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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. ranger

    Re presidents faith: With all due respect- who cares, what's the diff, maby he's a martian. Whatever. He's still pretty cool.
    Almost as cool as Michelle. And I hear She's a Buddist from Venus.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  2. MC210

    Faith is something that no one should ? As humans we all should have the right to believe in something. If Mr. Obama is Christian Muslim or what ever he wants to be I respect his right to belive. All I ask of him and anyone that serves the people do not let faith get in between your Job to serve all the people. But we all know that is not the case!!!!

    February 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  3. pfitzgerald

    If it was a white man as president would u care what his religion is? Be real the only reason u r picking apart president obama on everything he does and tries to do is because he is a BLACK MAN!

    February 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  4. Bill

    I did not hire Mr Obama for his Religion. The question is he doing the job.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  5. John

    I'm not as concerned about his religion as I am about his citizenship.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • QS

      I'm not as concerned about his citizenship as I am about your mental stability.

      February 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  6. Brandon 'BKL'

    We need to stop questioning other peoples' faith. As a Christian, I pray for our president every day. If he is a Christian as he claims he is, we should accept that. If you judge others, you will be judged by God him self when you die. Our country is in rough times, we should support our leaders, whether we like the or not. Without them where would we go from here? I pray for those who question God's word, that you soon accept God's word, and Jesus as Lord. I love my Lord, he has provided for me, and blessed me in times of trouble.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA!

    "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever." – Psalm 118:29

    February 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  7. Tammy

    Hey arent we in America.... the place where we have seperation of church and state???? Isnt this the place where we cant cant hang the 10 comandments in a federal goverment building?????

    February 3, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  8. justin smith

    It shouldn't matter what religion our president is he represents all of Americans, we are a country of many NOT one.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. skeptic

    Amazing how someone will do anything to keep poll numbers from dropping. The closer to 2012 we get, the more he goes to church and claims to be Christian.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • QS

      If it is what will get him re-elected, then by all means Mr. President, please, cater to the ignorant fools whose decisions about who they vote for are based solely upon what particular fiction they want their President to believe....use them as they should be used – as the mindless, religious zombie-people they are.

      February 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  10. Brian

    Who cares if he is a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Agnostic or Atheist (or any of the Eastern religions). The office of The President of the United States doesn't run a church, it runs a country. A country isn't run on morals, it is run by laws which are created from ethics. You have your right to believe and worship how you want – you do NOT have the right to tell other people how to do the same – and on top of that, it's not your business what other people believe, not even the President.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • QS

      "...you do NOT have the right to tell other people how to do the same..."

      Except, of course, for gay people.

      February 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  11. mike

    I would prefer that our president not be affiliated with any religion. I'm tired of all the talk about whether he's a Christian or not. It just doesn't matter and shouldn't matter.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  12. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Questioning ones faith is dangerous because everyone must stand in judgement for themselves. With that said, I wouldn't worry about the President faith because mine alone is enough.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  13. FromAZ-RN

    In 2006-7 when the 2008 campain was gearing up, I started watching Obama.I thought at the time that he had great ideas but that there would be people who didn't like his name or color. Some people said "he doesn't "look' like a president" or he doesn't have a "presidential" name. They would never admit that they didn't like him because his skin color was different than other presidents or that his name wasn't of Euorpean (sp) origin. I grew up went to college and worked in Arizona. As a RN working in a large hospital I can tell you that most of the people I tool care of could be classified by "The 3 R's" Rich, Retired and Republican. Though I never started a political conversation, I heard many comments that would verift this. Obama just isn't "like" other presidents and this scares some people no end.

    As to his faith, I'm glad he has one allthough it really doesn't make a difference to me what it is. Most major religions have several basic beliefs 1) Treating others as you would want to be treated 2) Helping the less fortunate 3)obeying the civil laws are among them. He seems to be following these ideas the best he can as he interprets them. I have friends who belong to several of the worlds major religions and these things seem to be in all of them.

    Obama talks about his faith but doesn't try to push his faith on other people or MAKE them believe what he believes. When asked if he thought abortion was a sin, he said "That is above my pay grade." in other words, he wasn't going to play God and make the rules for everyone else. Only GOD decides what is a sin and what isn't. People may think they know, but only God decides.

    I'm a Christian and a moderate Democrat. I applaude the president for talking about his faith. Isn't having a higher power (what ever name you give that power) helping him with decisions better than nothing or no one helping him with decisions? If I was the president of a country I would want all the help I could get. Obama isn't trying to push his faith and faith ideas on the country, he's just telling us about his asking for guidance. Obama seems to know that he shouldn't "play God" like some politicians who PUSH pro-life or other agenda's on the American people he just asks for God to help him do his job.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • YBP

      You seem too smart to be a Christian. Christianity asks that you let other people, like the Pope, do the thinking for you. It discourages learning and a deeper understanding of the world around us. You really do seem too smart and sensible to put up with any of that.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  14. Muhammad Hussain

    Obama knows The God does not appear as a White Man to discriminate against Black, The God does not appear as a MAN to discriminate against FEMALE, The God does not appear as a JEW to discriminate NON JEW. He knows and taught in his childhood The GOD is ONE Absolute Eternal Self Sufficient He begets not Nor He is begotten and there is NONE LIKE HIM

    February 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  15. okikooffice

    Christianity is not Force But Freedom. The freewill to seek Christ, to follow Him and to live in His will

    February 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  16. Eric

    CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A RELIGION.... ITS A WAY OF LIFE! ...IT MEANS TO BE LIKE CHRIST...

    February 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  17. AGardner

    He should stop abortion.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  18. QS

    Ya know, I actually love that people keep bringing up the idea that President Obama only mentions his faith to cater to the Christian voters

    This may seem strange coming from an Atheist, but if it is what will get him re-elected, then by all means Mr. President, please, cater to the ignorant fools whose decisions about who they vote for are based solely upon what particular fiction they want their President to believe....use them as they should be used – as the mindless, religious zombie-people they are.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Kevin

    what a step backwards for the country.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  20. keith

    Regardless of the minor details of Obama's faith, it is good to see a man who is not willing to give himself over to emotionalism and the illogical viewpoint of atheism. Obama has proven yet again that he is a man of truth seeking and wisdom in his affirmation of theism, and the peculiarity of Christ.

    February 3, 2011 at 12:43 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.