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. Rob

    It doesn't matter if Obama speaks from the heart or not- so many of you will never will say he's a lier because he doesn't match your particular worldview exactly. All the people on here claiming that Obama is a lier and then trying to say what a true Christian is- shame on you- idk how more unchristian you could be than to judge another man's faith who you do not know and claim to have authority. How many of you christians are perfect out there? How many of you have 100% right opinions on EVERYTHING (I know you may think you do). Dumb people- I want to be conservative fiscally, but it means allying with a bunch of wanna be Christians who believe in everything from the bible except the act like Jesus and be compassionate part. Sick of all of you- you are the reason I no longer have a church.

    February 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  2. Nicole

    To those ignorant people still shouting Obama is a muslim, you cannot be a muslim and swear on a bible, you cannot be a muslim and rule by other than the law of Allah, you cannot be muslim and denounce your faith and claim to be a christian and all that goes along with being Christian! This blatant lie about the presidents faith is all due to a political agenda with a fear mongering tactic. Wake up America, stop being blind followers of the media and politicians. Do some research, learn about other faiths and cultures. Even if he wasn't Christian who cares! The proof of a mans character is in his actions.

    February 4, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  3. SpinnyLiberal

    His relationship with God is his business. Even if he were Muslim, it shouldn't matter. We still have separation of church and state in this country. Or at least I thought we did.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
  4. Bill in Mo

    so it is the biblical injunction to serve the least of these??? Sorry, no reference in Mathew 25:40 says anything about serving anyone... as a matter of fact the passage is translated 2 different ways. In one translation the word for is used, implying that you have done soemthing for someone most like this is beneficial! In the other it is that you have done something to someone implying some sort of thing that is not beneficial... How does either of those things imply serving others?

    And so he waits on he lord? His man servant? Butler? what? or does he pary to the lord?

    What kind of instrument Barack? Of Peace? Of Division? You don't clarify...

    The prayer of saint Francis is a good place to start when looking at what kind of instrument you should be.

    February 3, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  5. chris

    you christians sure aren't being very christian with all that judging your doing. just pray for him and america. trust in god, he wanted him to be our preisdent for a reason. is that not good enough for you?

    February 3, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  6. Hischild

    Atheist are lost souls, Atheist are lost souls, Atheist are lost souls. Athiest have hate in their hearts..isn't that obvious there is a God. GOD IS LOVE...THE DEVIL HIS OPPOSER HAS NO LOVE...The devils plan is to defeat God...He will lose. He is already losing. Why would anyone believe your theories of belief? Obama's is trying his best regardless of his faith. Regardless to his beliefs of Muslim, Chritianity or Atheism, he will have to give ac account to God just as the rest of us. PRAY FOR YOUR COUNTRY. It is a positive thing to pray, it is a negetive thing to oppose it.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  7. SMK

    Hello fellow Americans.... Why you all are so much into Mr. Obama's faith. What about your faith and how is that going dear ? Only Obama has to be perfect but you all can act and do whatever you can... because we are christians. Which Christ is within you........ Look at you.. You have no shame to talk about your President. That itself doesn't bring your Christian out of you.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Thais

      Glad it touched you. I'm kind of in (or about to go into) a trioaitsnn period right now, the whole quarter-life crisis thing is creeping up on me. I'm at the point now where I just believe it'll all work out, for better or worse, and I'll deal with it when it happens. Can't control anything that hasn't happened yet.

      July 30, 2012 at 12:59 am |
  8. me

    It was a prayer breakfast! Of course he's gonna talk about religion. And why can't a president speak on religion? Is he not a citizen too? And with freedom of speech being a big part of this country you'd think he'd be ALLOWED by you people to speak about religion, money, education, ice cream or even sky diving especially with half of you getting on here everyday speaking on your beliefs. Just saying

    February 3, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Karen

    If he were a Christian, why does he believe in abortions? Why would he say if one of his daughters got pregnant for her not to be punished with a baby? (That would be killing his own grandchild) Why would he stay in a so called church for 20 yrs ran by Jeremiah Wright that spewed awful language using God's name in vain? True Christians do not talk like this let alone preach to a congregation like that ! Why is he giving in to dictators and apologizing to them for what America has done in the past? These other countries would kill all of us in a heartbeat.We all used to have good jobs. People are losing their homes and going homeless. Barely getting by and he's out there telling us we need to tighten our belts? Is he? NO! He jumps on a plane and wastes money. We are in so much debt our children,grandchildren and several generations will have to be punished for what he has done. Wake up America! Vote him out! Beware he speaks with a forked tongue!

    February 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  10. anita

    Obama never once mentioned anything about the Holy Spirit or about praying in the name of Jesus Christ. He has himself fooled good job Obama you gave yourself away!

    February 3, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  11. Rebecca

    I was raised in the Christian church (Baptist) where I was always taught that my relationship with God was MY relationship.

    Why anyone thinks that the President has to justify his faith to any of us is beyond me. The man said that he asks for strength and guidance every day. Can any of us do more than that?

    February 3, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  12. Masha

    Why do all presidents have to admit their faith? Church is supposed to be separate from state! Religion definitely won't get the US out of this mess...

    February 3, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  13. Masha

    Why does every president need to be religious? Church is supposed to be separate from state! Religion definitely won't get the US out of this mess...

    February 3, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  14. CatholicMom

    What does the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag mean to you?


    February 3, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  15. Joshua

    What he calls "christian faith" REAL Christians call blatant apostasy ...

    You can't believe in Jesus and yet advocate that children should be dismembered and tossed in the garbage.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  16. Rob

    I'm sorry, anyone who has to claim his faith as much as he does...he isn't.

    February 3, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  17. OhRatts

    "But make no mistake, my personal relationship with Allah – I mean Jesus is what sustains Michelle and I."

    February 3, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  18. Rich

    Obama ain't Christian! He believes in abortion. It's impossible to be Christian and believe in abortion. Anybody that believes in abortion is lying when they say they are Christian. And it's the worst kind of lie because they believe their own lie.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  19. tony

    Obama is Muslim. Everything he does proves that he is one of them. And I also think that he want to make sure that countries just like Egypt and others will be under Islamic movements before he leaves office. So I really think he's related to least one Muslim movement. Plus, look at him he looks like he's forced to go to church. He's defiantly bringing the us down.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  20. Yossarian

    Jesus would definitely have been a Communist, just so all you Christian Republicans out there know.

    February 3, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
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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.