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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. Mike

    Sad statement that it improves his standing with a vast number of Americans to declare that his is Christian instead of Muslim. If you stand back a reasonable distance, there isnt enough difference between those myth sets to even matter.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  2. The Maaaaan

    I can only follow a leader who believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and he has to be radical about it. I am not interested in someone who is humble about it. We need complete zealotry just as we get from the bible belt.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  3. CW

    If Obama is a christian he needs to re-'examine the Bible because there are somethings that he is for that the Bible clearly states are wrong...here's is just a few

    He's pro-'abor-'tion
    He's for G-'AY marriage

    That's just two of the items he needs to rethink. If he is a christian though that is good...my hope is that he does repent and change his tune on the above issues.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • RJb

      Not to mention he is the ruler of Babylon the Great. Let's be real here-that is exactly who America is.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Sam

      Bible also says stone adulterers, wear only certain natural fibers, not to sit where an "unclean" (menstruating) woman has sat, etc, etc, it's okay to own slaves – you people need to stop picking and choosing your scripture, if you're "real" Christians. Or maybe, just maybe, PEOPLE wrote the Bible... to control others...what does God think of all of this? He/she is sad...

      February 3, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • thresher

      I'm pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage - and I'm a Christian. There are many of us like that. Now can you cite any other issues that indicate that Obama's apostasy?

      By the way, why so hard on our current president? What about George W. Bush, who prayed for God's guidance and then proceeded to start a unjustified war in Iraq? What about Ronald Reagan who rarely went to church, decimated the safety net for the "least of these" and whose administration was rife with corruption? Yes, Bill Clinton committed a sin with a White House intern, but he at least confessed.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  4. Religious Sects

    Seems the re-election campaign has begun!
    I don't care what he says, I believe he's an atheist. He's just saying what needs to be said to get re-elected.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  5. Cartman42

    The fact that ANY world leader claims to have faith in a god scares me. Religon has caused more suffering on this world than anything else. We no longer believe the world is flat, why do we still need to believe in the invisible man.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  6. northside ninja

    WHY ASK JESUS TO FORGIVE YOU YOUR SINS AT THE END OF EVERY DAY, WHEN HE "ALREADY" FORGAVE EVERY ONE AT THE CROSS? GOD NEVER CAME TO MAKE BAD PEOPLE GOOD, BUT DEAD PEOPLE LIVE...GOD BLESS THE MAN.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • NL

      northside ninja
      "GOD NEVER CAME TO MAKE BAD PEOPLE GOOD, BUT DEAD PEOPLE LIVE"
      Interesting, considering that many Christians insist that choosing not to believe in God eventually leads to a lack or morals. Now you say that God isn't interested in making people behave better at all.

      God wants to make dead people live, but for what purpose? To spend eternity worshipping him? For a species that values it's freedom as much as we humans do how, exactly, is this a better ending to someone's life than just dying? What ever happened to "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Pardon me, but isn't choosing a life of servitude to any king just un-American at it's very root?

      February 3, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  7. kathy

    God appoints men to keep order.
    It is in the Bible.
    President Obama is a good man and how dare anyone question that he isn't.
    He loves everyone, no matter what race or nationality and he tries to do the right thing, although he knows he is imperfect
    and his power is limited.
    He realizes that his strength comes from God and not himself, because he is humble and meek.
    May he and his family continue to have divine protection.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Religious Sects

      You speak of Obama like he is JC himself. I don't believe he's evil but don't deify him. Blind faith just means you can't see, don't put blind faith in any President, they must be watched carefully.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  8. Mensarino

    2012 the end of an Error.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  9. ar

    He wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror and swears allegiance to the god he sees there.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  10. The Jackdaw

    This is proof that politicians are delusional.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  11. Mensarino

    There is no reality in Reality. Only noise and a sore rear end.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  12. RC

    The ignorance that plagues this country is astounding. Closed mind syndrome has really taken hold of people, just like the dreaded politically correct disease. If people were truly aware and informed about the different religions of the world, they would see the similarities in their scriptures. If some of you took the time to learn, you would find that just because their god or prophet has a different name, it still comes down to pretty much the same thing.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  13. Roman, Butler, PA

    He who is without sin let him cast the first stone. Those of you who judge will be judged with a sharp two edge sword. I for one knows that President Obama believes in Jesus Christ. Read this blog to find the Truth. http://www.lordlionjc.blogspot.com

    February 3, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  14. Drew

    Religion is a state of mind, a comfort to make things better, it's called faith because you believe in it. It just shows that you didn't get enough hugs growing up when you bash on other peoples religion.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  15. Mensarino

    Church and State. This guy needs to keep his fantasy beliefs to himself. We don't need to hear him support his fantasies in public.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  16. david

    By their fruit you shall know them......... ahhh abortion, gay marriage, dividing Jeruralem. supporting these among others goes totally against the word of God but you know what only God knows the heart and we know he went to a false teacher where it was all black liberation teology, its not religion, GOD hates religion, but a relationship with Jesus Christ in who we have the free gift of salvation, remember no one goes to hell for their sins but for rejecting the sacrifice for them. It is a free gift all u have to do is accept it by faith. YESHUA... change u can believe in.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • sandy

      Praise the Lord, someone knows what they are talking about. I am so saddened at the thought of all of these lost people. If you could experience what I have experienced, you would know that the Lord is real. There is only one true God and He gave His son for all of us unworthly sinners. He is my bright and morning star but most of all He is my Saviour and that's why I chose to serve Him. It's hard for me to believe that Obama is a Christian because of the life and choices that he makes. Abortion is wrong, people lusting after their own kind is an abomination to God, there are some things that Christians can not stand and would not permit if given the opportunity. The fact that Obama had to meet with a preacher to prepare his speech is a little unnerving also. Although I don't think he means to be a bad person, I do think he needs to get saved and that would make a huge difference. I will continue to pray for him and his family daily!

      February 3, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • MH

      Obama, as a young man, knelt before God and gave his life to Christ. In his words, “I submitted myself to His will and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

      February 3, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  17. CATHY

    THE DISRESPECT THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA IS SHOWED FROM SOME SO CALLED AMERICANS IS A DISGRACE, GOOD LORD PPL HE IS THE PRESIDENT. WE DO NOT HAVE TO AGREE WITH HIM BUT WE ALL NEED TO RESPECT HIM JUST SAYIN

    February 3, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  18. Keith

    Another example how religion has been politicized in this country.  Who cares about how someone studies scripture and how it sustains them!  Obama is a sellout now as I think he has been the most religiously tolerant president to date.  He is just trying to build his base and appeal to the Christian masses that believe this is a Christian nation.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  19. Ed Mutto

    Christians believe the Bible is truth. Bible says "by their fruits you shall know them", not just by what isd said. We will all be judged by our woeds and actions. Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  20. Gary Davis

    I don't know how more honest this president needs to be for the far right to shut up and meet with him and get our nation moving forward faster than it is . the th care recall was a joke and a waist of time . republicans will loose badly in 2112 by there own fault . liars never win in the end . the truth will come out . and Mitch , and the rest of the good ol'e boys will loose
    mr.Obama will get re-elected

    February 3, 2011 at 9:40 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.