NASCAR and Obama: This Year’s D.C. Prayer Breakfast
In his keynote address, former NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip discussed his conversion to Christianity following a near-fatal racing crash.
WASHINGTON — Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast brought together representatives of varied faith backgrounds in the nation’s capital to pray and hear testimonies on the importance of faith.
The event included a NASCAR driver’s harrowing story of conversion after a near-death experience, as well as remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama on ISIS and religious freedom and a greeting sent from the Pope.
Former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip served as keynote speaker at the event, sharing his personal story of downfall and redemption through faith.
Waltrip is a NASCAR Hall of Famer and is tied for fourth for all-time wins. On Feb. 5, he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, an annual gathering of political and religious leaders that has taken place since 1953.
“The hardest thing to do is to look back and see how you were. My personal life was a mess,” Waltrip said of his youth, noting that he was universally despised among racing fans and drivers for his arrogance and that he was a heavy drinker with no close friends.
After an almost-fatal crash caused him to ponder life after death, he converted to Christianity and said his life has not been the same since.
“[God] was there all the time. I just didn’t know it or acknowledge it,” he said of his pre-conversion life. “You don’t have to walk alone. You don’t have to carry all those burdens, like it’s you against the world. … Get off your high horse; get on your knees, and ask forgiveness.”
Pope Francis sent a personal message to the gathering, which was attended by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States, as well as the Dalai Lama, Ebola survivor and medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly and other guests.
“I send prayerful good wishes for you, for the fruitfulness of your work,” Pope Francis stated. “I ask you to pray for me and to join me in praying for our brothers and sisters throughout the world who experience persecution and death for their faith.”
In his keynote address, Waltrip described his pre-conversion life: He was so despised that racing fans would boo him during introductions, and famous driver Richard Petty once voiced surprise that he could keep a sponsor, given his unpopularity.
Waltrip said his crash “knocked me conscious,” he admitted.
“I thought I was a pretty good guy. But folks, let me tell you something: Good guys go to hell. If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, if you don’t have a relationship, if he’s not the master of your life, if you’ve never gotten on your knees and asked him to forgive you of your sins, you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal.”
Waltrip started attending church services regularly and meeting with a pastor, Cortez Cooper. One day, Waltrip asked God to come into his life and forgive his sins.
“That was the greatest day of my life,” he reflected. “When the Lord comes into your life, you’re going to be different. You have to be different,” and he added, if nothing changes, “you better try it again.”
“I still had wrecks. I still had problems,” he said afterward, but what changed was “I wasn’t in it alone. Where I’d felt like I was always in it by myself, now I had somebody to pray with, talk with, to guide me, direct me: the wisdom of the Lord.”
President Obama also spoke at the prayer breakfast. Condemning violence and acts of terror, he said faith has been used “both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”
He explicitly condemned the Islamic State group as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.”
“We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion,” the president said.
Obama also praised freedom of religion as “a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.”
“Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship without fear or coercion,” he said.
Alluding to Islamic militants’ January attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which published insulting photos of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, he said that if a society defends “the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion,” then society is “equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults “and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.”
Religious freedom has become a contentious issue in the U.S. during Obama’s presidency. More than 300 plaintiffs have filed religious-freedom lawsuits against the administration over a federal mandate requiring employers to offer health insurance for contraception and related products, even if they have religious or moral objections to doing so.
Other religious-liberty concerns that have been raised include laws considering objections to “gay marriage” to be illegal discrimination, as well as state immigration laws that could prevent charitable outreach and pastoral care to undocumented immigrants and pressure on Catholic medical personnel and others who object to abortion.
The president also noted that he is “very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.” The Pope is planning to visit Washington, New York and Philadelphia in September.
Obama praised the Pope’s “loving message,” saying he has been touched by Francis’ “call to relieve suffering and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.”