In terms of the worldviews that drive American life, the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast was a head-on collision between NASCAR and NPR.
President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were the speakers and both were sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.
First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.
This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.
While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.
Looking back on his Hall of Fame career, Waltrip confessed that, early on, he was an egotistical competitor who often was as out of control in his private life as he was when driving his No. 17 Chevrolet. Even his friends considered him "brash," "ruthless," "cocky," "conceited," "aloof," "boastful," "arrogant" and, he added, "just downright annoying." Fans booed him and wore "Anybody But Waltrip" t-shirts.
"Whatever felt good to me, I did it," he said. "I didn't give it a second thought."
Then he slammed into the wall at the 1983 Daytona 500 and experienced a near-death epiphany.
"When I finally came to ... I realized that wreck had knocked me conscious," said Waltrip. "It scared the hell out of me. I mean that literally. I realized I could have been killed that day. What if I had lost my life right there that day at Daytona? Would I have gone to heaven or would I have gone to hell? I thought I was a pretty good guy, but folks, let me tell you something -- good guys go to hell."
With the president sitting at his right hand, and facing a diverse audience that included the Dalai Lama, Waltrip proceeded to deliver a blunt message that would shock few fans that frequent Bible Belt sporting venues, but drew modest applause from this Washington, D.C., congregation.
"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, if you are just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you're going to go to hell," warned Waltrip.
The key, he said, is that repentant believers can trust that God will never abandon them. "You don't have to walk alone. You don't have to carry all those burdens, like it's you against the world," he said. "Get off your high horse, get on your knees and ask forgiveness."
Obama also talked about heavy burdens, the need for humility and striving to follow God's will while helping others. He offered a "high horse" warning, as well.
Beware, he said, because faith can be "twisted and distorted, used as a wedge or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. ...
"Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."
So what, said the president, is the message that modern believers -- of all creeds -- need to hear if their goal is to avoid twisting and abusing religious faith?
"The starting point of faith," said Obama, "is some doubt, not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn't care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. ...
"We have to speak up against those who would misuse his name to justify oppression, or violence or hatred with that fierce certainty."