President Joe Biden on Thursday called for a confrontation of the “political extremism” that inspired the U.S. Capitol riot and appealed for collective strength during such turbulent times in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a Washington tradition that asks political combatants to set aside their differences for one morning.
In response, liberal groups slammed Biden for praying with religious conservatives.
The breakfast has become controversial in recent years because of the faith-based group that is behind it, which leans conservative.
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Still, Biden campaigned for the White House as someone who could unify Americans, and the breakfast gave the nation’s second Catholic president a chance to talk about his vision of faith as a force for good.
“For so many in our nation, this is a dark, dark time,” Biden told those watching the event. “So where do we turn? Faith.”
The breakfast is moving forward at a time when the nation’s capital is facing a series of historic crises. Biden is struggling to win significant support from congressional Republicans for a coronavirus response package, raising the likelihood that he will rely only on Democrats to force through the legislation.
Many in Washington are still navigating the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last month, which Biden alluded to in his remarks Thursday, referencing the “political extremism” that propelled the siege.
Every president has attended the breakfast since Dwight D. Eisenhower made his first appearance in 1953. The event went entirely virtual this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Biden and all other speakers appearing via taped remarks. Four living former presidents sent messages to the breakfast, with three speaking on tape while Coons read a message from former President Jimmy Carter. Former President Donald Trump’s absence was conspicuous.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a GOP co-chair of this year’s breakfast, pointed to regular faith-based gatherings on Capitol Hill that draw senators from both ends of the ideological spectrum as a model for the event. “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.
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The breakfast has drawn pushback from gay 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, warned Biden not to “reach across any aisle to bigotry.”
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 more liberal.
“God knows there are many religious leaders and gatherings that are devout and affirm human equality,” he said. “This isn’t one of them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article