He was taller than I expected. Francis Collins, that is. The rest was about as advertised: mustachioed, bespectacled, almost impossibly mild-mannered. Here, at the 2022 Delaware Prayer Breakfast, was the embodiment of what James Davison Hunter called “faithful presence”—the proper posture of believing Christians in a secular age. As the geneticist behind the Human Genome Project and most recently the director of the National Institutes of Health, he ostensibly comes closer to this ideal than almost any other Christian.
Yet the last few years have made many, myself included, wonder how faithful a presence Collins has been. As The Daily Wire’s Megan Basham has detailed, Collins has spent the pandemic teaming up with various members of the evangelical elite to smear and discredit lay Christians as “bad neighbors” for wanting to keep churches open, questioning the efficacy of masks and vaccines, and finding merit in the Wuhan lab-leak theory of Covid-19’s origin. Other reporting has unearthed email exchanges between Collins and Anthony Fauci in which they coordinate efforts to suppress inconvenient truths and unpopular opinions related to the pandemic.
Other elements of Collins’s NIH track record also raise alarms, including: increased funding for harvesting the organs of aborted fetuses, a blank check for embryonic stem-cell research, millions for experimental transgender research on minors. His personal statements are no more reassuring: He has refused to acknowledge that life begins at conception, declared himself an ally to the LGBTQ movement, and murmured the standard nostrums of diversity and inclusion. Given all of the above, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that either he’s a weak and woefully ineffective leader or he’s not the Christian he claims to be.
Yet here he is, in the Chase Center on the Wilmington Riverfront, telling the five hundred of us in attendance the beautiful story of his conversion. In that moment, the adulation made a lot more sense. Here was our faithfully present hero, adviser to rulers in the tradition of Esther, Joseph, and Daniel, the man who showed a watching nation that faith and science are not incompatible by scaling the highest peaks of science and government. Science, he told us at the prayer breakfast, is great at the “how” questions, but it can’t answer the “why” ones. He quoted Scripture, he discussed experiencing God’s being through the Book of Nature. (Though in this latter section, he cited Francis Bacon—he who wished to torture nature to force her to reveal her secrets—which I did find a bit odd.)
But of what good is a man like Collins’s personal faith if it does not result in policies ordered to the common good and ultimately the divine good? Don't we revere biblical figures like Esther, Joseph, and Daniel because they fulfilled their roles honorably, but also had the courage to say no when asked to betray their faith?
Such questions come naturally at prayer breakfasts like these, with most of Delaware’s top elected officials presiding over the proceedings. Delaware’s U.S. representative delivered the opening invocation (heavy on certain events that transpired on January 6, 2021), Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall-Long gave the New Testament reading, and Sen. Tom Carper introduced Collins. (Delaware’s other senator, Chris Coons, also attended.) Each is a garden-variety Democrat and on record as supporting few if any restrictions on abortion.
Yet they attended. They invoked God’s name and read from Holy Scripture. They listened to Collins’s testimony and witnessed hundreds of us gather to pray to our matchless God. We can question the genuineness of their convictions—whether they viewed this prayer breakfast as anything more than a chance to pander to a core constituency—but would we prefer that they had simply not come at all?
Leaving the event, my thoughts arrived at a seeming paradox: We need to judge our government officials more critically, our political system as a whole less so. Unless you know something I don’t, a confessional state is not around the corner. But if we can institute more of these public displays of fealty to our God, we can regain some of what has been lost in our secular moment. As Holy Scripture amply demonstrates, God holds leaders to greater account. Public displays like prayer breakfasts at least establish a standard by which to hold government officials—like Collins—accountable to the words they utter. Perhaps a revived civic religion can give root to something better and more enduring.
This is admittedly a modest goal. But it has become clear that a lowest-common-denominator Christianity is better than a naked public square, at least until God brings about our Third Great Awakening. What’s needed is a renewed effort to pray for our political leaders, even as we continue to publicly pray with them. At the same time, we must redouble our efforts to cultivate faithful leaders whom we will know by their fruit—a genuine personal faith that yields real, substantive policy changes that are ordered more fully to the common good and ultimately to the divine good.
Carter Skeel is director of development at First Things.
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