faith in God," he said, adding that faith in Jesus leads to courageous acts like those of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce.
At one point Metaxas handed his biographies on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer to Obama, mentioning that President George W. Bush had read the Bonhoeffer book. "No pressure," Metaxas added. Afterward Obama almost left the room without the books but came back and tucked them under his arm.
"This is a Bonhoeffer moment," Metaxas told the audience. "It is only the grace of God that can bring left and right together and do the right thing." He told them that they couldn't claim to be better than the Germans of Bonhoeffer's era, and launched into an explanation about human depravity apart from God's grace.
Then Metaxas deftly raised the issue of abortion, noting that Germans saw some people as less than human and today some see the unborn as less than human.
"We are capable of the same horrible things," he said, referencing the Holocaust, before turning to the issue of abortion. "Apart from God we cannot see that they are persons as well. So those of us who know the unborn to be human beings are commanded by God to love those who do not yet see that. We need to know that apart from God we would be on the other side of that divide, fighting for what we believe is right. We cannot demonize our enemies. Today, if you believe abortion is wrong, you must treat those on the other side with the love of Jesus."
Mother Teresa brought up the issue of abortion at the 1994 prayer breakfast, saying, "Please don't kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child." The audience gave her a standing ovation, but President Bill Clinton did not join them.
In his remarks, Obama gave a preview of how he might reach out to faith communities during his campaign. He defended his administration's measures reining in financial institutions, insurance companies, and "unscrupulous lenders" with a litany of biblical references.
"I believe God's command to love your neighbor as yourself," the president said. "I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper."
He cited a "biblical call to care for the least of these," and quoted a passage from Proverbs: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves." Obama referenced partnerships with Catholic Charities and said his administration is "linking arms with faith-based groups across the country." (Catholics at least might dispute the "linked arm" imagery after his administration recently cut off anti-trafficking grants to Catholic Charities, which is considered one of the most effective agencies in that field. The administration also is forcing religious institutions to cover contraceptives, including ones that can cause abortions, in their health care plans.)
The president also advocated higher taxes for the wealthy. "I think to myself, am I willing … to give up some of the tax breaks I enjoy?" he said. "It coincides with Jesus' teaching, 'To whom much is given, much is required.'"
Metaxas made light of the $175 price of the breakfast. "As a member of the elite 1 percent, I cannot afford this," he said.
Emily Belz writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared.