The President at the Prayer Breakfast on his Christian Faith

There have been many Christians, sadly, who have violated the basic Christian rule of ‘in all things charity’  when it comes to evaluating the Christian faith of our President.   It continues to be questioned,  unfairly, again and again, perhaps because of his name, perhaps because of his race, perhaps because of who his father was.  Whatever the reason,  any person who self-identifies persistently as a Christian,  and at personal cost to him with various audiences (there were actually protests against his going to this prayer breakfast),  needs to be taken seriously and at his word, giving that person the benefit of the doubt.  We, unlike God, do not look upon a person’s heart, nor see what is in it.   Here are some of the things the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast today as reported by Lucy Madison,  Julie Pace, and others.

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The president spoke about his own experience with faith, which he said his experience as president had strengthened.

“The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray,” Mr. Obama quipped. “Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”

He also opened up about his experience finding his faith, which he called a “sustaining force” in his life.

Noting that he “did not come from a particularly religious family,” Mr. Obama said it was faith leaders of the civil rights movement who had initially inspired his life of service – but that his experience as a community organizer in Chicago inspired his Christian faith.

“A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the south side of Chicago,” Mr. Obama said. “It was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my lord and savior.”

He added that one of the major themes among his prayers was humility – a prayer which he said God had answered early on “by having me marry Michelle.”

Obama said he had prayed for God’s intervention on any number or occasions, not always on the weightiest issues of the day.

At one point, the president said he has prayed, “Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance, where there will be boys. Lord, let her skirt get longer as she travels to that place.” Twelve-year-old Malia is the older of his two daughters. Sasha is 9.

Speaking more seriously, Mr. Obama said that as a politician, it was sometimes helpful to “go back to scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers.”

“The challenge I find, then, is to balance this uncertainty, this humility with the need to fight for deeply held convictions, to be open to other points of view, but firm in our core principles,” he continued. “And I pray for this wisdom every day.”

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  • MF

    On the whole, I’m with you. He self-identifies as a Christian, he has a plausible claim to it, and we should be fine referring to him as one. Now whether he is part of the “invisible church” or just the “visible church,” as it were, is not apparent to me, nor can we have complete certainty there anyway.

    There’s a fascinating and detailed interview with Obama on his religious views from 2004 when he was running for the Senate that you might be interested in.

    Here’s an exchange about Jesus and spiritual disciplines:

    Who’s Jesus to you?

    (He laughs nervously)


    Jesus is an historical figure for me, and he’s also a bridge between God and man, in the Christian faith, and one that I think is powerful precisely because he serves as that means of us reaching something higher.

    And he’s also a wonderful teacher. I think it’s important for all of us, of whatever faith, to have teachers in the flesh and also teachers in history.

    Is Jesus someone who you feel you have a regular connection with now, a personal connection with in your life?

    Yeah. Yes. I think some of the things I talked about earlier are addressed through, are channeled through my Christian faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    Have you read the bible?


    I read it not as regularly as I would like. These days [on the campaign trail] I don’t have much time for reading or reflection, period.

    Do you try to take some time for whatever, meditation prayer reading?

    I’ll be honest with you, I used to all the time, in a fairly disciplined way. But during the course of this campaign, I don’t. And I probably need to and would like to, but that’s where that internal monologue, or dialogue I think supplants my opportunity to read and reflect in a structured way these days.

    It’s much more sort of as I’m going through the day trying to take stock and take a moment here and a moment there to take stock, why am I here, how does this connect with a larger sense of purpose.

    And here’s another on heaven and sin:

    Do you believe in heaven?

    Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?

    A place spiritually you go to after you die?

    What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.

    When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.

    Do you believe in sin?


    What is sin?

    Being out of alignment with my values.

    What happens if you have sin in your life?

    I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.

  • Joshua Smart

    Professor Witherington,

    Presumably the scope of “all things” allows for meta-application. That is to say, it would be nice to see more charity in the attempt to explain why some Christians are being uncharitable.

    You provide three speculations as to the reasons why some might doubt that the president is in earnest about his faith, the which are various types of bigotry. But it is easy to provide–for both distrusting the president’s word, and for actively attributing irreligious-ness to the President–at least one general and one particular reason likely to be held by doubters (provided as a post script).

    I do not mean to endorse any of these reasons, but it remains that they are obvious concerns that are had by some that have nothing to do with the president’s race or heritage. I only provide them to show that the president’s detractors need be bigoted as much as the president need be a liar about his faith.

    Joshua Smart

    General distrust: Christians are a large block of voters and politicians are notoriously willing to adapt their convictions to obtain large blocks of voters.

    Specific distrust: The president chose a Chicago church that, while politically expedient, was rather theologically suspect to say the least. In justifying this choice he claimed that he did not pay attention.

    General Attribution: Whether it’s a good thing or not, faith and politics are bound rather tightly together in the US, with evangelicals tending hard toward the conservative *in part because they see the policies of the left as inherently un-Christian.*

    Specific Attribution: Obama has specifically endorsed such policies and groups which promote them (e.g. pro-choice groups, ACLU, etc.).

  • James Partridge

    I believe the president is in his heart allegiant to the god of islam (a muslim in spirit) while for purposes of political expediency he confesses to being a Christ-ian. Being brief about this subject is difficult. But the inner man is known by his fruit. Therefore the spirit of a man is known only by his words, for they are of (out from) either the spirit of Satan the thief (John 10:10 part “a”), or they are of (out from) the Spirit of Holy God (John 10:10 part “b”). Ones words illustrate/manifest (John 6:63) ones spirit, either manifesting life John 14:6 and light John 8:12 with 1st John 2:10, or manifesting darkness 1st John 2:9 & 11 and 3:15… One cannot be for one and not be against the other (Luke 11:23)…