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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. Rick McDaniel

    Perhaps people need to be reminded of the kind of message Obama's pastor was sending, and ask themselves if that is really the kind of faith Obama should be talking about?

    February 3, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  2. okikooffice

    The Holy Bible said "Choose You This Day Whom You will Serve". To follow Christ is a relationship and Christ made it clear HE is the Way and no one goes to God but through Him. President Obama has studies the Holy Bible and studied the Holy Quran and has made his choice.
    Obama has chosen the serve Christ with his family,because he knows Christ and Christ only is Life.
    "Choose You this Day Whom You Will Serve"

    February 3, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  3. Don

    Atheistic leftist heads exploding in 3…2…1

    February 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  4. Bring it On1

    @joe johnson
    Another Obama hater with no facts, just bitterness and hate!!! let's see, Reagan slept after 3:00pm while in office, he was not there mentally, his staff was and when he spoke he sold you a hollywood soap apera and you bought it. The previous pres GW'ya couldn't put two words together and did not read newspapers!!! Your Palin love does not read any newspapers either ( wink, wink, ya'betcha) and when asked what she reads she says she was ambushed. IGNORANCE is what you prefer and it goes hand in hand with your simple mind.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  5. Dave

    Aren't we a little too old for imaginary friends?

    February 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  6. bud

    a few years ago an irsh author said "there are a lot of catholics in ireland but not many christians" I beliene the same can be said for christians here in this country. the phrase going to church doesn't make yoiu a christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  7. Maskwind

    Its not my place to say what the president should or shouldnt say, but I thought this country was about seperation of church and state. He should follow what this country stands for, and keep religion at least out of the white house.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  8. ken

    So why is Obama killing so many people? Poverty has increased in the US. Unemployment has increased in the US. Drug use is killing Americans and Mexicans as Obama gives the Cartels free access to our borders! He promised millions to Africa to kill their babies, but won't let them use DDT to save their kids! That sounds like genocide! Obama acts like Carter's other brother Jimmy that they just call BO because he is uncivilized!

    February 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  9. cj

    Jesus was not a christian, true.....but he was/is the Christ!!!

    February 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  10. Curt

    God knows his heart. What the rest of us think is irrelevent

    February 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  11. mitch

    obama is a traitor to his on people he let white people dictate what religon he ihave to be he job is not to prove he is a chri sten on of the worlds biggest terrorist group his job is to make this country better than it was whe that murderer bush was in office he is acting like a uncle tom triyng to prove how black he is not but what do you execpt he do have devil in him [white]. i say to my black brothers and sister do not vote until we can vote for some you is really going to make a change not for another puppet

    February 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Reach to Impeach

      Seems you missed the bus to school one too many times

      February 3, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Gary Davis

    it is actually no ones business what his faith is other than himself so to all the reight wing nuts go find something else to complain about . you make most of the nation sick of your crap .
    keep up the great work mr President we believe in you we believe in change and you are bring it with out republican help . and we don't care what the pupets of big business think or do

    February 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  13. Remi Okunlola

    Americans are a strange bunch. A few years ago you attacked him for the politics of his christian church leader, then you spend the next two years questioning whether he is a christian. What does it say about the quality of the doubters?

    February 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  14. Lynda Hernandez

    I don't understand why it matters. There is supposed to be a separation between Church and State and I don't think people should forget that. There is only controversy on this subject because people continue to be contradictory to the words they pretend to believe in.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  15. Mike from MN

    If Obama were to really be his true self, he would never get elected as Senator or President. Politics is a game folks! Bush may have been more straight forward with his beliefs and ideas, but that's because he was playing directly to his narrow voting bloc: conservative white Evangelicals. Obama is President because his voting bloc is diverse and mix. There is a part of him in everybody. That's his political game. If Obama were to be a true BLACK man who was ATHEIST, he would lose the game. Every politican plays the GAME in a way they feel will best help them win.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  16. Sean W.

    What difference does it make? Did we forget about a little thing called separation of church and state?? How about we worry more about how the elected leader of our free nation deals with the vast challenges that overcome us every day instead of constantly having to prove himself time and time again. The fact that the man nationally expresses his Christianity is alone enough to prove that for me.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  17. Just Waiting

    If the evangelicals are sincere about electing a Christian for president, who will they vote for if Mitt Romney receives the GOP nomination? That will reveal their true agenda.

    And yes, I am a Christian.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  18. Krystal

    What difference does it make? Instead of criticizing his faith or confirming it, we should be praying for President Obama and ANYONE in that position; we should lift them up. The beauty of being a Christian women is that my God would love a Christian president AND a Muslim.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  19. -chad

    not surprising ...
    members of the religious right
    believe that one is not a Christian ...
    unless one believes that Jerry Falwell is God!

    February 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  20. Tom R

    Mr. President, what about your comments involving your daughters, "if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby"?? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbZJYWjkAPo Those comments makes me sick. Your claims about your faith are repulsed by your ultra-liberal stand on abortion.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
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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.