Washington, D.C. -- There was a young man -- 23 at most -- quietly saying his morning prayers on Capitol Hill on the third day of 2013, and it seemed for a moment like a warm ray of light in the midst of a blistering cold spell.
He walked into a church here just behind me for a bipartisan, ecumenical prayer service that marked the beginning of the first day of the 113th Congress. The last days of the 112th were a bit, how does one put it, hellish. In contrast, the church meeting was quite beautiful. Prayer leaders were not just the priests who welcomed all to the Catholic parish just a jaunt away from the Capitol building, but several protestants; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish; and Rep. Keith Ellison, who is Muslim.
Before and after the service, speculation abounded about whether or not Rep. Boehner would even end the day as speaker. He did. But that doesn't mean peace came to the Hill, or even the majority caucus. During the drama of the previous days, a "fiscal cliff" was averted -- or a can was kicked down the road. I'm not sure most Americans know or care beyond being depressed about it all -- about the job they don't have or a sense of rot around them. A generation that went to outer space has kids and grandkids who may not leave their parents' basements anytime soon. They're not getting married, and even if they do, there are ridiculous expectations about gender roles. And the old standby that could help us figure out our own lives, we are pushing to the sidelines: religion.
When he took the gavel of speaker two years ago, Boehner talked about Ash Wednesday, his Catholic faith and government's duty to the people.
This second time around, he sounded more humble, graver and more cognizant of missed opportunities. He sounded an urgent alarm and even made a fundamental question about purpose: "When the day is over, and the verdict is read, may it be said that we well and faithfully did our duty to ensure freedom will endure and prevail. So help us God."
But he also said this: "There is no substitute for the wisdom of the people. We are their servants." As much of a sport as complaining about Washington has become, the situation there is not all the making of the politicians. Washington is a reflection of other things: It's a mirror of the national soul. Legislators are, after all, representatives.
Grace is amazing, as the song says. And perhaps despite ourselves and our bad decisions or indifference or political despair, there are rising men and women of principle. The Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain is among them. They run their business in a way that's conducive to the family and faith of their employees. They are refusing to comply with the government's mandate that employers pay for insurance that includes abortion access and contraception because they are evangelicals opposed to abortion. As such, they are currently in defiance of the law.
I didn't interrupt that kid praying to ask him, but I hope his prayer was that public servants take inspiration from the likes of the Greens, instead of viewing them as backward anomalies whose view of religious liberty has been consigned to the ash heap.
All too often, we give lip service to our faiths without thinking about what it takes to live up to them. The prayer service on a frigid, busy day in Washington, and the kid praying in front of it, gives me hope of a different outlook. "So help us God," as the speaker began the 113th Congress.