We see an aging parent wither under a long illness, or we lose a daughter or a husband in Afghanistan, we watch a gunman open fire in a supermarket -- and we remember how fleeting life can be. And we ask ourselves how have we treated others, whether we’ve told our family and friends how much we love them. And it’s in these moments, when we feel most intensely our mortality and our own flaws and the sins of the world, that we most desperately seek to touch the face of God. – President Barack Obama, February 3, 2011
In a time of political and social turmoil around the world and divisiveness at home, as the world watched street protests and the march for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, and as the United States continued to recover from the tragic shooting in Tucson, the President took a moment this past week to speak from the heart. For the past sixty years, ever since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House, our presidents have attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. This year was no exception and it permitted an opportunity for President Obama to speak thoughtfully and passionately about his personal faith journey, his closeness to God, and his belief in the power of prayer to provide comfort and guidance. The speech, which was both humorous and moving, should finally put to rest any lingering questions regarding the authenticity or sincerity of the president’s faith, which goes far deeper than the majority of U.S. presidents over the past century.
Obama spoke publicly “as a fellow believer” and as one who entered public service through his work on behalf of churches. He acknowledged as a child that he was exposed to very little organized religion and that he “did not come from a particularly religious family.” His father, whom he had met only once his entire life, and then only for a month, was “a non-believer throughout his life.” The president’s mother, who wielded great influence on Obama as a child, and whose Midwestern values remain embedded in his soul, was the product of Baptist and Methodist parents. But she “grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion” and, like many apathetic and agnostic Christians, took young Barack Obama to church, if at all, only on Easter and Christmas. Despite her skepticism, however, she also was a very spiritual person, “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.”
It was through his mother that Obama learned to value equality between men and women, the imperative of living an ethical life, and of acting on one’s beliefs. And “despite the absence of a formal religious upbringing,” he was inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many prominent Christian leaders of the civil rights movement who sought to “transform a nation through the force of love.” He also was influenced by more ecumenical leaders, such as Father Theodore Hesburg and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose “call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith,” led Obama to become a community organizer and to work on behalf of “a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago.” From this experience, “working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods," did Obama come "to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior.”
Like many of us, Obama’s “faith journey has had its twists and turns.” Along the way, “[i]n the wake of failures and disappointments, I've questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.” As with President Lincoln, who knelt often in prayer when faced with the daily pressures of saving a nation at war with itself, Obama’s Christian faith “has been a sustaining force" during his time in office. In addition to prayer, he finds “consistent respite and fellowship” at the Chapel at Camp David and starts his mornings with “meditations from Scripture.”
At the prayer breakfast, the president subtly alluded to his critics; “when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, 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.” He emphasized, however, the uniting force of faith. He referred to Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican who disagrees with Obama on most issues, as “not only a dear friend but also a brother in Christ. . . . Even though we are on opposite sides of a whole bunch of issues, part of what has bound us together is a shared faith, a recognition that we pray to and serve the same God.”
As Obama travels around the country, he is often asked what he prays for. While he resorts to prayer on a host of issues (one of which concerns the length of Malia’s dresses), a few “common themes” recur. One arises from “the urgency of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel itself. I pray for my ability to help those who are struggling. Christian tradition teaches that . . . we're called to work on behalf of a God that chose justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable.” He spoke of those who have lost their jobs and struggle to take care of their families; people in pain, who have suffered a loss of self-esteem, or worse, their homes and access to affordable health care. He knows that, as president, he cannot help everyone, and that fixing the economy and seeking peace takes time and patience. But as he moves forward, “it is my faith [and the] biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed.”
The president talked proudly of the many churches, synagogues, and faith-based organizations that work every day to solve human problems, but noted that there are limits to what private charities can do. “Now, sometimes faith groups can do the work of caring for the least of these on their own; sometimes they need a partner, whether it’s in business or government.” As an example, he discussed the work of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an initiative started under President George W. Bush, and which under Obama is working to expand “the way faith groups can partner with our government. . . . helping them feed more kids who otherwise would go hungry. . . . helping fatherhood groups get dads the support they need to be there for their children. . . . [and] working with non-profits to improve the lives of people around the world.” And while such work must be “aligned with our constitutional principles,” it also should be rooted in “notions of partnership and justice and the imperatives to help the poor.”
The nature and scope of some problems necessarily require a more active public involvement, for “in a caring and . . . just society, government must have a role to play.”
[T]here are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need -- all those who need help making a mortgage payment, or avoiding foreclosure, or making sure their child can go to college. There’s only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need.
And that's why I continue to believe . . . that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.
This is, of course, an area that distinguishes philosophically the president and most Democrats from many Republicans, who place greater emphasis on acts of charity and resist the role of government as compassionate benefactor. It is a debate that goes to the heart of our democracy and the role of government. There is certainly room for principled disagreement. But there is no room to question the president’s faith, or patriotism, or love of country. Perhaps this is why the president also spoke of the importance and need for humility. For however polarized and divisive our politics may become, it is always “useful to go back to Scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers -- none of us, no matter what our political party or our station in life.”
“The full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God’s hands. And there are some mysteries in this world we cannot fully comprehend.” It is this challenge, then, the need to balance uncertainty and humility and to be open to other points of view, with the need to fight for what is right and to remain committed to one’s deeply held convictions, which forms the core of our democracy and underlies the president’s need for prayer. Only by constant “reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God” can Americans travel forward together.
At the conclusion of his speech, the president noted that, while he hopes his prayers will be answered, he knows “that the act of prayer itself is a source of strength. It’s a reminder that our time on Earth is not just about us; that when we open ourselves to the possibility that God might have a larger purpose for our lives, there’s a chance that somehow, in ways that we may never fully know, God will use us well.” Amen, Mr. President.