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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. Doc Vestibule

    I am still awed at the American public's inability to see past religion.
    Right wingers hate him for not making America the puritan theocracy they want, left wingers deride him for pandering to the religious bloc.

    Look at the facts of his administration, not the character attacks!
    He has given healthcare access to 48 million people and tax credits to 29 million people to help pay for it. In addition, health insurers can no longer discriminate against those with pre-existing condition.

    He saved America's economy, left in shambles by the Bush administration!
    His federal stimulus added or saved 2.1 million jobs by the fourth quarter of 2009 and a total of 3 million jobs to date. The addition of the jobs helped boost the economy by 3.5% and decrease unemployment by 2.1%.
    He gave the Hispanic community a voice on the supreme court by appointing Sonia Sotomayor.
    He created the Office of Urban Affairs to address issues like guns and gangs in America's stuggling neighbourhoods.
    He protected 2 million acres of forest.
    He has allowed medical science to move forward by lifting the ban on stem cell research.

    In W. Bush's first year and a half of presidency, he took 96 days off – Obama took 36.
    Out of 2,920 days in office, Bush spent 977 of them on vacation!
    That's 1/3rd of his presidency!

    International opinion of the United States has improved significantly since Obama took office. It hasn't been easy for him to mend the damage done by Bush on the international stage, but he has!

    Your country should be thrilled to have a president who actually is respected by the world, especially after eight years of "The Decider" representing America as a loutish, aggressive juggernaut unconcerned with the rest of the planet.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Doc Vestibule

      Have I mentioned lately, how much I enjoy your posts? If not, consider it mentioned.

      May you live a thousand years!

      February 3, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @David Johnson
      The feeling is mutual, sir!

      February 3, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • MH

      Well said, Doc. Although I see no reason to "see past religion" - it is a vital part of our culture and history, for better and for worse - and a critical aspect of the lives of most of our fellow citizens. So I think we should talk about it more, not less.

      But regarding the accomplishments of this President - Amen!

      February 3, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  2. LoisLn

    "Dave"....Marry me ; )

    February 3, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  3. Searching for another planet with oxygen...

    Personally, i would get rid of the patriarchy. I'm just going to say that living on the same planet with this male dominated crap was about all i could take in this lifetime. it wrecked my life. if i die, it will be a blessing for me to finally escape that .

    February 3, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  4. myp

    All of this talk about about the prez is stupid! He has sio much to deal with! We as a country have so much to deal with! For all of you who want to slander and belittle him go ahead do what you do best! But i can tell you this he can only do so much! we have other elected officials that stop alot of what he tries to do! So stop calling him a Liar! And start looking in the mirror because TRUE CHANGE starts there! God Bless You Mr. President!

    February 3, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  5. Eric G.

    I think being an atheist presidential candidate would be rather easy. You would not have to answer questions about anything other than the job of being President. No distractions from your opponents about religion. This speech is a direct result of republicans trying to get the President to swing at a pitch in the dirt.

    February 3, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  6. Renee

    Does anyone see all the calamity happening all over the world, especially in Egypt which is prophesised in the Bible? God is getting ready to judge the nations. Instead of denoucing God and his people (the Christians) they should be checking themselves for who are what they're up against.

    February 3, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  7. Renee

    Whatever his religion is nobody's busines. I would suggest many who denounce his religion find some because so many of you critics are the devil's advocate and don't even know it.

    February 3, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  8. lb15

    I wonder if Obama has ever taken a trip to the Bohemian Grove in July?

    February 3, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Renee

      No, but GWB did. Still curious?

      February 3, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  9. Zanbowser

    I can't wait for the first Atheist President. Then I'll feel content that the USA has progressed into real "melting pot" territory.

    Seriously, guys: there is no god.

    February 3, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • sandy

      If you are right I stand nothing to lose but if I am right you stand everything to lose and an eternity in he!! For your sake I hope that you will soon find the truth because I know that my God is real. I felt God when He was dealing with my heart and when I accepted Him, I now feel Him in my life. He leads and guides me and I love Him very much! The sweetest love story in the world is in Song of Soloman, it takes some studying but it is well worth it.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      thanks, but no thanks.
      we tried an atheist president before and it did not work out too well.
      HITLER!

      February 3, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Nonimus

      @Osama, bin Lie'n?
      "we tried an atheist president before and it did not work out too well.
      HITLER!"
      1) Hitler wasn't an atheist.
      2) He wasn't a president.
      3) He wasn't 'our' anything.
      4) He didn't, and no one can, do anything in the name of Atheism.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'If you are right I stand nothing to lose but if I am right you stand everything to lose and an eternity in he!!'
      You, and everyone else that ever uses this argument, are forgetting a third possibility......That there is a god but it is not the one you are worshipping, which would put you are much in the crap as us atheists I guess. Why you don't you worship them all just to be safe.

      February 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      Hitler is a perfect example of what happens when atheists gain power.
      Atheists do not have a moral compass.
      They just make up schit on the fly, they have no divine guidance
      No morality to restrain them
      A religious terrorist can only imagine killing a 100 or a 1,000
      in the name of his religion
      An atheist will gas 6,000,000 jews without a thought
      It is no wonder the three most brutal men of the last 100 years were Godless atheists, Hitler, Stalin, Mao.

      February 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @B(iraq) Hussein Osama,

      In 1933 national speach Hitler stated, "The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life." {emphasis added}
      (My New Order – Adolf Hitler 1941)

      "What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and the reproduction of our race...so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe..." {emphasis added} (Mein Kampf – Adolf Hitler 1925)

      Stalin and Mao comitted atrocities in the name of their version of Communism, not Atheism. Why? Because there are no tenets of Atheism. It is a lack of belief.

      Atheists get their morality from the same place everyone else does, their own reasoning. Believers just reason their way into abdi.cating their own abilities in favor of some prespecified system.

      February 3, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Historian

    If he is a Christian he will have a very hard time explaining to his Lord and Savior why he was for killing so many unborn children.

    February 3, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Renee

      He that is without sin, cast the first stone. Oh, I think Jesus is talking to you.

      February 3, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • MH

      Come on, Historian. To reduce Christian faith, simplistically, to one issue is a great misrepresentation - especially an issue that is not mentioned in the Bible and about which there is little moral consensus among Christians. You also conflate the moral question with the legal one. Given your moniker, I'd expect better.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Nonimus

      Of course anyone in that situation could simply respond to God, "You first."

      February 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • rker321

      So now, he is killing babies? which is it. I thought that he was upholding Roe vs Wade, that is the law of the land, It has nothing to do with Obama.
      You are really not thinking what you are saying.

      February 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  11. Scott

    Didn't he not attend the prayer breakfast in 2009? His pandering to the opinion polls is beyond belief. Still milking the Tucson shooting for all it's worth. I guess he was so conmited over the years he never heard reverend Wright spewing all that hate...

    February 3, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • Nonimus

      He did attend the Nation Prayer Breakfast in 09: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog_post/this_is_my_prayer/

      You may be thinking of the National Day of Prayer.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  12. ArizonaYankee

    Doesn't matter what he says, he is a LIAR........

    February 3, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  13. GOD

    *crickets*

    February 3, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  14. David Johnson

    Hmmm... Birthers and Muslims and socialists! Oh, my!

    I voted for Obama. I will vote for him again in 2012.

    I think the people attacking Obama should drop the facade and just say: "He is black!"

    Cheers!

    February 3, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Scott

      Do you really believe that he is disliked because of the color of his skin? You are delusional.

      cheers

      February 3, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Renee

      And it seems you have a problem with that. It's overy obvious you know.

      February 3, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Anglican

      Dave. I agree hold-heartedly. Most of the video clips of the tea party reveal a bunch of angry white people. I believe those who are most critical of Obama are so because his race. Pathetic. Peace.

      February 3, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • sandy

      You all are very misled...........Obama is as much white as he is black so how could that be the problem?!?! Grow up and quit playing the race card! In God's eyes we are all His. Some of us will chose to accept Him and some of us will reject Him. If you accept Him then you will become brothers or sisters in Christ and you will be God's child and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven! If you reject Him then you will be a child of Satan and you both will be cast into the lake of fire!

      February 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Nonimus

      Wow, you think people posting here are holding back? I'd hate to see this blog if they really let loose.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  15. James G

    Why do presidents do this?? Who cares what he believes religiously, it should not be part of his decision making process. Government is based on reason....religion is not.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Cicuta

      I'm with you James G ... To me Obama is a cynic and a disgrace for this country.

      February 3, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  16. AGeek

    An excellent separation of church and state. Hey, Obama, "President" is a 24x7x365 job. If you're in public, you're on company time. The Company Handbook says we have a freedom of (and therefore *from*) religion. GET BACK TO WORK!

    February 3, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • privatestash

      Excellent! @ ageek. This feels like an after school playground fight between Obama and the Tea Baggers. I had thought he was above all of this. I think he got some bad 2012 campaign advice.

      February 3, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Fred Smith

      The president has the same freedom of religion that every American has. He may be allowed public expressions of his faith the same as anyone else. The fact that he is President causes people to pay more attention, but in no way can "freedom of religion" really mean restrictions on some peoples' freedom simply because of their job/position or their status as well known and important.

      President and People should live under the same rules, and have the same priviledges. Religious tolerance in a pluralistic society requires us to treat the President's public religious actions and words with the same respect we accord to anyone else in the nation.

      February 3, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  17. Reality

    Some background on the organizer of the topic breakfast:

    Fellowship Foundation Mission Statement-

    To develop and maintain an informal association of people banded together, to go out as “ambassadors of reconciliation”, modeling the principles of Jesus, based on loving God and loving others. To work with the leaders of other nations, and as their hearts are touched, the poor, the oppressed, the widows, and the youth of their country will be impacted in a positive manner. Youth groups will be developed under the thoughts of Jesus, including loving others as you want to be loved.

    Total revenue reported on their IRS Form 990 for 2008 was $16,265,873.

    Their highest paid employees are four associates who average about $120,000/yr each including benefits.

    The Coe family is heavily involved with this non-profit with two members being associates as noted above and with five other family members working for the group averaging about $12,000/yr.

    Strangest grant made in 2008 was to the Golf Ministry of Argentina for $11,000.

    On the 2006 IRS Forms, they list the Wilberforce Foundation as a related exempt organization located at the C Street Center. Wilburforce’s treasurer is David Coe. One of the VP’s is his brother Tim Coe. Both brothers are also associates at the Fellowship Foundation . David’s salary from Wilburforce is $125,000/yr including benefits. Tim Coe’s salary is $116,000. These are the same salaries listed on the Fellowship Foundation’s 2008 IRS 990 Form. One assumes that the brothers are getting salaries from both organizations i.e. $250,000 and $232,000/yr to include benefits. Marty Sherman also works for both organizations and one assumes gets the double salary of approximately $250,000.

    The Fellowship Foundation sponsors the National Prayer breakfast every year. On the 2008 Form 990, the breakfast cost $1,097,465 but was offset by ticket sales and donations of $1,173,584.

    The Family Coe involvement: (from Wikipedia)

    Hillary Clinton described meeting the leader of the Fellowship in 1993: “Doug Coe, the longtime National Prayer Breakfast organizer, is a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship to God.”[25]

    There has been much debate over some of Doug Coe’s previous comments about a number of Nazi leaders and their efficiency. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fellowship_(Christian_organization

    February 3, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • MH

      Doug Coe and The Family are indeed scary, scary, scary - no doubt. See Jeff Sharlet's fabulous book. I wish Presidents would stop endorsing this radical and dangerous group.

      But that's a separate question from whether Presidents should talk about their faith in public. I think, on occasion, they should. We need to know who they are, whether that is Buddhist, atheists, or - as in this case - Christian.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  18. Deana

    Everyone has the right to their own religion, however, when you are the President of the United States of America, you should be, an American, and should represent Americans. Obama does not. He is more interested in his own agenda, getting re-elected. Which I pray to God does not happen. We are not a Communist Country. We have rights and he is showing to many signs of taking away our rights. I think is it a wonderful thing that we have finally voted in a person of color, I do not like the black nor the white in him. He has not proven himself as a leader, just because he has "charisma" does not make him a good President. I had very high hopes for him and have been very disappointed.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • MH

      I can't think of a single way he's taken away rights. But with the end of DADT, the expansion of consumer protection and financial regulation, ending insurance abuses regarding pre-exisitng conditions, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and many other things, it seems to me he's expanded our rights and freedoms.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  19. Beverly Hartford

    It makes me sick that a President of the US has to proclaim any religion at all, let alone Christianity. This country should be ashamed. This does not represent the cherished separation of church and state. I'll bet they'd scream if we started taxing churches in the same spirit of non-separation... I don't want my President to have anything to do with the group that sponsors these shameful prayer breakfasts, nor do I want the President to need a public religion.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • MH

      I agree that the National Prayer Breakfast, and especially the group that runs it, is a very dangerous thing. See Jeff Sharlet's reporting on this.

      But I have no problem with a President talking about his faith in public. It's good for us to know what makes him tick. I'd want a Jewish or Buddhist or atheist President to do the same thing.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  20. dave Richman

    Some guys will do anything to get re-elected.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:36 am |
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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.