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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. Lori

    Look up the term 'Taqqiyah' – the Muslim practice of claiming to be a different religion if you feel threatened...

    February 3, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      And what threat would he have been under if he was a muslim, had he declared himself a muslim right from the start, before his run for president began?

      February 3, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  2. JR

    Obama is as much a Christian as I am a black man (and I am the whitest white guy ever)

    February 3, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • grannymax

      It's people like you who turn others away from Christ and we know what the Bible says about people that turn others away from Christ. Read the Bible. You have no right to judge who believes in Jesus and who doesn't. You are being used as a tool of Satan.

      February 3, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  3. Randy

    My favorite story book is The Hobbit. I've read the Bible it was a good book for its time but the writers failed to give it a good ending. I hope The Holy Bible part 2 has a better ending... does anyone know the release date?

    By the way you can join my fan club were we discuss The Hobbit every Sunday and Wednesday for only 10% of your weekly pay. reply for more info

    February 3, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  4. Steve

    "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." Proof that ignorance is pushing this country into the 3rd world category. People no longer believe the truth nor do they try to find it, but instead they believe only what they want to believe and find much propaganda to support their beliefs on the internet. Sad state of affairs reflected in the growing number of countries in the world surpassing the US in education, especially math and the sciences.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  5. Janty

    This was a bad move on Obama's part. In my opinion nobody needs to prove a faith or a devotion to that faith.
    For people who judge upon those labels. good, bad, Christian, Muslim. How just are you?
    Judge people by thier actions.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  6. Ben

    3 things that I have learned about my faith:

    All of your words are meaningless without meaningful action.

    Your attempts to define God only define your limits in understanding God.

    You do not have to be a Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc to be a good person, but you have to be a good person to be a (true) Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc.

    I believe there is a God. I believe He has given us the right to live our lives and make our own choices. I believe that in the end, He rewards the deserving and punishes the wicked regardless of their beliefs (or lack thereof) or station in life. I believe that you have the right to your own opinions and that it should in no way affect mine, unless I choose to allow it to.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  7. Nathan T W

    Ignorance always shines the brightest when religion comes around. We need to forget about his religion, as it is his freedom as an AMerican, and understand that he has the hardest job in the world. None of us could handle it and we would probably fail miserably. Do we honestly worry and linger on the fact that Obama is religious whether Christian or muslim. I am a devote christian and I believe what I believe, however, I also respect other religions and their holy aspect. We need to love Obama as our President for if he fails we also fail!

    February 3, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  8. Timmeh

    Who gives a serious CRAP what religion he is? Honestly, im waiting for this country to grow up enough that we can have an Atheist as a president, or Agnostic. Why are there so many people that really think religious beliefs make a person a better or worse president? Either you have common sense, and a good heart or you don't, regardless of your beliefs or lack there of ( im sure some religious people think that you cant be truly good without some belief, to which I say, grow and and get your head out of the clouds). derp

    February 3, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  9. albie

    Honestly, this makes me respect him much much less. It is also enough for me to not want to vote for him again. Religion is a bad thing.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  10. USA401

    But I thought John McCain told us he was a Muslim terrorist? And John McCain doesnt lie.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  11. mbal

    Great, Obama is turning into just as much of an imbecile as Bush. Barack, please leave your religion out of govt and make your decisions based on sound, rational judgment, not what some "Lord" tells you in the morning.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  12. jack

    He really wants to get re-elected in 2012. He will do anything. I bet he starts going ot church on Sunday now.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Independant

      You are really ignorant. If you looked at facts, you would find that Obama attends Church regularly. Actually, so did Clinton. Either of the Bush's rarely. Reagan rarely if ever. I just don't understand how some Christians show their support for the presidents that never attend church and condemn the ones that do.

      February 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  13. Joe

    I wonder if he was white, would we still question his religion? After we the white race never hide the truth..
    First of all no one is born Muslim, my best friend father was a muslim & his mother a Jew & he is Jew. actually if you really knew about koran, it not only covers Judaism & Christianity, but it asks you as an adult to study other religions, as it says they are all gods religions. " The true Muslim is the one that choices to be a muslim, not the one that feels he has to"
    By the way I am not a muslim.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  14. Jack

    This guy is pulling out every trick to ensure he gets re-elected in 2012. I bet he starts going to church on Sundays now. He swore to defeat re-election fund "earmarks"; he supported the Bush tax cuts. Man! He may register as a Republican soon.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  15. Eric P

    Holy crap. First, why do we care what his faith is? Secondly, why is he trying to reach out the Christian psychotics who, most likely, still hate him because they think he's a Muslim. Just run the country the way that is prudent and forget about what the people are saying about you. Quit pandering.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Eric P

      BTW, the Jesus of the Christian bible isn't the "real" Jesus. It's a story that's been handed down from different culture to different culture until the Jews in Jersusalem got ahold of it and made it their own. There are quite a few books of antiquity that anyone can find in bookstores or even purchase on the internet from various vendors around the world that blow a gaping hole in the story of Jesus Christ depicted in the Bible...I chuckle when I read about how Jesus killed people. That was cute. Funny how that got left out, huh? If you are that hung up on what his religious beliefs are I should punch you in the throat.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  16. E1st

    If this were 1941, 20% of Americans would think that Obama was secretly a fascist. If it were 1951, 20% of Americans would think that Obama was secretly a communist. Here in 2011, 20% of Americans think Obama is secretly Muslim. They can always come up with many specious justifications for this opinion. When it comes down to it, Muslims are the boogey men for the American people for this moment in time, and the president will always be compared to the current boogey men by those who have ideological differences with him.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  17. Tree

    If you have something against President Obama's platform then say it, don't make stuff up. Fact is most people have no idea about their government and are unwilling to put any effort to learn for thesmelves. So instead of having anything intelligent to say they lie about our president's religion and nation of origin. Unless you have some form of incontervertible evidence that supports your wild accusations keep your mouth shut. I wish the news agencies would do the same. Our president is trying to fix a country which has been broken for a very long time (yes more than just Bush W, but the original Bush, Clinton, and Regan all led to the dmise we are in) and everyone else is obssessed with comments made by Glen Beck and Bill O'Reilly two of the worst news comedians on the planet.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  18. Billal Jaber

    It's a shame that a president must be of Christian faith in the country founded upon freedom of religion....

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

    Daniel 2:20-22-Continue to pray for Barack and his family.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  20. Enoch

    Yes! On the other side of the Atlantic, TOP Eurocrat Cathy Ashton - the world’s most highly-paid female politician, of seeking to appease Muslims by wiping out any reference to the Christian faith in statements. She cannot even finesse a statement from Christian Europe condemning attacks on Christians

    February 3, 2011 at 10:30 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.