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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. Shirlynn Cox

    I am happy the President is in a place where he can be honest with the people he is called to serve-which is the greatest gift. Bashing him for Who he serves is not my job. I must pray to my Father through His Son Jesus Christ to lead & guide ... His will be done.

    February 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  2. capnmike

    It would be really great if Americans had the guts and intelligence to elect a president who could honestly say he didn't believe ANY OF THE NONSENSE OF RELIGION. It is sickening that such a huge majority of the public believe this enormous lie, and have been brainwashed with it so thouroughly. THERE ISN'T ANY GOD. It's too bad humans all over the world are judging each other, fighting, arguing, and killing over whose version of a HUGE FAIRYTALE is "correct". What a long way we have to go to grow up.

    February 4, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  3. Egyptian Shark

    Guys ... it's time to finalize it. Proof how tough nation we are (Muslims, Christians & Military) Scientists and Green Earth Lovers.

    February 4, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  4. Egyptian Shark

    Iran please step away of all that ... it is about Egypt believes and only Egypt !!!

    February 4, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  5. Egyptian Shark

    our biggest faith is to take the control .... and dropping the whole old system.
    Amr Mousa should be involved in our negotiations...

    February 4, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  6. brandon

    To be a "Christian" is to be "Christ-like" and when I look at 95% of American "Christians" I don't see Jesus, including myself, not to say we aren't trying, but seriously, look at our president, do you see Jesus? I've never seen Mr. Obama stop a funeral and raise anyone from the dead, or heal the lame, in fact I don't think I've seen him even go up to anyone who was lame and pray for their healing. Jesus himself said greater things will he do, so don't tell me those things can't happen because Jesus said that people in the future are going to do greater works than he himself did. So, who considers themselves Christian should be allowing miracles, signs and wonders to work through them, right? I'm sorry for babbling and I'm sure most people won't make it this far down my comment, but read Mark 16:17-18 now I'm not a snake handling type, and that is not what this scripture means but, don't you think that if Jesus said "these signs shall follow them that believe" then everyone who considers themselves to be "Christ-like" should have these signs following them, that is if they truly believe? I'm not saying our president is a Muslim or a Christian, I'm just saying that I don't look at our president and mistake him for Jesus.

    February 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  7. Joe

    Can anybody tell me where Twitter came from? Because it just seemed to pop out of no where one day it wasn't then it was.

    February 4, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  8. Joe

    In smoked two joint at protest and then I smoked two more, I smoked two joints before I smoked two joint and then I smoked two more! Those people in the middle east need to smoke two joints. I hope this gets posted considering how money times I typed JOINT.

    February 4, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  9. Joe

    Why is it that every time this person talks to us like he cares he looks like he is scolding us or talking to us like we are morons?

    February 4, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  10. Egyptian Shark

    Should be changed the quickest possible... It is about our freedom and dignity before anything else !!!! Economy, politics, what ever else is gonna come later... The old image stamped into your American minds is changing today.
    Just stand up ... Watch & Learn how it should be Freedom !

    February 4, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  11. Brian

    I think the fact that he hardly mentions Jesus by name is what most Christians question. It's easy to suggest you believe in God or to refer to Him as Lord but it's a totally different thing when you outwardly confess that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour. The president appears to suggest that is true about himself but never outwardly confesses it which to most Christians appears to be a denial of Christ. Many will say it is to avoid creating political turmoil, but to a true Christan the desire to confess Jesus must trump one's fear of either offending people or risking one's own life in the process.

    February 4, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  12. stephanie

    Obama is a great man, with fair judgement, and is more christian in attutude and action that any of the so-called christians on the right. For example, when he was giving the state of the union last year, and some bug-nut yelled "liar!", he brushed it off with grace. Now, had that happened to W that person would have been waterboarded as a terriorist. Ok maybe not, but the point is, Obama is forgiving, loving, helpful and all of the other christian virtues, which in the end are what make him HUMAN, and not some kind of retortic spouting robot like the previous president.

    February 4, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  13. Thinkman

    I have never seen Obama so insecure over a subject as his faith. This insecurity is not faith. It is willful pride masked as some sort of exercise in revelation, repudiation, and frankly, a very simplistic and overused declaration of born-againism. Jimmy Carter's "I found it" was cutesy and genuine, Reagan relied on Nancy's astrology, Old George didn't care, Clinton was a hypocrite, Young George was naive enough to go along with Rove's twist for votes. None of them cared what others thought of them- this is leadership however faulty. And Obama? Besides Michelle not being into astrology, his developing legacy has aspects of his immediate predecessors. Obama, take heart, if an intelligent man must rely on faith, at least don't allow it to be stagnant, old-fashioned, fantasy-based, or mundanely predictable. The Christians you are trying to appeal to are full of hate, bigotry, and anger and you won't win them over. If Jesus showed up on their doorsteps they would call him a brefoot, half naked, anti-NRA, delusional namby-pamby liberal hippie Jew. Some might even think worse of him because he never did get married or had children.

    I can tell you want a miracle. It is not yours to give. They'll have to open their hearts and minds in their own good time. Certainly you aren't expecting the sheep to follow you in this regard? Please don't turn into some sort of preacher! I didn't vote for you for that! Distancing yourself from Islam is fine personally, but doing it publicly is an affront to your heritage and Muslim Americans. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Muslim, Hindu, or atheist because it is completely irrelevant. Personally, I would love it if you were as intelligent, noble, thoughtful, and skeptical as your mother- that would be my prayer for you.

    February 4, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  14. ZoeZoe

    He was not raised a Christian or as a black American.. now he claims both.
    His mother raised him as an Atheist and in all white culture.

    Be your real self Obama... stop faking it.

    February 4, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  15. ZoeZoe

    this is just a desperate shot playing the myth card. His mother was an Atheist. She raised him on freethought. I wish his mother was alive to set this all straight. I am sure she would not approve of the tactic to charm the mythic like Bush did.. It is a very low blow to his character to su ck up to the mythic.

    Shame on you Obama... you know all that mythic stuff is garbage.. just like your mother did.

    February 4, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  16. Thinkman

    Why is he defending his faith? It's nobody's business what his faith is because religion and leadership should have no bearing in a secular society such as the USA. We want a secular government in Egypt and now Obama is pouring on the schmaltzy Christian blah blahs for what purpose? His timing is poor to say the least since it gives merit to not keeping church/mosque and state separate. If Mubarak dared turn on the Islamic rhetoric right now, whew, all sorts of buttons would be pushing right now. Obama is trying to distance himself from a Muslim father and a non-theist mother. To what end? Pray all you want Obama, but stop trying to impress us with "your God". . If there is a God he will hear you and we don't need to- not on this subject anyway.

    February 4, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  17. nativehshdh

    Who cares what his religion is!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 4, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  18. Lance

    and get to work individually, collectively or whatever to UNITE ourselves as AMERICANS! Drop the 4th grade mentalities as well as the hyphenated origins BS. WE are NOT African-Americans, Mexican-Americans or whatever other pathetic excuse there may be for not giving our FULL allegience to our country. Grow up and start working together to solidify OUR country before we wind up as slaves to a foreign country that takes advantage of our divisions!

    February 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  19. Rob

    American Christianity: Have Christian opinions on things but don't actually live or act like Jesus.

    Its seriously the way 9 out of 10 or so American Christians are- so freaking sad that I just threw up in my mouth thinking about it.

    February 4, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  20. Rob

    I love how people think they know other people's faith by limited knowledge of their actions and history. Just think- if everything i've ever done or said was written on a paper- would their be nothing that was "unchristian" or hypocritical. Some of you people are pathetic. You just hate everything about Obama and dont take time to think about it critically. Its good to dissent and disagree but so many of you hate him so much worse than you would if he had a WASP name and was from Tennessee or something. Get a freaking clue and read a freaking book that wasn't written by Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter you fools.

    February 4, 2011 at 1:14 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.