President Obama offered a detailed glimpse into the role of prayer in his life during a speech Thursday that was at turns humorous, news-driven, a bit defensive, and deeply introspective.
The president, who has been criticized in some quarters for rarely being seen going to church, admitted “my faith journey has had its twists and turns.” But speaking in Washington at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama said his Christian faith has “been a sustaining force for me over these last few years.”
In sketching his religious history, Mr. Obama said his father – “who I barely knew and I only met once” – was said to be a nonbeliever. The president called his mother, on the other hand, “one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew.” But, he noted, she “grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion, and she usually only took me to church on Easter and Christmas – sometimes.” Still, he said, his mother’s example of living the golden rule meant that “my earliest inspirations for a life of service ended up being the faith leaders of the civil rights movement.”
Obama said the call of civil rights leaders “to fix what was broken in our world, 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." He went on, "It was through that experience – working with pastors and lay people, 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.”
There was fatherly humor when Obama said that one subject for prayer was his 12-year-old daughter Malia. “Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance. Where there will be boys. Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels – to that dance," he said to widespread audience laughter.
The president touched on two key topics in the news. Astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, spoke at the gathering and talked about her recovery from the Jan. 8 shooting. "God is with them for the long haul,” the president said. And referring to the political upheaval in the Middle East, he said, “We pray that the violence in Egypt will end and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized.”
But most of the speech focused on Obama’s own prayer life. He made it clear that he and Mrs. Obama found it difficult when others questioned their faith. An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans (18 percent) say Mr. Obama is a Muslim. Only about one-third of adults say he is a Christian. And 43 percent of his fellow citizens say they do not know what Obama's religion is.
Perhaps speaking to those individuals, he said his faith has been a sustaining force “all the more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time." He added, "We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us, but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to our God.”
While his religious activities may not be as visible as some other presidents, Obama said the chapel at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, “has provided constant respite and fellowship.” And he noted that Joshua DuBois, a minister who is the director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, “starts my morning off with meditations from the Scripture.”
What does the president pray for? “I petition God for a whole range of things” he said, but cited three recurring themes. “The first category of prayer comes out of the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling,” he said.
A second theme “is a prayer for humility,” he said. And, to audience laughter and applause he added, “God answered this prayer for me early on by having me marry Michelle, because whether it's reminding me of a chore undone or questioning the wisdom of watching my third football game in a row on Sunday, she keeps me humble.”
The final theme to his prayers, the president said, “one that binds all prayers together, is that I might walk closer with God and make that walk my first and most important task.” In expanding on that theme, he said, “When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people. And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to forgive me my sins and look after my family and the American people and make me an instrument of His will.”