October 27th, 2012
10:00 PM ET
In Obama’s first term, an evolving Christian faith and a more evangelical style
Editor's note: This is the last in a series about the faith lives of the presidential candidates, which includes a profile of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
Washington (CNN) – President Obama’s prayers for a strong first debate may not have been answered, but that doesn’t mean the prayers weren’t happening.
Before he stepped onto a Colorado stage earlier this month to face off with Mitt Romney for the first time, Obama joined a conference call with a small circle of Christian ministers.
“The focus of that prayer was, ‘Oh, Lord, you know precisely what the president needs to say,'” says Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist megachurch pastor from Texas who helped lead the call. “'You know what this country needs during the next four years.’”
“'And so I would pray that your primary will and words that you want the president to say will fall from his lips,'” Caldwell goes on, recalling his prayer.
Obama, for his part, was mostly silent.
“There’s a profound and genuine humility in the presence of Christ himself,” Caldwell says, describing the president on such calls. “I think he recognizes it as a holy moment.”
It was the second time Caldwell and Obama had prayed by phone in as many months. The two had connected in August on a prayer call Obama has hosted on his birthday every year since coming to the White House.
Welcome to the intense, out-of-the-box and widely misunderstood religious life of President Barack Obama.
Though he famously left his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the year he was elected to the presidency, a handful of spiritual advisers close to Obama say that his time in office has significantly deepened his faith.
The making of a candidate: Mitt Romney’s faith journey
Stephen Mansfield, a former Christian pastor who wrote the book “The Faith of Barack Obama,” goes so far to say that Obama has experienced a spiritual transformation.
“I think we do have at heart a new man, so to speak,” says Mansfield, who worked closely with the White House and with some Obama religious advisers on his book. “He has undergone a pretty significant personal religious change in his first term.”
Obama’s faith advisers say Mansfield goes a step too far, though they acknowledge that when it comes to his faith, Obama has changed.
“There is a deepening development in his relationship with God,” says Joel Hunter, a Florida-based pastor who has been in touch with Obama nearly every week since he took office. “He chooses to stay faithful in daily habits of study and prayer and consistent times of interchange with spiritual leaders.”
“I am not sure he did that before he came to the presidency.”
Whether or not Obama has been spiritually “reborn” in the evangelical sense, his spiritual counselors say the president’s faith has helped shape his first term in ways that haven’t been appreciated by voters or the news media.
And they say the presidency is bringing Obama to a new place in his faith - building on a system of belief and practice that helped bring him to the White House in the first place.
Talking like Billy Graham
These days, when the president talks about his faith, he sounds like a born-again Christian.
Addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this year, Obama recalled meeting the nation’s most iconic evangelical Christian, Billy Graham, and described his struggle to find the right words as he prayed aloud with the aging evangelist.
“Like that verse in Romans, the Holy Spirit interceded when I didn’t know quite what to say,” Obama told the gathering, invoking the New Testament.
It was hardly the only part of the speech where Obama was speaking “Christianese” – employing a lexicon familiar to evangelical Christians, who put a premium on quoting Scripture and communing directly with the Holy Spirit.
Understanding Barack Obama’s gospel
At the same breakfast, Obama spoke of spending time every morning in “Scripture and devotion” and dropped the names of “friends like Joel Hunter or T.D. Jakes,” both well-known pastors of evangelical megachurches.
“He was talking like Billy Graham” at the breakfast, says Mansfield, who also wrote an admiring spiritual biography of former President George W. Bush.
Even in the more secular setting of the Democratic National Convention, Obama hinted at an intense White House prayer life, along with his need for God’s grace.
“While I'm proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings,” Obama said in his acceptance speech, “knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’"
Such pious talk marks a departure from how the president discussed his faith life before his White House years.
Back then, Obama cited his religion more as a basis for social action than for spiritual sustenance. He would temper declarations of belief with affirmations of doubt.
Asked in a 2004 interview whether he prayed often, Obama, then a candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois, responded: “Uh, yeah, I guess I do.”
In a 2007 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama voiced skepticism about Scripture.
“There are aspects of the Christian tradition that I’m comfortable with and aspects that I’m not,” he said. “There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go ‘Ya know, I’m not sure about that.’”
These days, Obama forgoes such equivocations in favor of a full-throated Christianity.
To Mansfield, the evolution of Obama’s comments on religion bespeak a born-again experience, prompted largely by the president’s break with Wright and his arrival into a circle of spiritual counselors that includes many evangelicals.
The White House declined requests to speak to Obama.
But Hunter, the president’s closest spiritual counselor, says Obama has technically been a born-again Christian for more than 25 years, since accepting Jesus at Wright’s Chicago church in the 1980s.
But it's in the last four years that the president has become more evangelical in his habits.
He now begins each morning reading Christian devotionals on his Blackberry.
And then there’s the circle of pastors Obama has begun praying with before big events like the first presidential debate.
A circle of evangelicals
After landing in Washington following his 2008 election, Obama shopped around for a new church. But he wound up making his spiritual home instead among a circle of far-flung pastors that includes Hunter, Jakes and Caldwell, the minister from Texas.
Conference calls with the group started while Obama was still a presidential candidate, including on the night of his 2008 victory. The president-elect spoke by phone with Hunter and other Christian ministers, rejoicing in victory but also grieving the death of his grandmother, who helped raise him, just a few days earlier.
The migration from Wright – who almost brought down Obama’s campaign with videos that showed him sermonizing about “God damn America” and “the U.S. of KKK A” – to this new group, says Mansfield, has been underappreciated.
“[Obama] went into the Oval Office … questioning the only pastor he’d ever had,” Mansfield says. “Wright left him humiliated.”
“And there were deeper questions about the theology that [Obama] had received,” Mansfield continues. “Some part of Wright’s religious orientation had failed.”
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
Where Wright is a liberal mainline Protestant, emphasizing liberation and social action, Obama’s new circle of pastors includes theologically conservative evangelicals like Hunter and Jakes, who stress God’s grace and personal transformation.
Mansfield notes that the chaplain who has presided for the last few years at Camp David, where Obama spends many Sundays, is also an evangelical.
Some of Obama’s spiritual counselors credit Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, with leading Obama to a more evangelical-flavored Christianity. Caldwell calls him the president’s personal pastor.
A former associate pastor at a Pentecostal church in Boston, DuBois is the one responsible for sending Obama Scriptures and scriptural meditations five days a week; Hunter does it on the other two days.
DuBois convenes a daily 8:15 a.m. conference call with pastors to pray for the country and the president, who is not on the call. (Lately, those calls have also included prayers for Mitt Romney.)
And it’s DuBois who organized the president’s circle of spiritual advisers. After graduate school at Princeton, DuBois talked his way onto Obama’s staff at the U.S. Senate, repeatedly driving to Washington to make his case after job applications were rejected.
When Obama launched his presidential campaign a few years later, DuBois was plucked as its faith outreach director.
The 30-year-old White House aide plays down his influence on his boss.
“He has always been on a Christian journey,” DuBois says of Obama, “and the challenges of the office, of being leader of the free world, provides a deepening and strengthening of faith, and that’s what you see with the president.”
“I remember working with him around the Scripture he would use at the memorial service for the miners in West Virginia,” DuBois says, referring to the 2010 tragedy that left 29 dead. “These are obviously moments when one's faith is strengthened.”
The unparalleled trials of the Oval Office have been known to deepen the religiosity of presidents ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan.
Hunter says the same thing has happened to this president: “His faith has been growing as the challenges of the presidency have become more naturally the main part of his own everyday life.”
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One of Hunter’s first Oval Office encounters with Obama came shortly after the president took office, at a time when the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month.
“He acknowledged at that meeting what many may know but few remember: that by the time issues get to the president, there are no simple or clear answers or they would have been solved by others,” Hunter says. “So we prayed.”
A few months later, Hunter was in the Oval Office again, noticing that “the unremitting heaviness of the office was setting in.”
“I saw something that has been consistent ever since: He cannot just pray for himself and his family,” Hunter says by e-mail. “At least I have never seen it. His faith, his heart, always includes those who are being left out through no fault of their own.”
Despite the changes they’ve seen in Obama, both Hunter and DuBois are uncomfortable with the word “transformation” when it comes to Obama’s White House faith life.
“The president doesn’t deal in labels,” says DuBois. “He knows God’s grace is sufficient for him and beyond that doesn’t get into labels, evangelical or mainline. He’s a proud Christian.”
Loving God by loving your neighbor
When the Rev. Sharon Watkins and a group of fellow Protestant ministers sat down with Obama at the White House a couple years into the president’s term, she knew the pastors would get wonky about religion.
“You get a bunch of ministers in the room and we’re all church geeks – it’s theological,” says Watkins, who along with the other pastors had come to talk about poverty. “But the president got every biblical allusion and reference. … He’s just a person who is biblically and theologically literate.”
If Obama’s personal theology has grown more conservative, he is inclined to apply it toward liberal political ends.
“I’d be remiss if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends,” Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. “So instead, I must try - imperfectly, but I must try - to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation.”
In signing laws that have increased Wall Street regulations and stopped health insurance companies from rejecting patients with preexisting conditions, Obama said at the breakfast, he wanted to “make the economy stronger for everybody.”
“But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years,” he continued. “And I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
Obama went on to frame decisions as disparate as ending tax breaks for the wealthy and defending foreign aid as examples of biblical principles in action, quoting Jesus’ teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required” and invoking the “biblical call to care for the least of these.”
That last biblical reference also loomed large in another 2011 White House meeting between Obama and a group of religious leaders. They’d come to urge the president to protect programs for the poor amid his fight with Congress over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive activist, recalls the meeting:
In pressing Obama to take cuts to those programs off the table, one Roman Catholic bishop told the president that “the text that we are obliged to obey does not say ‘as you have done to the middle class you have done to me.’”
“It says as you’ve done to the least of these, you have done to me,” the bishop said.
“So there was this very rigorous conversation,” Wallis says, “and we pressed him on applying Matthew 25 to this decision about protecting those who were the least of these.”
Ultimately, the programs that the religious leaders were lobbying for were protected in the debt ceiling deal, though it’s unclear how big a role the religious leaders played.
For liberal Christians, such victories embody the justice of the social gospel, the idea that believers should do God’s work – even aid the Second Coming - by improving society.
“I do notice that sometimes, like on health care, when [Obama] says it’s the right thing to do, it’s him saying you love God by loving your neighbor,” says Watkins, who leads a mainline denomination called Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “He’s doing the best he can to be guided by God so he can be a faithful follower of Christ.”
Skeptics might write off Obama’s Bible talk as sanctimonious window dressing, aimed at no higher purpose than connecting with churchgoers in the purple and red states. But translating the Good Book into progressive politics has always been a mainstay of Obama’s political biography.
‘An awesome God in the blue states’
When Obama landed on Chicago’s South Side in 1985 as an idealistic 23-year-old, eager to start work as a community organizer, he was already a political liberal.
He was also a man without a religion, the son of a spiritual-but-not-religious mother whom he would later describe as “a lonely witness for secular humanism” and an estranged African father who was born a Muslim but died an atheist.
Obama’s work in Chicago, built around causes like tenants’ rights and job training for laid-off workers, was steeped in religion.
His salary was paid by a coalition of churches. And the job took him into many black churches, among the most influential institutions in the neighborhood he was organizing, including Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
After a lifelong struggle to fit in, set in motion by his mixed-race parents, Trinity felt like home.
“I came to realize that without a vessel for beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith,” he wrote later, “I would be consigned at some level to always remain apart.”
The changes that Wright’s church wrought weren’t just personal. Baptism and active membership there equipped Obama with an ability to connect with churchgoers he was trying to organize – and, years later, with religious voters he was trying to win over – in a deeper way.
Wright, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, gave Obama a moral framework for his liberal politics. The pastor espoused a black liberation theology that equates Jesus’ life and death with the plight of those who Wright saw as disenfranchised, from African-Americans to Palestinians.
“Wright is the religious version of almost everything Obama already believed without religion,” says Mansfield, who spent time at Trinity for his book. “It’s a support of oppressed people anywhere in the world.”
When Obama emerged on the national stage, his comfortable religiosity and sensitivity to the concerns of churchgoing Americans helped distinguish him as a Democrat.
“We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he declared to huge applause in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, catching the attention of young Christians like Joshua DuBois.
But at that same convention, Obama’s party nominated John Kerry, a candidate who eschewed God talk and who lost his own Catholic demographic on Election Day.
Four years later, Obama hired religious outreach staffers like DuBois for his presidential campaign and made a point of meeting with Christian Right leaders who’d never before heard from a Democratic presidential nominee.
Obama went on to win in places like Indiana and North Carolina, evangelical-heavy states that a Democratic presidential nominee hadn’t taken in decades.
If the Rev. Wright had almost brought down his presidential campaign, the controversial minister had also long ago laid the groundwork for Obama to connect with the churchgoing voters who had turned their backs on Kerry.
The politics of confusion
As president, the line between Obama’s personal convictions and his political prowess on religious matters can sometimes be hard to discern.
Obama invited the conservative evangelical megapastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his 2009 inauguration, ruffling liberal feathers. He introduced an annual Easter prayer breakfast as a new White House tradition. He gives shout-outs to young evangelical leaders in major speeches.
All can be seen as genuine reflections of Obama’s faith and his appreciation for the role of religious leaders in public life. And in a nation where more people believe in angels than in evolution - a fact that the president himself has publicly noted - all promise political benefits.
The same could be said for Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and for presidents as diverse as Jimmy Carter and Reagan: All had deep spiritual streaks that enabled the political art of courting religious Americans, especially evangelicals.
The irony, in Obama’s case, is that despite his orthodox utterances - there’s “something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective,” he said at this year's Easter breakfast - polls continue to show widespread confusion about his faith.
Only half the country can correctly identify Obama as Christian, according to one recent Pew poll, while 17% falsely believe he is a Muslim.
“He’s a Christian and he professes his Christian faith - I don’t know what else this man has to do to get that into folks’ ears,” says Caldwell, who was also close to George W. Bush.
But Obama’s public piety has helped him bond with young evangelical leaders, who are less tied to the GOP than their parents’ generation.
“I was struck by the specificity of what he described in terms of theology and what it means to him,” says Gabe Lyons, one such leader, describing a White House Easter breakfast he attended. “His message is very specific and very orthodox.”
Where exactly that new orthodoxy comes from – the pressures of the White House, a new circle of religious advisers or, to a certain degree, from political calculation – may become clearer after Obama's presidency, if he opens up about such matters.
Until then, the president is likely to keep speaking "Christianese" - and resisting Christian labels.
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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.
What a fraud. He is running scared and thinks he can get more votes. In the last 50 years he has practiced another faith and four years is going to change his beliefs? I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale. What a FRAUD!
What "other faith"? Are you daft?
You know, that sand-n1gger faith.
almost as big of a fraud as evangelists on tv making billions by suckering poor old people out of their money for a fake fictious sky fairy.
No, herbie, I don't know. What are you talking about?
Have you not noticed what the Presidency does to people? Every man who has held the office ages dramatically in those four years. ALL of them.
Notice how Obama isn't making loftily promises like in 2008 – an Romney is? I expect the office is a lot harder than it looks on the outside. I would be more surprised if a person DIDN'T have a spiritual change.
If you are a world leader and the sh1t hits the fan, who you gonna call?
What a total BS article.
What possible reason could there be for this article other than political propaganda by the left wing media in attempt to boost his image.
It is fact that Obama and Michelle sat in Jeremia Wright's black only church for 20 years. Eough said
N1ggers gonna n1g, they are capable of nothing more.
There is no evidence that Obamba and his family believe in God...
There is no evidence that there is a god.
Did you read the article? Or are you one of those people who just dismisses any evidence that is against what you've been told by others to believe?
Really? What would you consider evidence?
What does a Christian LOOK like?
I'm sorry, but the fact that our President is more strongly expressing his belief in any fairy tales is not at all comforting to me. And those of you who are so sure he's really a Muslim and only faking the Christianity, please stop listening to the obvious lies of people with agendas and start using your common sense.
I dont care if he is muslim, jew, christian, or other. Its all fake as a 3 dollar bill.
Whether you believe in God or not, the philosophy taught by Jesus is profoundly powerful and is actually much like the social philosophy held by most atheists.
Pilate was scared of the temple priests and compromised This is what happening even today.
Obama’s faith advisers?? How is that different from Reagan's Astrologer? Anyone who runs their lives in accordance with ancient fairy tales is an !d!ot...
smartest comment here
OMG CNN you must think the people who read your stuff are really stupid. We all know your in the tank for him and now your trying to tell us that he is a true christian??. Is this because Romney really is and he has to prove he is as religious as Romney. Give us a break and try journalism instead of puff pieces.
Most Christians I know would say Romney, as a Mormon, is not a Christian.
All Christians I know would say Obama is not a Christian. All Christians I know would argue about whether mormonism is a form of Christianity or not. There is no question Obama is no Christian though. Liar, yes. Christian, No.
More often than not, the definition of Christian for any single person is "Whoever agrees with me". The label Christian has become completely useless for saying anything about the person.
A tree is known by the fruit that it has, not by the fruit that it talks about! The man is not a Christian. He has a form of godliness but denies the power thereof. Don't fall for this. CNN will post anything to try to get the man some votes!
The power of God, can you feel it?
Feels like the power of your imagination doesn't it? Almost like your making the whole thing up right in your tiny little brain.
I believe the flip is a flop. And if you say Obama's gospel that's quite different saying the gospel of our lord. The greatist trick of the devil is to pretend he does not exist. I know its getting close to holloween but give me a break.
Did you just quote Usual Suspects?
Or Are you implying the president is the anti Christ? Cause that's like saying he's really The Joker or Lex Luthor. Your saying the president is really a fictional character. That's some real crazy right there lol. Grow up.
You can argue just as well that the greatest trick of god is to believe he does exist.
Well, he is a n1gger, and therefore not a human being at all, is that a fictional enough pResident for you?
So you are unable to see that humans come in a variety of skin colors? What are you, 13?
I like to believe that Obama is serious about his Chirstian faith. But when there is report that he is more likely to play golf on weekends than going to church, one must wonder how serious he is about his faith.
So because you go to church every sunday (and probably again during the week) anyone that doesnt go on sundays must be faking it. How hypocritical. Go be ashamed while you read the whole judge not lest ye be judged verse again.
#Brad: Why defend a n1gger? It doesn't help your own character out very much.
What nonsense. Obama is far from being a disciple of Christ. Did these pastors ever read the Bible!?! Jesus was very clear about what it means to be a Christan. This article must have been written before Obama's comercial encouraging teens to fornicate. What a disgrace!
Teens dont need anyone telling them to do it. They can figure it out for themselves.
He can call himself a Christian until Jesus comes, but as long as he's a Pro-Choice Baby Killing advocate there is no evidence to prove that he is one.
Um, at least one of your candidates supports killing babies. Oh wait, it's only certain ones, so that's OK, right?
I propose this,
Why dont we leave religion out of politics. I want an athiest that will do the right thing because it is the right thing. Not because some magic sky fairy is whispering in his ear.
Without a clear definition of what's right and what's wrong, your right could be my wrong and vice versa.
That's why we have laws, which are NOT based solely on what's "wrong" or "right" but are made to preserve and protect our rights and freedoms.
He quotes the Quran as if he himself wrote it... True Christian? HUGE FAIL!!
Exactly because a real christian only quotes the parts that their preacher tells them. I had a person tell me "the bible says never a borrower or lender be" I said, you moron that was shakespeare.
Yes, just everyone knows only the great Byron gets to decide who is a "true Christian". Spoken like a true contemporary arrogant and condescending evangelical.
What ever faith the Obamas have is just fine with me. At least they have a faith.
Mitt has no faith at all he straps dogs to the roof of his car. If he had a faith he would do have done such a thing. I am sure the animal lovers will vote for Obama and not Mitt anyways.
So ANY faith is okay with you? How about his FAITH on killing innocent babies to FULL TERM? That, my confused friend is SATANIC!! Bye, Bye, Barry; Bye Bye!
No what is satanic is letting babes be born to parents that dont want them and therefore will abuse and neglect them. but that is the republican way right.
Obama has eaten dog! Look it up. He voted against the BAIPA which protects babies from genocide!
His religion is IRRELEVANT.
It's the SOCIALISM that bothers us.
WE READ SAUL ALINSKY TOO. WE'RE NOT STUPID.
FACT: The Stock market has DOUBLED under Obama.
If that's socialism we need more of it LOL
In Reason I Trust:
I noticed a LOL ... This is NOT A JOKE; and your facts are so perverted its crazy!
Why would any one Vote for Romney "The Big Bush ?"
Yes Obama says he is Christian and believes in God. Well I think he believes in the wrong GOD because GOD didnt create the rectum to have a dick stuck in it!!!!
This is why you would vote for Romney:
23 million unemployed
43 million on food stamps
43 months of unemployment over 8%
1 trillion dollars spent on food stamps
16 trillion dollar in debt and increasing with no plan to mitigate it or reduce it
No federal budgets for three years
He was supposed to bring us together and has instead deeply divided the nation along race and religious lines
Failure to work with Congress to the benefit of Americans
13-16 million illegal aliens in country taking jobs away from Americans. With more on the way because of his amnesty program.
Benghazi fiasco – lying to the American people.
Implying that after he is re elected he will be free to do what ever he wants when he was talking with the Russian prime minister.
Fast & Furious program
Forcing ObamaCare down our throats
I could go on. Even the left wing Des Moines Register is endorsing Romney the first Republican since 1972.
This guy needs to go and then he can do his golf and make the TV show circuits or go back to what he is good at – a community organizer. Not that he never lived in the communities that he was organizing.
There is one's personal faith religion and there is one's primary "way of life".
President Obama and Mr.Romney both claim to be "religious christians",all be it speaking of different Christs.
But their primary way of life, their true "religion", is their desire to serve and magnify oneself....the belief in the freedom of their self-rights.
There is One Creation and One Creator.
Has any one of these men confessed to all nations that the Father and God of Christ is the ONE AND ONLY GOD and that Christ,His Son, is the One and Only True Way of Life?
No, because to do so would also confess that all other "gods" are false and that it is a sin to desire the freedom to worship the god of one's justification.
Christ said that we are to do the will of this One Father and not one's own will.
The return of Christ is at hand, for all men embrace the mark and image of this "god of fortresses, and Christ will rule as the One King with the One True Way of Life.
...this also means that there will not be any freedom of self-rights, of self-religions.
And the reason for your support of Israel comes out. There must be one for your end of times story to happen.
Remarking that the time of Christ's return is at hand is like saying the return of Shiva is at hand, the true Messiah has yet to arrive, or the hidden Imam sees all. Most faiths claim exclusivity and most claim their god the only one. Believing in any of them does not make them real.
The ONLY thing I want to know about a President's faith is that he's going to promise NOT to force others to be governed by it!
These wingers would truly have us go back to the days of burning Heretics. They're no different from the Taliban.
Then don't read the blog, lol.