Thursday, February 2, 2006

Congress and a lot of political Washington met yesterday for their annual National Prayer Breakfast. Even the president was there, but Jesus was odd man out.

There was a Muslim king, a rock musician, and enough congressmen to populate an entire wing at Allenwood, but the sponsors, evangelical Christians all, had agreed to cool it with the Jesus talk lest it make the odd unbeliever uncomfortable. Prayers were offered to Whoever or Whatever might be listening.

The rocker was the featured speaker, and he arrived with the message that he was above all the religious stuff. The breakfast clubbers were mighty lucky just to be allowed in his presence. No autographs, please.

“Yes, it is odd having the rock star at the breakfast,” the rock star currently known as Bono told the thousands of guests, “but maybe it’s odder for me than for you, because you see, I have avoided religious people most of my life.” Religious people just smell different from rock stars (for which we should be grateful if we knew who it was legal to be grateful to).

“One of the things I picked up from my father and mother,” Mr. Bono said, “was that religion often gets in the way of God. For me at least, it got in the way, seeing what religious people in the name of God did to my native land.”

Mr. Bono, who is descended from leprechauns, is pleased that the churches, though still not yet worthy of him, are reaching out to victims of AIDS. “The church was slow, but the church got busy on the leprosy of our age. Love was on the move. Mercy was on the move. God was on the move.”

Mr. Bono told President Bush that the United States must spend an additional 1 percent of its budget on international aid for the poor. “This is about justice and equality and because there is no way we can look at what’s happening in Africa and if we are honest conclude that deep down we would let it happen anywhere else in the world.”

The president, though starstruck, didn’t commit to the 1 percent. But as a convert to the Church of Big Government he couldn’t say no. He endorsed Mr. Bono as he endorsed his man in charge of early “aid” to New Orleans (“You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie”) and told everyone: “The thing about this good citizen of the world is he’s used his position to get things done. You’re an amazing guy, Bono.”

It was a day of amazing religious miracles. If hearing a certified rock star say more or less nice things about God was not miraculous enough, there was a genuine king who arrived quoting the Bible, the Koran, Martin Luther King, and, of course, his own royal self. He even invoked “our Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage,” though he did not say what it was and the guests appeared to be mystified by his discovery of it.

King Abdullah II of Jordan is hardly royalty in league with Elizabeth II, but who is? He has shown considerable courage even to say polite things about Jews and Christians. “At this point in history our service to God, our countries and our peoples demand that we confront extremism in its myriad forms … we must explore the values that unite us rather than exaggerate the misunderstandings that divide us.”

The king can be more comfortable saying these polite things in Christendom. There are bad people eager to do bad things to him at home in the name of the religion of peace, but not a single evangelical Christian showed up with an beheading knife. He called terrorism “an attack on civilization,” not the clash of civilizations that growing numbers in the West see. Terrorists who act in the name of Muhammad are followers of “a repugnant political ideology which violates the principles and statutes of traditional Islamic law.”

This year’s prayer breakfast was a departure from events past, when Jesus was not yet the down-market embarrassment to the sponsors. The breakfast was first held during the Eisenhower administration, and every president since has been afraid not to attend. The idea is not so much to go to pray, but go to be seen praying. It’s a good photo-op, and Christians in the crowd can make their excuses to Jesus later.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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