(CNSNews.com) - "The days of discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious must come to an end," said President Bush Thursday in remarks before the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. The line drew strong applause.
Noting that his administration has made it a priority to promote the work of community- and faith-based charities, President Bush said, "Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it can welcome them as partners instead of resenting them as rivals."
The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event since the Eisenhower presidency, has become an exercise in diplomacy as well as religion, bringing together lawmakers, Cabinet members, the president, vice president, and even some foreign heads of state.
This year's breakfast assumed a higher profile because of President Bush's call - this week -- to expand the role of religious and nonprofit groups in solving America's social problems. He wants to let those groups compete for federal funding, and he also wants to expand tax breaks to encourage charitable giving.
'Respect Every Creed, Honor Diversity'
Striking a theme of inclusion Thursday, President Bush said, "America's Constitution forbids a religious test for office, and that's the way it should be." He added, "An American president serves people of every faith and serves some of no faith at all."
"We do not impose any religion; we welcome all religions. We do not prescribe any prayer; we welcome all prayer. This is the tradition of the nation, and it will be the standard of my administration," Bush said to more applause.
"We will respect every creed. We will honor the diversity of our country and the deep convictions of our people."
Noting the importance of faith in his own life ("without it I doubt I'd be here today," Bush said), the president also said faith teaches humility. His wife would say he "can use a dose occasionally," Bush admitted.
Faith As a Fount of Justice
In a nod to the civil rights movement, President Bush said, "Throughout our history, people of faith have often been our nation's voice of conscience. The foes of slavery could appeal to the standard that all are created equal in the sight of our Lord. The civil rights movement had the same conviction on its side, that men and women bearing God's image should not be exploited and set aside and treated as insignificant."
Faith and Civility
In another theme close to his heart, Bush said faith is central to the civility of our country. "It teaches us not just to tolerate one another but to respect one another."
While Americans may have disagreements, civility means our public debate ought to be free from bitterness and anger, the president said. "We have an obligation to make our case, not to demonize our opponents."
The president didn't mention his attorney general designate by name, but his statement resonated on a day when the Senate is expected to confirm Ashcroft, ending what some call the "demonization" of a good man.
"I will do my very best to promote civility and ask for the same in return," Bush said to applause.