President Barack Obama rarely goes to church and has spent just one Christmas morning of his presidency in the pews.
But that’s not for lack of faith, members of his small circle of religious confidants say. While church isn’t a regular part of Obama’s life, prayer and reflection are, whether he’s meeting with ministers in the Oval Office or spending a few minutes reading an inspirational passage. And, if anything, they argue, his connection with God has intensified during his time in the White House.
“The president’s faith has deepened in the second term; he’s said as much,” said Joshua DuBois, a longtime spiritual adviser to Obama who led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the president’s first term.
“The president’s Christian faith is not connected to or dependent upon anyone else’s beliefs about him, any particular policy issue, any moment in the news cycle or anything else,” DuBois said. “The president’s faith existed long before the While House and will continue after he closes the door to the White House for the last time.”
Critics say that wouldn’t be readily apparent from watching his public comings and goings. After disavowing his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and leaving Wright’s Chicago church during the 2008 campaign, Obama was widely expected to seek out a church in Washington that he’d attend with some frequency. Instead, he’s attended Sunday services only occasionally, visiting a patchwork of congregations 19 times in all since taking office, according to a POLITICO analysis of White House pool reports.
But the president embraces his faith in other ways, people who see this private side of him say.
DuBois, an ordained Pentecostal minister, and Joel Hunter, a Florida megachurch pastor, are Obama’s two closest religious advisers. A larger circle — which includes evangelical activist Jim Wallis and civil rights movement leader Joseph Lowery, among others — marks the president’s birthday each year, and many in the same group attend the Easter Prayer Breakfast and other White House events throughout the year. Keeping up a practice that DuBois began during the 2008 campaign, they also send Obama daily devotionals — prayers, poems and other messages — that he reads on his BlackBerry.
“Reading scripture every day yields a certain amount of personal growth, and he’s done this every day for years,” Hunter said. At prayer breakfasts and other gatherings, Hunter has seen “a man who really enjoys talking about his faith” and who “seems at home.”
“It’s a good indication that he is growing in his faith,” he added.
Though Obama rarely discusses his faith, he has made clear that, if nothing else, being president has made him more attentive to it.
“I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what [Abraham] 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,’” he said at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, drawing on a quotation attributed to the 16th president, though Lincoln may not have actually said it.
“The pressures of the office tend to lead presidents toward prayer. Those who have a reservoir of piety and theological understanding will draw on that, dip into that,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and author of “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.”
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