Nebuchadnezzar, Hillary Clinton and the National Prayer Breakfast

Note: I wrote this in 2010 after I attended the National Prayer Breakfast at the Hilton in Washington D.C. With Hillary Clinton the likely nominee on the democrat ticket, it seemed worthy of a reprint here on this blog.

I have been rereading the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Daniel was a prophet taken into captivity by the mighty Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar after the defeat of Israel in 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar was the Julius Caesar of his time—conqueror, builder of cities, lawgiver, and tyrant. This king has always been a puzzle to me. What is one to make of a man who was at once a devotee of paganism and a servant of the One True God? Of course, a man cannot serve two masters, as Nebuchadnezzar would discover, but it was not for lack of trying.

When he is first introduced to the reader of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is, I suspect, an atheist. Not only was his treasury full of the relics of gods whose people he had defeated and enslaved, but he had also invented a few gods of his own. Even so, his government had all of the features of a religious regime, all carefully designed to hijack man’s innate religious sentiment and leverage it for the purposes of the Babylonian state. “Let’s get the gods working for us,” one can imagine him saying with a Machiavellian smile. His advisers—“magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans”—all pledged their allegiance to the state and its gods. The well-kept secret was that neither the king nor they believed in the gods. Nevertheless, these counselors would go on pretending that King Nebuchadnezzar was the offspring of the gods and, in return, he would recognize them as representatives of those same gods. It was an alliance based on power, not trust, with each serving his own ends.

All of this would change for Nebuchadnezzar when he encountered an advisor of an altogether different stripe. Faced with a personal rather than a political problem, he summoned his many wise men only to discover what he already knew to be true of them; their insights were no greater than his own. It is at this point that Daniel enters the picture and demonstrates the power of the God whom he serves. Here was something new in Nebuchadnezzar’s experience—a God who was real. Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel and extolled the greatness of Daniel’s God.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that while King Nebuchadnezzar is not an authentic worshipper of Daniel’s God, he is no longer an atheist either. One can imagine that he looked upon all of his advisers with a new contempt. Not only were these charlatans a drain on the royal treasury, but having been exposed as such by a youth from the conquered territories who served a God who was unquestionably real, they were now an embarrassment to the state. With each new crisis, the rift between the king and his counselors grew as their advice failed where Daniel’s succeeded.

And gifts of prophecy aside, Daniel was the sort of man almost unknown to people in positions of power. Here was someone for whom wealth and power had no charm, who had no political agenda, whose loyalties to an otherworldly king were unshakable, and whose counsel had always been in the king’s best interests. Hence, Nebuchadnezzar’s response to an emergency was predictable. “Someone get Daniel!” you can almost hear him bellow to his servants. Experience had taught him that there was a God whose “works are right and His ways are just.” (Daniel 4:37)

This story, contained in the first four chapters of Daniel, was fresh in my mind when Lauri and I attended the 58th Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. last month. The NPB has been held every year since the Eisenhower Administration and, in addition to the President of the United States, it plays host to leaders from around the world. Once an explicitly Christian affair, the NPB now features religious messages of every kind with some politicians trying to use the occasion to their political advantage. Imagine that. Nevertheless, I find that the NPB offers a fascinating glimpse into America’s religious heart and soul.

This year’s keynote speaker was United States Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I confess that when I think of potential speakers for a prayer breakfast, Ms. Clinton does not come to mind. Even so, she was the speaker and, as it turned out, I was intrigued by what she had to say.

Ms. Clinton began with the usual niceties. Greeting the President and the First Lady, she reminded them of her considerable experience with the Prayer Breakfast, noting that she had attended them as First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and now as Secretary of State. She spoke of the faith of Americans that has brought comfort to the world in times of need. (Presumably, she meant Christianity.) Referring to the civic religion of her upbringing, she quoted John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” This was, she said, the principle by which she lives. Interestingly, her model for faith in action was Mother Teresa, of whom she seemed in genuine awe.

Ms. Clinton did not, however, praise all religions. On the contrary, she assailed “organized religion” in Iran and Iraq. It seems unlikely that she meant anything other than Islam. Ms. Clinton’s State Department plane has been burning a lot of fuel since she assumed her cabinet position. She has spent time in the Middle East and in Africa. She has seen the degradation, the extreme abuse of power, genocide, and civil war. She seems to harbor no illusions about the cause of these crimes—Muslim regimes. Then, in speaking of Haiti, she spoke with apparent conviction of the importance of those Christian missionaries and relief agencies that are at work there. Intended or not, while Ms. Clinton acknowledged other religions to the degree she felt her position required it of her, she implicitly acknowledged Christianity to be superior to them throughout her address. There was a Nebuchadnezzar-like quality to it all.

There is no way for me to know with certainty Hillary Clinton’s true religious convictions. We have indicators, and a straightforward reading of the Bible would suggest that many of hers are not Christian. Even so, it seems that Ms. Clinton maintains at least some appreciation for the influence of Christianity in both her life and society. Could it be that she knows that this God is not like all of the others?

In his autobiography Just as I Am, Billy Graham recounts his interactions with the Clintons that began well before their move from Little Rock to Washington D.C. Graham gives a picture of a couple that sought genuine spiritual counsel, even if they didn’t fully understand what was on offer. This, paired with the profound impression Mother Teresa made on Ms. Clinton, and one begins to see what continually drew her back to these spiritual advisors more than all the other “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans” of the kingdom. Being possessed of great ambition, I suspect that she can readily detect the same in others. It requires little imagination to picture powerful people who recognize that they are surrounded by counselors who are no less politically motivated than themselves. To whom do such people turn in moments of personal crisis? “Get Billy! Find Mother Teresa!” one can hear Hillary demand in times of trouble. Perhaps she did not even know what she found so attractive about them. Was it their personal integrity? Their lack of political ambition? Their God? No doubt, it was all of these things. I have hope for the Nebuchadnezzars of this world.

Following her speech, President Obama strode to the lectern, thanked Ms. Clinton, and then offered his own perspective on things. He struck me as something of a Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor. For that story, however, I direct you to Daniel chapter 5. I may summarize for you thusly: it ends badly.



Image Credit: OECD

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