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President Obama Calls On Partisans To Pray For Humility

President Obama took the opportunity of Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, to suggest that Republicans and Democrats pray for humility in their ideological debates since neither side has all the answers.

Defending his belief in the role of an energetic government, he said:

There's only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There's only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.

And that's why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.

Now, over the past two years, the nature of these obligations, the proper role of government, has obviously been the subject of enormous controversy.

And the debates have been fierce, as one side's version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom.

And that's why a second recurring theme in my prayers is a prayer for humility.

The president left it to his audience to fill in the blanks as they'd like. Many Democrats would no doubt argue that the health care reform law was their "version of compassion and community" that was "interpreted by the other side as ... oppressive."

Many Republicans, with justification, might see this as a shot at them. They could just as easily argue that "compassion and community" meant protecting the unborn.

Obama quickly tried to remove the sting from the moment with a little self-deprecation:

Now, God answered this prayer for me early on by having me marry Michelle — (laughter) — because — (applause) — whether it's reminding me of a chore undone, or questioning the wisdom of watching my third football game in a row on Sunday — (laughter) — she keeps me humble.

But in this life of politics, when debates have become sobitterly polarized and changes in the media lead so many of us just to listen to those who reinforce our existing biases, it's useful to go back to scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers — none of us, no matter what our political party or our station in life.

The full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God's hands. And there are some mysteries in this world we cannot fully comprehend.

As it's written in Job: God's voice thunders in marvelous ways. He does great things beyond our understandings.

Or as Abraham Lincoln said much more succinctly: "The Almighty has His own purposes."

As Lincoln also pointed out just before that brief sentence in his Second Inaugural, prayer is often unavailing in solving national policy disputes.

Speaking of Northern and Southern antagonists, the 16th president said:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other... The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

Lincoln could've been describing the attendees at the prayer breakfast.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.