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February 3rd, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Obama delivers major speech on personal faith

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

President Barack Obama gave an unusually personal speech about his religious faith on Thursday, saying that "it is the biblical injunction to serve the least of these that keeps me going and keeps me from being overwhelmed," in address to a prayer breakfast in Washington.

The speech, delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast, comes on the heels of public opinion surveys that show only a minority of Americans know that Obama is a Christian and that a growing number believe he's a Muslim.

"My Christian faith has been sustaining for me over the last couple of years and even more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time," the president said Thursday, referring to his wife. "We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but that we are true to our conscience and true to our God."

"When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and our people," Obama said later. "And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord and I ask him to forgive me my sins and to look after my family and to make me an instrument of the Lord."

The address was televised and streamed live on the White House website.

The White House denied that the speech is a response to public misperceptions about Obama's religion.

"He's a committed Christian, one who takes his faith very seriously," said a White House official before the speech. "There may be misunderstanding and some folks who attack his faith, but at the end of the day the American people know who he is and where he stands."

A major survey last fall, however, showed that a substantial and growing number of Americans believes that Obama - a self-described Christian - is Muslim.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans believes Obama is a Muslim, up from about one in 10 Americans who said he was Muslim in 2009, according to the survey. It was conducted in July and August by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans, core components of Obama's political base, correctly identified Obama as Christian.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida minister who is close to the president and was consulted about parts of Obama's Thursday speech, says he has encouraged Obama to open up about his faith.

"He needs to openly declare himself a Christian and not settle for people's skepticism at that point," said Hunter, who leads an evangelical church in Orlando. "All of us ought to be able to say who we are and taken for our word. It's frustrating because he still has some people questioning his faith."

Hunter says that he and the White House were caught off-guard by the results of last year's Pew survey on Americans' views of Obama's religion.

On Thursday, Obama spoke at length about his prayer life, saying his prayers fall into three categories: for those who are struggling, for personal humility, and to be closer to God.

"Faith reminds me that in spite of being one very imperfect man I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can for as long as I can," Obama said of the first kind of prayer, "and that somehow God will buttress these efforts."

"The second recurring theme in my prayer is a prayer for humility," Obama said later. "God answered the prayer early on by having me marry Michelle."

"The challenge is to balance this uncertainty and humility with a need to fight for deeply held convictions," he continued. "I pray for this wisdom very day. I pray for God to show me and all us the limits of our understanding."

With regard to his third kind of prayer, Obama said the recurring theme "is that I might walk closer to God and make that walk my first and most important walk."

The White House believes that some of the ignorance about the president's faith is the result of a misinformation campaign against him.

"Under the radar there are of course those who would not tell the truth about him," said the White House official, who would not speak for attribution. "There are folks who have a misunderstanding of the president's faith and who repeat that misunderstanding."

But Hunter said that the speech was as much a product of Obama settling into office and feeling more comfortable about revealing his personal side.

The White House official echoed that point. "He's had a little over two years in office now and he's had some time to reflect on how his faith intersects with public work," the official said. "He's had the time to make those reflections."

The National Prayer Breakfast has been an annual Washington event for 58 years.

Obama had been a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago until spring 2008, when he left after videos surfaced showing his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivering controversial sermons about the United States.

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' husband will speak at the breakfast on the congresswoman's behalf, her office announced Wednesday.

Capt. Mark Kelly, a NASA astronaut, will deliver the closing prayer at the event, the Arizona congresswoman's office said in a statement.

Authorities say Giffords was the primary target of a shooting that left six people dead and 13 injured in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Christianity • Politics

soundoff (1,298 Responses)
  1. Mary

    President Barack Obama gave an unusually personal speech about his religious faith on Thursday, saying that "it is the biblical injunction to serve the least of these that keeps me going and keeps me from being overwhelmed." Mr. Obama, what about the precious unborn children you gladly hand over to abortion, even those in the last trimester or who have been born alive and left to die? You're a hypocrite Mr Obama, of the worst kind...and I guess you know how Jesus feels about hypocrites! Do you really think you can pass yourself off as a christian (a child of God) when you stand before Him someday? I think you'll hear the words, "I never knew you!"

    February 3, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Debbiedoo

      Abortion = MOTHER + DOCTOR-no where is Obama in the equation.

      February 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Tim

      Mary, you are one of the crazy, judgmental zealots that gives religion a bad name. Maybe get off your high horse and do something yourself. If you're such a Christian, than you would leave judgement to your God.

      February 3, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  2. David

    Blah, blah, blah........

    February 3, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  3. bubba dukes

    who cares. how many presidents weren't christians in the past 230 years? i seriously doubt every president who says they are christian really is. how many people are stupid enough to vote for someone because they think he is the best christian? a lot. religion is an extremely powerful political tool. it's controlled people for centuries. even if obama get's a public baptism it doesn't mean he believes in god. he just gets a little wet.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  4. keeth in cali

    Haters and liars here = non-Christians. Grow up, people.

    "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." ~M. Gandhi

    February 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  5. Alex Stephanson

    I'm disappointed. I thought Obama was smart enough to believe in a several-thousand-year-old book of fairy tales.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  6. Unusualblogger

    His muslim faith being so obvious? How is that? This Prayer meeting is something every President goes to. Such ignorant comments here.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  7. JohnPaul

    minasaywhat
    What does abortion have to do with gun rights? I've owned guns for over 30 years and those guns have never hurt anyone. Pro -life advocates go so crazy about those embryo's because 100 times out of 100 those embryo's emerge from the womb as children. Why are people who kill pregnant women often charged with double murder?

    February 3, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  8. Davidloc

    The Pres believes in My Little Pony and the Keebler Elves , how reassuring. Is there one of you Americans that do not believe in magic and the tooth fairy (Oh,excuse me, Tooth Fairy).

    February 3, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  9. sargeanton

    Not everyone who purports be a Christian is a Christian. Consider the pope, for example...the near polar oppozite of what a Biblical Christian is.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Yoseph

      I do not think it is our job to judge others believe. God alone can tell man's true heart and his believe. I suggest that we refrain from such conclusion.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  10. Tim

    Really we should just be praying for the man that he makes the right decision for the united states

    February 3, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  11. Maysoon Otaibi

    Why does it matter if Obama is christian, a muslim or a jew? Even if he is a muslim, what is the problem? If we repect all religions, why everybody makes being a muslim as a bad thing. I am blessed to be a muslim. islam is not a stigma.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • rker321

      Wrong, it is a stigma, In a Country that claims freedom of religion, that does not include you. The only freedom that it included is what the Christian Fundamentalist say it includes, Sorry, you are out of luck.

      February 3, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  12. okikooffice

    It does not matter, The all knowing, the all powerful, the all present is the determinant.
    Christ is the way , no one goes goes to the Father but through Him. Chosse who you will serve.
    He has studies the Q

    February 3, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  13. Yoseph

    To be a Christian is to have faith in what we do and in what our brothers and sisters do and to love them unconditionally. Now, when I see comments about Christians disqualifying others not to be Christian makes me worried, how God the Holy creator judges us. I am not a preacher or any Religion professor, but I do know that God has forgiven us all from our past and do not recall on our past, and who are we to call others whether they are the children of God or not? And by listening to the words of the president, I am comforted that He is indeed someone just like me, trying to seek God's grace everyday to do His will and to seek God's protection against evil. To those Christians who are cynical, I say to you, mind your own faith and do not judge others for your own sin is greater than other as you open your mouth to speak about others sin. I have done that in the past and all i have realized is that I am a hypocrite who does not know my own weakness but quick enough to point out others mistakes. Love and tolerance are the principles of Christianity. for all the laws are summarized in love your neighborer and love your God.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  14. AML

    Religion should stay out of politics!! I don't care if our President is Muslim, Jewish, or Chrstian as long as he cares about our issues, leads our country the best he can and equally for all of us. I believe this is exactly what he trying to accomplish.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  15. Guster

    bloofer
    Prove God doen't exist. I've never seen gravity, but the evidence for its existence stops me from jumping off large buildings.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • bloofer

      @ guster:

      You don't have to prove the existence of gravity by jumping off a building. It's testable and measurable. As opposed to god, who is neither testable nor measurable. I can't disprove the existence of the easter bunny or fairies. Do you believe in them? Why or why not? Do you believe in Zeus? Why or why not? Anyone making extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence to back those claims up. If you make a claim for the christian god, kindly provide your proof. Personally, I'd much rather have proof of the easter bunny. He seems a much nicer fellow than your jealous, despotic god.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  16. doubting Thomas

    I'll bet Obama faces to the East five times a day and gets down on his hands and knees to pray to Allah.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  17. Mike

    Interesting that the reporter did not quote Obama's very clear confession of Christ "as his Lord and Savior." Rather, he seems content to quote phrases that more circuitously state the same. In any event, as with any Christian, only the Lord knows the true status of Obama's heart. Obama confessed Christ today in front of a worldwide audience of billions. That single act will likely do more to promote the cause of Christ than anything I will ever do in my lifetime.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  18. sally

    Americans have been lied to repeatedly by right-wing forces that will do anything, say anything, imply anything to damage this president. The craziness is infuriating. Of course, this speech isn't going to do any good at all...conservative crazies want to believe what they want to believe...truth just gets in the way!

    February 3, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  19. Living Behind the Zion Curtain

    If one of our Utah mormons ever becomes President, y'all are in one heck of a surprise!

    February 3, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  20. Maryann

    Why is there a religious test for the president?

    I really wish that aliens from one of those newly discovered planets would get here already, and let religious earthlings know that there is no god, and to stop killing each other over who's god is the true one....when there is NO GOD!

    Geeze.....

    February 3, 2011 at 11:49 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.