Obama Stresses Civility in Public Debate at Prayer Breakfast

President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Restoring civility in public debate was the theme of President Barack Obama's address at the 57th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C.

Speaking to a crowd that included Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama lamented the "erosion of civility" in national politics, saying that such an atmosphere "sows division and distrust among our citizens."

"It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the men without shelter and the families without health care," he said.

"Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility," he added

Obama went on to say that such recognition of "our common humanity" is necessary for leading the nation towards progress.

"Progress doesn't come when we demonize opponents. It's not born in righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity," he said. "Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God."

"That we might do so - that we will do so all the time, not just some of the time - is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world."

The president's remarks echoed those of leaders from the National Council of Churches (NCC) U.S.A, who issued an open letter on the issue last fall after incidents such as South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's (R) outburst during the health care debate occurred.

"[R]ecent days have offered a sobering portrait of a debate grown rancorous and acrimonious," the letter said. "This clash of views demeans the dialogue and ultimately risks subverting the democratic process itself. "

Prefaced by a scripture quote from the book of Isaiah saying, "Come let us reason together," the letter went on to call on people and churches to, "gain a renewed sense of community marked by honesty and mutual respect."

"Let us debate ideas on their merits and exercise restraint in expression of our own best conceptions. Such a disciplined dialogue holds great promise, honoring our differences and confirming our perception that we are a people joined in our mutual aspiration to live the lives for which we were created. "

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