WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is not an overtly religious man. He and his family rarely attend church and he almost never elaborates in public about his relationship to his Christian faith.
But, far away from the public eye, his longtime advisers say, the president has carefully nurtured a sense of spirituality that has served as a grounding mechanism during turbulent times, when the obstacles to governing a deeply divided nation seem nearly insurmountable.
Every year on Aug. 4, the president’s birthday, Obama convenes a group of pastors by phone to receive their prayers for him for the year to come. During the most challenging of times, prayer circles are organized with prominent religious figures such as megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights activist.
And each morning, for the past five years, before most of his aides even arrive at the White House, Obama has read a devotional written for him and sent to his BlackBerry, weaving together biblical scripture with reflections from literary figures like Maya Angelou and C.S. Lewis.
“I’ve certainly seen the president’s faith grow in his time in office,” said Joshua DuBois, an informal spiritual adviser to Obama who writes the devotionals and ran Obama’s faith-based office until earlier this year. “When you cultivate your faith, it grows.”
Obama is particularly moved by theories that draw connections between biblical themes and the personal journeys of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., DuBois said. He added that the president’s spiritual strength is his belief that God will carry him through to see another day — even amid crises like the debt-and-spending debacle that ensnared Washington for a month.
“Because of these grounding aspects of his life, he doesn’t let the day-to-day challenges really shake him,” said DuBois, a former associate pastor at a Pentecostal church.
The image of Obama as someone who draws heavily on faith to guide his daily life contrasts with his public persona.
An intensely private person, Obama has shied away from all but the most general descriptions of his spiritual life. After all, Obama had to distance himself from his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when Wright’s fiery speeches threatened Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. And persistent, false claims that Obama is secretly a Muslim have followed him even into his second term.
“Sometimes I search scripture to determine how best to balance life as a president and as a husband and as a father,” Obama said in February at the National Prayer Breakfast. “I often search for scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better president.”
The best clues to which texts fortify Obama’s spiritual consumption may come from the daily devotionals that DuBois started sending Obama, then a U.S. senator, in 2008. DuBois ran religious outreach for Obama’s presidential campaign that year and his digital benedictions for Obama have been compiled in a forthcoming book, The President’s Devotional.
“A snippet of scripture for me to reflect on,” Obama has described it. “And it has meant the world to me.”
At pivotal moments in Obama’s presidency, DuBois sometimes selects texts that offer lessons apropos the challenges at hand. Before one State of the Union address, it was the words of Isaiah, in an appeal for clarity of speech: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
Others are intended as an oasis from the worldly conflicts Obama has to weather on any given day.“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair,” reads a verse from 2 Corinthians that DuBois sent Obama one November, followed with his own
meditation: “Dear God, give us a resilient spirit, a spirit that returns to face this day even in the shadow of yesterday’s challenges. Help us, today, to bounce back.”
In his final years in office, Obama plans to continue with the morning meditations, the birthday call with pastors and ad hoc prayer circles, said a senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name on Obama’s spiritual life and requested anonymity. Privately, Obama also speaks to staff of being mindful of his own spiritual responsibility to the nation, the official said. In times of crisis, from devastating hurricanes to tragic school shootings, many Americans look to their president as a source of strength and comfort.
“This office tends to make a person pray more,” Obama said last year in an interview with Cathedral Age magazine. “And as President Lincoln once said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”