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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. Tom

    Christian faith sustains him? Just who is this closet Muslim trying to kid?

    February 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  2. Lone Rider

    the first of many campaign speeches and more to come !

    February 3, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  3. Cosmos42

    What I want to know is, who the heck cares what religion Obama follows? Last time I checked, this is a secular country. Actually, for a while I was convinced that Obama is actually a closet atheist.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  4. Randy

    What ever happened to separation of church and state? Since when is what faith you are a prerequisite for holding public office? Faith is a personal consideration and for those running for or in public office, I consider it rude to even ask. What I would ask is what positions he/she holds on the issues of the day. Besides more atrocities have been committed in the name of god than for all other reasons combined! It isn't necessarily a saving grace to be religiious no matter what the faith.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  5. markiejoe

    Oh lord, I swear I'm not gonna vote for this guy again if he keeps talking about religion.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  6. N. Peterson

    Prayer Breakfast in Washington? What about separation of church and state? Isn't the President talking about his religion the same as promoting it?

    February 3, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  7. Desert Willow

    Enough with the bible. It was not written by any god. It was written by man. As far as attending church, nowhere in the bible does it say that you have to attend a church in order to worship god. He does not live in a building he lives in people's hearts. He should not be worshipped only on the sabbath, he should be worshipped every day. And those who think they are good christians just because they attend church, what about the so-called christians who attend church and spend the rest of the week beating their wives and children.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Tom

      Well I guess you shouldn't do that then.

      February 3, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  8. HeIsGod

    ATTENTION ALL JESUS CHRIST HATERS, ATHEISTS & AGNOSTICS:

    You probably should stay out of the United States of America. Why? Because America was founded on religious freedom. Americans have an ABSOLUTE RIGHT to practice religion – ANY religion. Americans can even believe in God, just like our founding fathers did. Americans have an ABSOLUTE RIGHT to SAY they believe in God. We don't have to hide our Christianity and/or religion (as do Christians in China, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.). You are more than welcome to leave and create your own No-God-allowed country. Oh, and don't forget to take the rest of the Atheists and Agnostics as well as anyone who hates Jesus Christ. Let's see how you all survive. When you need help, be sure to know that we, Americans, will give you a helping hand because that is what this country does.

    Even though you HATE Christians and/or Religious Americans who do not believe as you wish, that's just too bad.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • SpinnyLiberal

      The Founding Fathers made room for the atheists, agnostics, and "Jesus haters" by not allowing the establishment of a national church. And telling those people to leave is not exactly Christ-like.

      February 4, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  9. Jodi

    This Leader's faith is important to him and to bigots

    February 3, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  10. theyung1ne

    Politics and faith should never cross paths because then the real problems like poverty, genocide, illegal occupation, climate change and child soldiers get over looked by abortion, and gay marriage.. where are our priorities? lets just please get it right!

    February 3, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  11. HeIsGod

    Wow, what a wonderful day for Americans. We are indeed a nation under God and in God we trust. Praise God for Obama, my prayers for him and his family & this nation.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  12. rinsac

    I really don't care if he's even an pagan, it's his business! Those idiots who are so sure he's a muslim, or want to believe that, will anyway. They won't believe him and who cares!!!!! Really very un-christian of them.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  13. Jodi

    I am a Christian… This leader's faith is important to him and to bigots

    February 3, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  14. Pam

    This message is for EVERYBODY that rants and spits hate words and makes statements that are not even verified that they heard someplace else, even you tube shows interviews were the words have been cut and changed.

    GET A LIFE.......THINK for your self!@#$%^&* Most of the stuff about anybody out their is wrong, put together by folks that enjoy making up stuff because, some place, some where....somebody will believe it.

    GET OVER YOUR BAD SELF!!!!!!!^*((&^%

    February 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  15. Don

    If Obama is such a Christian like he claims then why did he willingly attend the church that Rev Wright preached hate towards whites? That's not very Christian if you ask me.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      Probably for the same reason other people keep attending a church where they don't like the minister – they like the community and the people and have enough personal faith to ignore it when the preacher says things that aren't very Christian. Why would he attend a Christian church at all if he weren't Christian?

      February 3, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  16. Doug O

    This backstabbing Muslim bastid is taking about faith? This thug, who has the audacity to tell the Egyptian president that he must listen to his people when obama doesn't listen to the will of the American people, has no moral standing to lecture about "faith". Do us all a favor, face Mecca and start walking.

    February 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  17. Mrs Johnson

    Yeshua said that a tree is known by its fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. What kind of fruit does this tree bear? It's really pretty simple to see who he is.

    February 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  18. Ryan Meeks

    Obama may claim he's a Christian, but that doesn't mean he is one any more than me claiming to be a car makes me a car. Where is the fruit? He supports killing of babies. That doesn't seem Christian to me. And to those who say who cares, it does matter if he claims to be Christian and is really a Muslim. Then you have to ask why he is hiding it?

    February 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  19. Free Thinker

    Ughhh, because nothing fails like prayer??? Another sad day in America when the U.S. President feels he has to dumb down the conversation to appeal to the illiterate religionists. He should just come out as an atheist already and set a shining example of reason for the world to be better educated. The religionists in America are sowing the seeds of ruin for this secular founded country. Can we ever escape this era of stupidity if our leaders don't rise above it??? We don't need religion to provide morality, no matter what any religionist with a vested interest will tell you. As long as this nonsense continues, the U.S. will fall farther behind in science until it eventually becomes a full-fledged theocracy. When and if that happens, democracy as we know it will be but a distant memory. We must act now, as a people, and that starts with education. Sky fairy mythology is not fact based. Evolution and climate change are scientific fact. We must evolve as a species to work together to ensure our survival, but we cannot do so as long as the masses are so miserably undereducated. I have great empathy for Obama's difficult position, but he's got to improve his methods drastically to get middle America out of its stupor. Either the United States becomes a far more secular country, or we are doomed to fall into the dust bin of history all the sooner. FWIW, I give Obama full credit in his speech for praising his mother for instilling the values of secular humanism in him as a child. That should be the highlight of this article, but CNN chose not even to mention it.

    February 3, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  20. Trebec

    Muslim-speak!

    February 3, 2011 at 6:41 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.