February 2nd, 2012
02:25 PM ET

Obama reflects on faith in prayer breakfast speech

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) -
President Barack Obama spoke of his personal faith Thursday as he delivered remarks for the third year in a row at the National Prayer Breakfast.

In addition, Obama used the platform in front of religious dignitaries and politicians to express his vision of how faith and government intersect and can work together.

After his remarks, the president received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Washington Hilton, the White House pool reporter said. Journalists are barred from attending the breakfast with the exception of the White House pool, which follows the president. CNN requested and was denied access to the event.

The breakfast has hosted every president since Eisenhower.

Obama, who, as one administration official said, identifies as a "committed Christian who spends a lot of time working on his Christian walk," noted in the speech that he prays daily.

"I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in scripture and devotion," he said.

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Since he has been in Washington, Obama has not formally joined a church. For nearly 20 years he was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The president and his staff have noted the logistical difficulties of a sitting president attending services, but he has visited several churches in Washington and worshiped privately with his family at Camp David.

The president also spoke of praying with Billy Graham, and said, "I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment."

In his speech Obama made specific mention of his calls, visits and prayers with Joel Hunter, a megachurch pastor from Florida, and with Bishop T.D. Jakes, a megachurch pastor from Texas.

"From time to time, friends of mine, some of who are here today, friends like Joel Hunter or T.D. Jakes, will come by the Oval Office or they'll call on the phone or they'll send me an e-mail, and we'll pray together, and they'll pray for me and my family, and for our country," he said.

Hunter, who was at the breakfast, said Obama hit the right notes with the crowd.

"The president made a positive and practical application of Jesus' command to love our neighbors," Hunter said. "He connected that moral mandate to the economic and political issues we face, and he let us know that, for him, that common good compassion is an extension of his personal Christian faith."

Jakes was not at the breakfast but, when reached by phone, said he had read a transcript of the speech.

"Anytime we can have an open dialogue about faith on the highest level it is a very good thing," he said.

Jakes said he had "the privilege to pray" with the past three U.S. presidents, and noted of his time praying with Obama, "It's no different from any other president. My plan was to provide prayerful support regardless of his policies, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't."

An administration official speaking on background said Obama viewed the speech as chance to explain his personal faith practices and to show "his desire to step in the gap for those who are vulnerable."

The president also highlighted faith efforts that are particularly of importance to young evangelicals, a voting block he courted heavily in 2008. The Passion Conference, a massive gathering of young Christians that this year took aim at human trafficking, got a nod from the podium, as did other groups with targeted antipoverty efforts.

CNN Money – Obama: Jesus would back my tax-the-rich policy

Others in the room recounted the ease with which the president presented his case for the integration of his faith and policy.

"Each time that I have listened to the president reflect on his Christian faith, I'm struck by the quiet poignancy of his words as he speaks from the heart," said Stephen Schneck, a professor from Catholic University who has advised the administration in the past.

"This morning we all felt this. Most moving for me was the way he spoke of his concern for the poor and marginalized and the personal responsibility he felt to serve these 'least among us,' a responsibility that the president grounded in his daily prayer life," Schneck told CNN. But he added, "Of course, that doesn't change that he made a serious mistake with the HHS mandate."

Is Obama losing the Catholic vote?

The administration was still doing damage control over a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services policy that forces religious schools and institutions that offer employee health insurance to cover FDA-approved contraceptives. The move has angered many Catholics in particular, who oppose the use of contraceptives on religious grounds, and view the policy as an intrusion on their religious liberty.

Hunter, who has been a strong vocal supporter of the president, noted that while there was no rancor in the room about the HHS decision, "there is real disappointment with that decision."

Obama did not directly address the issue in his speech but did allude to it when describing his guiding principles on coming to tough policy decisions.

"We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can't dictate our response to every challenge we face," he said. He added later, "Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often."

White House stands firm on contraception policy

Not long after the president's speech, the White House sent a fact sheet to reporters from Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. It laid out a point-by-point articulation of the HHS policy, making specific mention that churches will be exempt from the policy and noting Catholic opposition by highlighting the work they have done together.

"The administration has provided substantial resources to Catholic organizations over the past three years, in addition to numerous non-financial partnerships to promote healthy communities and serve the common good," the statement from Munoz reads. "This work includes partnerships with Catholic social service agencies on local responsible fatherhood programs and international anti-hunger/food assistance programs. We look forward to continuing this important work."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, also spoke at the prayer breakfast about the complexity of the balance between religion and governing.

"I think we all had two different experiences of what can happen when we bring faith into the world of government and business," he said. "Sometimes it creates conflict, and when we look at our planet's history, even wars. But in other times - more often, really - true faith can be a reconciling force of amazing power, a power that can make an entire society better."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Christianity • Church and state • DC • Politics • United States

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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.