Obama's spirituality is largely private, but it's influential, advisers say

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Every morning, sometimes as early as 5:30 a.m., a short religious passage comes across President Obama's BlackBerry, sent by one of his aides.

At other moments, Obama prays privately, his advisers said. And when he takes his family to Camp David on the weekends, a Navy chaplain ministers to them, with the daughters attending a form of Sunday school there.

More than a year into his presidency, Obama has not chosen a church in Washington, and has attended services just four times. No single figure has assumed the role of spiritual adviser -- publicly, at least -- or filled the vacancy created when Obama disavowed his former Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

When Obama appears at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday morning -- a regular presidential ritual -- it will mark the rare occasion when he puts religion in the foreground. In that appearance, he will discuss "the need for civility in the public square, and how Americans can work together in a spirit of goodwill," a senior administration official said.

Yet close advisers to the president said the role of faith, while subtle, has been noticeable in and around the Obama White House. One senior official described the president as "a prayerful guy." Another said that Obama has consulted religious leaders less often for his own personal guidance than for help walking through major public decisions -- such as during the Afghanistan review process, when he sought advice on the ethical implications of war.

A third senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, said Obama's private religious beliefs have helped sustain his temperament during trying times in office. "Part of that even temperament comes from his faith which is an important component," Jarrett said. Asked why the public did not hear much about his faith during his first year in office, she nodded and said, "He's had a lot on his plate."

The president made that point in his appearance at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in late January, speaking in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Declaring occasional frustration with the Oval Office, he said, "There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts.

"But let me tell you -- during those times it's faith that keeps me calm. It's faith that gives me peace."

The "daily devotionals" Obama receives via e-mail from Joshua Dubois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offer him a line to that faith, officials said.

The messages come from "a range of sources," an official said -- sometimes a passage of Scripture or, on an upbeat day, a psalm. At other times the daily message will come from a book that Dubois thinks the president would enjoy. More than once the devotional has been culled from the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who wrote extensively on the "just war" theory, which Obama has cited in his thinking about Afghanistan and in his Nobel prize acceptance speech. Other devotionals come from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which Obama was given as a gift at last year's prayer breakfast.

This year, Obama will "stress the importance of an openness to compromise and differing perspectives," a senior official said, and will discuss the need "to disagree without being disagreeable and to step out of our comfort zones to bridge divides." First lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jarrett are also scheduled to attend.

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