As negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff collapsed last week, religious groups urged Congress to protect the poor and called for prayer to end the polarized gridlock.
"We come at this from a moral perspective," said Eric Mitchell, director of government relations for Bread for the World, an ecumenical Christian anti-hunger group whose 1 million members include 5,000 congregations.
On Wednesday, he asked them to write to congressional leaders -- and to pray for them.
"Everybody needs prayer. These are tough decisions they have to make. We pray that as leaders of our country they would make the right decisions," he said. "We believe that addressing the fiscal cliff now will help us in our long term ability to end hunger and poverty."
He's far from alone in seeking divine guidance on the matter. During a November visit to a monastery in Thailand, President Barack Obama asked a Buddhist monk for prayer to avoid the fiscal cliff.
"I always believe in prayer," he explained. "If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I'm going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with some challenges back home."
The Rev. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate chaplain, intoned his own prayer on the matter into the chamber earlier this month. "Make them willing to do what is painful in the short term to avoid even greater pain in the long term," he prayed.
If Congress and the president can't agree on a budget, deep spending cuts and tax increases will kick in automatically in 2013.
After Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, realized that his tax plan wouldn't pass, he came to the floor with the Serenity Prayer popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
Meanwhile, a prayer ministry founded by the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell -- pastor of a United Methodist mega-church in Houston and a spiritual adviser to Mr. Obama and his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush -- took a far bolder approach. The Prayer Institute posted a lengthy fiscal cliff prayer that borders on an effort to cast out demons.
The prayer, which runs a full page, single-space, doesn't so much beg for God's help as announce what he will do.
[W]e cancel the assignments of the spirits of pride, arrogance, division, confusion, rebellion, hatred and deception. We take authority and speak into the supernatural realm that our government and economic leaders will receive your divine instructions during this delicate time, and by faith, they will devise a safe and effective recovery plan before the December 31st guideline," it said.
Mr. Mitchell at Bread for the World said closed-door talks continued through the Christmas break, and he was hopeful as the Senate returned to work. Along with the request for prayer, the Bread for the World website has a letter pre-addressed to leaders in the House and the Senate, urging them to protect anti-hunger initiatives, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, SNAP -- the program formerly known as food stamps -- and WIC, which provides nutritious food to lower-income pregnant women, new mothers and children.
Those priorities are drawn from the Circle of Protection, a broader framework endorsed by a wide spectrum of national Christian leaders.
In recent years when food programs were threatened, Mr. Mitchell said, the Circle of Protection took up word processors and prayer. Cuts were averted.
"Our group works in a bipartisan way," he said. "That is where the power of prayer comes in. We know that people come to Washington, D.C., to try to make the country better. We know that they have good intentions. So we pray that as they make those tough decisions that they will understand how it will affect hungry people."
Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said the fiscal cliff talks are in his prayers. Both the poor and the middle class will suffer if the nation falls off of it, he said.
He believes that prayer influences leaders' decisions, noting that he calls for support from prayer partners when he is faced with a difficult choice.
"We believe in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A lot of times when I am faced with a dilemma, all of a sudden there will be an insight about something I missed earlier. I don't think that's accidental," he said. "With the fiscal cliff, prayer is really important. I pray that people can put politics and partisanship aside and come to the middle of the bridge and make decisions that will be in the best interest of the citizens."
Two Pittsburgh bishops whose rival dioceses are at loggerheads over other issues have identical concerns about the fiscal cliff.
Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is the son of a high-ranking Air Force general who often brought members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to dinner during the Vietnam era.
"It was a common thing for them to take each other to task in the strongest terms on the floor of the Senate. Then they would come to our home and show each other pictures of their grandchildren. There was neutral ground in the sense that they were mutually committed to the common good. I am praying for a restoration of that view," he said.
"There is a spiritual illness that we are afflicted with, a deep polarization in this country that is worse than at any time I can remember. We need to be praying for our Congress and our Senate and our president, that God will literally turn their hearts to each other."
The New Testament tells Christians to pray for their rulers, and such prayers are offered at most church services and prayed daily by faithful Christians, said Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. It's important to pray for people, not for budgets, he said.
"When Christians come together and pray in a concerted way, it can really change the outcome," he said. "The outcome we want is responsible government, responsible taxation and appropriate care for the least and the last and the lost. The difficulty is that so much of what we face is hard-line party rhetoric rather than working together for the common good."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.