April 19th, 2011
07:00 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama offered his thoughts and prayers Tuesday to victims of weekend storms that spawned dozens of tornadoes that cut a swath through the South, killing more than 40 people.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families that have been affected down there," the president said during an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House.
The twisters hit 12 states in the South, cutting a path of destruction from Oklahoma to Maryland between Thursday and Saturday. At least 45 people were killed, including 22 from hard-hit North Carolina.
Politics were not on the menu during the prayer breakfast. It was the second year the president has held such an Easter prayer event.
The president used the breakfast to call for prayer and reflection to mark the start of the Easter season. He was joined by about 130 clergy and faith leaders from a wide range of backgrounds including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox clergy.
He said Easter served as a reminder that during "these national critical debates" that "we must always make sure we are keeping things in perspective."
"I pray that our time here this morning will strengthen us both individually as believers and as Americans," the president said.
Among the clergy in attendance were Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter's House in Dallas, Texas; Joel Hunter pastor of Northland Church outside of Orlando, Florida; and Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
For Keller, a prominent Presbyterian pastor and author, it was his first trip to the Obama White House, his office said.
"It's a time of great togetherness where we can focus on the one person we have in common," Hunter told CNN before the breakfast. "That's Jesus Christ, not the president," he clarified with a chuckle.
Hunter said he always enjoys getting together with other Christian leaders and wanted to be supportive of the president's event.
Hunter said he is still sending a weekly devotion via email to the president through Joshua DuBois, the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
"We're going through the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke." Hunter said. "I call it reading the red," he said referring to the red text which some biblical translations mark the words of Jesus.
Hunter said politics were not a topic he and the president have discussed often during their time together.
"My role with him is as a pastor," he said. While some policy issues arise like care for the poor, he said, "we don't discuss politics or policy per se. My role is to help him get closer to God."
The Easter prayer event was held Tuesday so pastors can return to their home parishes and churches to conduct their own Holy Week celebrations.
The president has struggled to convince some segments of the American public he is a Christian. He has repeatedly affirmed his faith and speaks of it often in public.
A survey by the Pew Forum found nearly one in five Americans believe the president is a Muslim while just 34% correctly identified him as a Christian.
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.