The scene is the main ballroom of the Washington Hilton, January 1991, where 2,000 politicians, captains of industry, and other notables have gathered for the annual Leadership Luncheon. The Gulf War is now two weeks old. Under the glistening chandeliers, necks crane for a bittersweet look at cancer-stricken Lee Atwater, one-time pit bull of the Republican National Committee, now softened and attending virtually his last public event.

On the dais waits the main speaker, television luminary and Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley. His text is the familiar James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

He preaches eloquently and fervently about the need for America to humble itself before God—as Elijah did, and as Solomon and others did. But near the end of his message, he creeps out on a limb. Without raising his voice, he muses, “What would happen today if 2,000 people got on their knees, humbled themselves before God, and cried out for forgiveness?”

He drops a few more hints and gradually the crowd realizes he’s serious. He is talking about them getting on their knees—in their Brooks Brothers suits. He allows that some may not be physically able, but for the rest he says: “Unless God does something in this nation, we are going to be humiliated in some fashion, at some time.… I want to ask you if you’ll join me on my knees … and pray until whenever the moderator thinks the time is over.” With that, he turns and drops from sight. End of sermon.

The ballroom goes quiet. There’s a gradual shuffle of chairs, and before long most of the crowd has followed his lead. A sober, reverent mood fills the room.

Out Of Style?

What Charles Stanley had the nerve to ask that day pertains to an ancient practice gradually fading ...

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