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President Obama delivered an intense reflection on his Christian faith Thursday, telling hundreds gathered at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington how religion sustains him amid the trials of the office -- and against attacks on his faith -- and providing both an explanation and a defense of how Christianity informs his view of the bitterly contested role of government in society.
In elaborating on the practices and tenets of his personal faith life -- something the president is increasingly doing to combat suspicions that he is not a Christian or a genuine believer -- Obama said his daily prayer has deepened during the travails of the first two years of his term.
And the first thing he prays for, he said, is "to help those who are struggling."
The president said he grounds that prayer in the biblical injunctions of the Old Testament prophets and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and explained how the Scripture-based struggle for social justice by churches on the South Side of Chicago first brought him into public service.
That combination of faith and activism, he said, continues to shape his political outlook and his approach to the economic challenges facing the country. While reiterating his support for government promotion of faith-based initiatives, Obama argued that goodwill and good intentions are too limited by the resources and expertise of private groups.
"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," the president told the politicos and pastors gathered at the Washington Hilton. "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 in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; 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."
Obama pointed out that the role of government in these areas has sparked fierce debates "as one side's version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom."
That is why, he said, the second thing he prays for is humility.
"God answered the prayer early on by having me marry Michelle," he said, one of several lighthearted asides that drew laughter. (The president also said he prayed that the hem on his daughter Malia's dress would grow longer as he watched her head off to her first dance.)
But humility is especially important in politics, he said, "when debates have become so bitter," because we must recognize that "none of us has all the answers." He repeatedly cited Scripture to reinforce his belief that only God has perfect knowledge.
"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. And I pray for this wisdom every day," he continued.
"I pray that God will show me and all of us the limits of our understanding and open our ears and our hearts to our brothers and sisters with different points of view, that such reminders of our shared hopes and our shared dreams and our shared limitations as children of God will reveal a way forward that we can travel together."
That message played into the theme of civility in public life that has been a constant trope for Obama, but one that has gained prominence and urgency since last month's shooting rampage in Tucson that killed six people -- one of them a 9-year-old girl -- and left 13 wounded, including the accused shooter's prime target, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Obama's sermon-like speech at a memorial service in Tucson a few days later was very well-received, and many conservatives singled out for praise the president's biblically inspired message.
Giffords, who survived a bullet through the brain, is currently in a rehabilitation facility in Houston, and on Thursday her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, provided the emotional coda to an intense morning by offering the closing prayer.
(Also addressing this year's gathering were Braveheart writer and director of Secretariat Randall Wallace, who spoke of relying on his faith when the Writers Guild strike left him out of work, and Jose Henriquez, one of 32 Chilean miners trapped underground last year, who said they all relied on God to survive the ordeal.)
Kelly gave the gathering an upbeat assessment on Giffords, who is known as Gabby, saying she continues to improve daily, though he provided no specifics on her physical or cognitive capacities. He focused his remarks on the suffering that his family and other families and the entire Tucson community have endured since the Jan. 8 shooting at an event in a shopping mall where Giffords was planning to meet constituents and field their questions.
Christina-Taylor Green was the 9-year-old who had come to the event to learn more about politics and was killed by the spray of fire from alleged shooter Jared Loughner's semi-automatic pistol.
Kelly said that before the tragedy he didn't believe in fate or any larger purpose to life.
"I thought the world just spins and the clock just ticks and things happen for no particular reason," he said. But he said he told his wife the other day, "Maybe it's possible this is just one small part of that same plan." Kelly said that the outpouring of love and prayers, and in particular his visit to the impromptu memorial set up outside the hospital where she was being treated, had changed his outlook.
"[I]t was like stepping into a church, a place with heaven itself as its ceiling," Kelly said of the memorial. And he said it reminded him that you don't need a church or a mosque or a temple to pray. "You pray where you are. You pray when God is there in your heart." And prayer, Kelly said, is not just asking of God. It is listening for answers and expressing gratitude, "which I've done a lot lately."
Kelly echoed the wish of his twin brother, Scott, who is also an astronaut and is currently orbiting the Earth on the international space station, that if any good comes of this tragedy it would be that Americans would "learn to work together."
He said that "maybe something good can come of all this. Maybe it's our responsibility to see that something does."
For Obama, the prayer breakfast remarks were in a sense the Christian version of his State of the Union address, a speech in which the president sought to underscore his belief in the civil religion of national greatness known as "American exceptionalism."
Polls show many Americans don't believe that Obama shares their view that America "has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world," and Republicans and conservative activists have exploited that gap.
On Thursday, Obama sought to close the other "God gap" he faces, the one that shows that as many as one in five Americans believe he is a Muslim, a number that spiked last year, and just 34 percent identified him as a Christian despite his numerous speeches on faith and his regular invocation of Scripture.
"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," Obama said in explaining how he deals with critics who raise doubts about his beliefs.
Yet he also provided a detailed map of his own spiritual journey. As Michael Scherer noted at Time's "Swampland" blog, Obama used the first-person pronoun "I" 44 times in this year's prayer breakfast address as opposed to 15 times in 2009 and 10 times in 2010.
In his remarks, Obama explained that he met his Kenyan father, who was not a believer, just once. And his own mother, who raised Obama, was brought up a Baptist in Kansas but shunned organized religion for the most part, taking young Barack to church on Easter and Christmas, though otherwise not with any regularity.
Still, Obama described his mother, Ann Dunham, as "one of the most spiritual people I've ever known." He said she inculcated into her son the "homespun values" of her Midwestern roots and the ideas of helping those less fortunate and always doing right by others.
That view drew him to community organizing work with churches in his 20s, "and 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 said in a testimonial that drew applause.
His faith journey since then "has had its twists and turns," he said. "It hasn't always been a straight line. In 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."
"The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray," he added, drawing laughs.
But he said that faith "reminds me that in spite of being one very imperfect man I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can for as long as I can and that somehow God will buttress these efforts."
The White House denied that the president's remarks on Thursday were part of an orchestrated plan to put his faith before the public, and certainly Obama has spoken eloquently at times about his Christian convictions. But for security reasons, Obama, like most recent presidents, has not joined a church in Washington. He and his family have attended services a few times in recent months, however, and a number of his spiritual advisers have pushed him to recover the prophetic voice of his campaign days.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida minister who is close to the president and was consulted about parts of Obama's Thursday speech, says he has encouraged the president to open up about his faith.
"He needs to openly declare himself a Christian and not settle for people's skepticism at that point," the Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent Florida evangelical church leader who is close to the president, told CNN. "All of us ought to be able to say who we are and be taken for our word. It's frustrating because he still has some people questioning his faith." Hunter said he has encouraged Obama to open up about his faith.
Indeed, Obama cited Hunter, as well as Dallas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes and his own faith-based coordinator, Joshua Dubois, a Pentecostal clergyman, as part of his personal prayer circle.
He closed his remarks by citing a third category of prayer, but the one that he said was most important: "That I might walk closer with God and make that my first and most important task."
"When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and our people," Obama said. "And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord and I ask him to forgive me my sins and to look after my family and to make me an instrument of the Lord."
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