They pray, sometimes even in the name of Jesus. They read the Bible in the U.S. Capitol building and sing hymns.
The leaders of the National Prayer Breakfast break the rules of political correctness right and left. Yet they do it with a warmth of heart that makes the breakfast a point of unity between political divisions in the nation's capital.
If there is a middle common ground in national politics, the leaders behind the breakfast know how to find it, in those prayer times and Bible studies.
Last week's annual breakfast attracted President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the main speaker. Blair called for a restoration of religious faith in the public sphere as an answer for the world's problems.
The breakfast is sponsored by a loose-knit operation called the fellowship. The breakfast is its most visible public event, but the more important work goes on in the weekly fellowship groups for members of the House and Senate. For members only, the groups provide a forum for prayer, Bible study and sharing of heartaches.
"We check our political parties at the door," said U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat. "We cry together. We actually sing a hymn, but the singing's not very good." Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, ran this year's breakfast with Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers.
The fellowship behind the breakfast is hard to define because it is informal. Influence in the group comes through personal relationships, not titles. Because of that informality, journalists generally don't write about it because they can't find a CEO or a president.
Harper's writer Jeff Sharlet, on the other hand, wrote a whole book on the subject, "The Family." He managed to turn these people into a right-wing fundamentalist conspiracy to run the country. Sharlet never lets reality get in the way of his overarching theory. He weaves the liberal U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon into this right-wing conspiracy to ruin the world in the name of Jesus. He takes another genuine liberal, former Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes, and dismisses him as a tool of the fellowship agenda.
In fact, the fellowship offers the best hope for the kind of bipartisan approach that President Obama has advocated. When members of Congress pray together, it doesn't resolve their political differences. They usually talk and pray over what they have in common. But that kind of personal concern helps takes the sharp edge off the bitterness that springs up among strong-willed leaders who disagree about political issues.
Jay Hein, president of the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute, has seen this pattern in Indiana and in Washington, where he ran President George W. Bush's faith-based office.
"Prayer is the great equalizer," he says. "I've seen leaders in the nation's capital and here at home find common ground in seeking God's favor together. This gives them a suspended interest beyond their particular agendas. Our founding fathers debated philosophy and politics, but they bowed to Providence and shared a democratic idea."
(Russell B. Pulliam, journalist, book author, associate editor and columnist at The Indianapolis Star, is a syndicated columnist, whose columns focus on topics ranging from politics to social issues to family life. He may be contacted at: email@example.com.)