Sense and Nonsense: James Baker’s Prayer Breakfast

Initially, I confess, a “prayer breakfast” strikes me as a very Protestant thing. We Catholics are more likely, by ourselves, to have Mass together quietly, then go out for breakfast as a kind of overflow from worship. Faith with fellowship typifies the one; sacrament then sociability the other, however much faith, fellowship, and sacrament belong together. The way they interact varies according to theologies and customs.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III recently gave the keynote address to the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington. In the spirit of the occasion, it was more of a reflective meditation on the interior life of a public figure than an “address.” In any case, it was a remarkably touching account from a very busy public figure we might not expect to be reflecting on how his faith meets his life.

The only thing I know to compare with Secretary Baker’s talk is the movingly personal and spiritual speech of Margaret Thatcher to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the text of which I have included in my recent Religion, Wealth, and Poverty. “There is little hope for democracy,” Mrs. Thatcher remarked,

if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals are not enough. We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You the Church can teach the life of faith.

Ironically, activist Christians, usually clerics, are busy telling us about structures, institutions, and collectivities exactly at a time when real politicians are urging us to pay attention to our interior lives.

Secretary Baker, to this point, cited Lech Walesa: “Sooner or later we will have to go back to our fundamental values, back to God, the truth, the truth which is in God. We look to America… and expect from you a spiritual richness to meet the aspirations of the twentieth century.” Again, there is the worry that what is most needed is in the process of slipping away from us.

Mr. Baker reflected back on his years of public service to ask himself what he had learned from his experiences. He began by affirming something much like what the impressive James “Buster” Douglas had just been, from a quite different perspective, saying: “those of us put in positions of public trust should not be hesitant to speak about spiritual values.” Mr. Baker cited Pope Paul VI to the effect that world leaders will even have to learn to “pray together.”

In fact, one of the most memorable incidents in the secretary’s “personal journey of faith” took place at the summit at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last September, at the traditional exchange of gifts. Baker, in the spirit of the Western scene, gave the Soviet foreign minister a pair of cowboy boots. Mr. Shevardnadze, in return, presented Mr. Baker with “an enamel picture of Jesus teaching the people.” Needless to say, Mr. Baker was most touched both by the irony and by the mutual appropriateness of these gifts.

In his talk, Mr. Baker concentrated on two topics of particular importance, that of faith and that of friendship. He approached what he had to say about faith from the point of view of power. A secretary of state no doubt has power and ought properly to use it. Mr. Baker quite understood that fact. But, from the point of view of someone with power, he realized that power was fleeting. “Having a position of power does not bring inner security and fulfillment. That comes only by developing a personal relationship with God, which for me is personified in Jesus Christ. Inner security and real fulfillment come by faith.”

In the context of his life, the awareness of this truth for Mr. Baker began from his reading the New Testament, reading Paul, that faith comes from hearing. From St. Paul he also learned the great Lutheran doctrine that “the Bible tells us that it is faith, and not works, that makes us acceptable in God’s sight.” I suppose we Catholics would still want to hold for a little of both, but we, like the secretary, like the Lutherans, certainly do not think our works without our faith justify us. Amidst the many modern Pelagians—including the religious ones, for whom political works seem so important—please do not count us.

What did Mr. Baker conclude from the experience of power? At a previous prayer breakfast someone had asked him what he had learned from his years in Washington. “I told him it was the discovery that temporal power is fleeting.” Mr. Baker, to exemplify this lesson, recalled once seeing a man walking down Pennsylvania Avenue one morning, by himself, with no one around, no trappings of attention or power, a man who, in a previous administration, had held the job Mr. Baker at the time filled. Mr. Baker reflected that he would be that man some day.

About friends and family, Mr. Baker was most eloquent in his account of his own family, his mother, the ninety-first Psalm, friends who assisted at the death of his first wife, the devotion of his second wife, the responsibility of many children. “I remember how important friendships were and are to the need for sup-port on a journey through public service. And I remember finally how important friendships were and are to the process of developing and maintaining my faith.”

Fides et caritas—or as St. Thomas would say, fides et amicitia. The secretary himself recalled the passage in John relevant to all this: “And we know too that Jesus said, ‘I do not call you servants, I call you friends.’ ” This is the very passage which St. Thomas sees as the Christian gloss on the Aristotelian doctrine of friendship.

America was founded and nourished by men and women who read the Bible, whence, as Ellis Sandoz in his new book, A Government of Laws, has reminded us, they derived in great part how they understood man and his meaning. Less and less are we allowed to see this religious side of our people, except perhaps when they err or do something silly. Yet, as Lech Walesa said, it is this side that the world most wants to see, before they learn about our productivity, which they need too.

The men of quiet faith we seldom hear about. Yet they are there, reminding us, with Lech Walesa, of our spiritual heritage and duties. “Every person who enjoys freedom has the responsibility to improve the society which assures that freedom,” Mr. Baker reflected.

One way to carry out this responsibility is to pray together, as we are doing this morning. Prayer by itself is a reaffirmation of that freedom and that responsibility, whether that prayer is private or communal. It is an act of free men and women who believe that their relationship to God is fundamental to preserving those freedoms.

We could be cynical, perhaps, and remark how odd it is that it is the secretary of state or the British prime minister—rather than, say, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops—that brings such things most vividly to our attention. But of course, John Paul II has been saying these things for years, which is why he may indeed be the real beginning of what we witness in Eastern Europe.

After the Soviet foreign minister gave him the icon of Jesus teaching the people, Mr. Baker reflected: “Could it be that a major meaning of the revolution going on in Eastern Europe is a resurgence of faith?” For Mr. Baker, faith, friendship, and freedom belong together, but all depend on our prayers, even at breakfast.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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