The president at prayer

Was President Obama’s address at the National Prayer Breakfast candid, or calculated?

This is an important but tiresome debate. Television pundits questioned whether he was casting for votes, or confessing a belief.

The Boston Globe says it was a candid moment.

President Obama called his Christian faith “a sustaining force’’ in his life in an unusual speech yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he acknowledged persistent questions about his religion and offered perhaps his most detailed comments about his spiritual beliefs and practices.

Obama, who has faced a persistent number of Americans who incorrectly believe that he is a Muslim as well as questions about why he only occasionally attends church, described how he “came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and savior.’’

He acknowledged questions about his faith.

“My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years, all the more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time,’’ he said to a crowd of about 4,000 at the Washington Hilton hotel. “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.

That’s the really good news here, that the president says it matters to him whether he’s being true to his God.

He gave the assembled crowd insights into his personal faith struggles and formation.

He talked about his father, a “nonbeliever” whom he met just once. His mother grew up “with a certain skepticism about organized religion” and rarely took him to church. Yet she “was also one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew,” he said.

“She was somebody who was instinctively guided by the golden rule and who nagged me constantly about the homespun values of her Kansas upbringing, values like honesty and hard work, and kindness and fair play,” he said. “And it’s because of her that I came to understand the equal worth of all men and all women, and the imperatives of an ethical life, and the necessity to act on your beliefs.”

The claim that his mother nagged him with her homespun values sounds less than glowing. But even if it’s begruding attribution, it’s a rare moment to hear Obama talk about his mother, and her values. I don’t know about anyone else, but I missed hearing much at all about his mother, and the grandparents who raised him, throughout his campaign for high office and his two years of presidency.

Here’s what else 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,” he said. “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.”

I was thinking about Abraham Lincoln’s term in office, during which his belief in the Almighty grew, when I came upon this report on Obama’s remarks at the prayer breakfast.

He said that the presidency has affected his relationship with God. “These past two years, they have deepened my faith,” he said. And he compared his own prayer life in office to that of Abraham Lincoln, who famously said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” Obama said he is grateful to know that there are people in the country who pray for him, especially those who don’t agree with him.

Pray for him.


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