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. Kamel

    What a hypocrite! I voted for Obama and that was the mistake I will regret for al my life!!!

    February 3, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  2. MSB

    Really? With everything going on this is what matters? If some of you are going to pray how about asking for a sense of perspective? Get off the cross, we need the the wood.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:28 am |
  3. BOB

    I wish he was an agnostic, however I realize this nation hasn't progressed enough yet to embrace such an enlightend position. As for this "Muslim" nonsense. that's just "fear" talking.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Saso

      Breaking with a lifetime's habit, I voted Republican for prdieesnt last fall and as I walked out of the voting booth I remember thinking I would be most pleased in four years to vote for Obama and happily concede I'd made a mistake and misjudged him. I have seen no sign that I did. I especially like that part about the Arabs implement their agreements but the Israelis don't. I see; that explains why Israel is still holding onto the Sinai and why the Arabs not just Palestinians have abandoned the constant, vile anti-Semitism that spews out of virtually every source.Why anyone will again credit a solemn American promise about anything is beyond me.

      July 31, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  4. iShane

    uh huh. I feel better already, because, this was the biggest concern weighing in sooo heavy on my mind. pandering for votes....I hate politicians, they like pop stars in suits from the 1950's. A one dimensional cartoon character.

    We NEED real leaders, real people.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:27 am |
  5. LEB

    I still don't see why it matters what religion he is. He could practice Satanism for all I care as long as he doesn't let it affect his job.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  6. Faisal

    "no be an obama" http://what-is-the-truth-omegle.blogspot.com/

    February 3, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  7. Faisal

    "no be an obama" what-is-the-truth-omegle.blogspot.com/

    February 3, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  8. Forgetmeknot

    Wonder if an athiest would ever be president? Doubt it...

    February 3, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      Hitler was President of Germany way back in the 1930s and 1940s.

      February 3, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Newyorker

      @B(iraq) Hussein Obama: You knuckle-dragging troglodyte. Why don't you troll somewhere else you ignorant sh!t!

      February 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  9. JennyTX

    I don't care what his religion is. I voted for him to be our president, not our religious leader.

    February 3, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • MAX


      February 3, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Tony

      @ MAX:

      LOUD NOISES!!!

      February 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  10. thomas

    Eric Holder and Jimmy Carter are both right theres only one reason some want to find ways to talk about President Obama RACE RACE RACE know other reason

    February 3, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  11. TJ

    Why are atheists so smug and condescending? As long as no one bothers me, I don't care what they do, or don't do, when it comes to religion. I just don’t understand why atheists have to be so obnoxious about people who do believe in a God. Aren’t you the ones who always preach about tolerance and acceptance of people who are different? Is it because you don’t believe in Hell so you can be a jerk to people without repercussions or are you just so miserable with yourselves that you have to lash out at others in an attempt to build up your self-worth?

    February 3, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Because people of faith do not usually keep it to themselves. They insists on using their belief to tell other people how to act and behave and to influence laws and bills based solely on their religious teachings.
      You want a personal belief, great, just keep it personal.

      February 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  12. Wallace F. Workmaster

    Why aren't items on the CNN "Belief" blog available to be forwarded to others via email? In this and numerous other instances, that would be helpful.

    February 3, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  13. Stan

    So instead of telling the country his plans to improve things in the USA that he is commander and chief of. He will use taxpayers dollars to let people know what invisible friend he believes in ..good job Mr. President good job!!

    February 3, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  14. Sherri

    All I needed to know about Obama I learned when he turned his back on his friend and pastor (Rev Wright). Obama will say and do anything to be liked and voted for.

    February 3, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  15. AJ


    February 3, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  16. Joe

    he's be better off getting his concession speech read..2012

    February 3, 2011 at 6:09 am |
  17. scdad

    So we have another brainwashed cultist running the country? Why can't we just have a sensible athiest President?

    February 3, 2011 at 6:03 am |
    • D-Bo

      Because there is no such thing as a "sensible" atheist, only irrational ones. The public can't trust someone who has delusions of something coming from nothing and has no sense of morality (Nietzsche said there is no such thing as right or wrong, only the triumph of power). Also, it would be impossible for the President to inspire people with your atheistic ideas of being cosmic accidents with no ultimate meaning, no hope, no future, and no point? Yep, that's what we want for President! Brilliant comment.

      February 3, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • QS

      Completely agree scdad, and D-Bo here just proves to us yet again how completely wrong many religious people are about Atheists in general.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Magic

      "it would be impossible for the President to inspire people with your atheistic ideas of being cosmic accidents with no ultimate meaning, no hope, no future, and no point?"

      So, make something up, with no proof... include a pie-in-the-sky, happy-ever-after ending - they'll eat it up.

      February 3, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  18. Ryan

    Above post by a different Ryan BTW.

    February 3, 2011 at 5:58 am |
  19. Ryan

    Why does it matter what religion he is anyway? America is supposed to stand for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state so am I missing something? If anyone can explain this to me intellectually I will eat my keyboard and email a video of it so help me God.

    February 3, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  20. Carla Medina

    One clue to many who are still Fundamentalist Christian BIGOTS against our President.

    February 3, 2011 at 5:55 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.