By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; A02
As he flew aboard Air Force One to Chicago on his 49th birthday earlier this month, President Obama dialed three Christian pastors to pray with him.
On an airborne conference call, he kidded with the religious leaders about being abandoned by his wife and daughters, who were away on vacation and at camp. As he celebrated his birthday, he was in a reflective mood. He told them he wanted to pray about the year that had passed, what's really important in life and the challenges ahead.
"That was simply something that he wanted to do at his initiative because it was important to him," said Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor who was on the call and who is part of a small circle of spiritual advisers who frequently talk to Obama by phone.
The prayer session, which was not publicized and which neither the White House nor the ministers sought to bring to light, reflects Obama's decision to keep his public expressions of religious faith to a minimum. Hunter said the president often reaches out to pastors for private spiritual conversation.
Hunter, who is the pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, also advised Obama's predecessor. George W. Bush routinely invoked his own Christian faith in public. Hunter said that Obama's reluctance to do so may help explain the results of a Pew Research Center poll released this week that revealed a sizable increase in the number of people who falsely think that Obama is a Muslim.
Since October 2008, the percentage of Americans who say the president is a Muslim has risen from 12 percent to 18 percent. The percentage of people who think he is a Christian has fallen from 51 percent to 34 percent. The polling data indicated that those who identified themselves as conservative Republicans were most likely to say that he is a Muslim.
"That's the downside of not wanting to expose what is personal to the political arena," Hunter said in an interview. It "leaves all kinds of room for speculation and conspiracy and people who are just not informed."
"You know what happens with a vacuum?" he said."It gets filled."
As the story churned on the Internet and made the rounds of cable news talk shows Thursday, deputy press secretary Bill Burton was left to insist to reporters that the president is indeed a Christian.
"He has spoken about his faith extensively in the past. You can bet that he'll talk about his faith again," Burton said.
Obama's predecessors needed to make no such assurances. Bush made frequent references to his faith. In a Republican debate with John McCain in 2000, Bush was asked what "political philosopher or thinker" he identified with most. He answered: "Christ, because he changed my heart."
Bill Clinton attended church regularly at the Foundry United Methodist Church, a few blocks from the White House.
When the Obamas moved to Washington, the president said he hoped to find a church to attend. But in an interview this spring, he said he would not join a church in the Washington area. Instead, he said, he would pray privately, read spiritual devotionals on his BlackBerry in the morning and occasionally attend services with his family at the private Camp David chapel.
"What we've decided for now is not to join a single church, and the reason is because Michelle and I have realized we are very disruptive to services," Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer in March.
Joshua DuBois, the president's chief faith adviser in the White House, said Obama and his family have gone to services at several churches.
The president attended the National Prayer Breakfast this year and last, and has given several speeches in which he talked about his faith. At an Easter breakfast this year, Obama talked about his belief in Jesus's resurrection.
"We are awed by the grace he showed even to those who would have killed him," the president told the crowd of Christian leaders. "We are thankful for the sacrifice he gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection."
But outside of those formal events, Obama tends to reserve religious expression for private moments.
Hunter recalled one such moment this year, when the president called to ask about Hunter's sick granddaughter. "He said he and Michelle were praying for us," Hunter said. " 'Remember, the Lord is with you on this,' he said. Those things never get publicized."
Dubois said the president does not intend to suddenly practice his faith in public in an effort to counter misperceptions.
"The president's spiritual life, his Christian walk, is something that is important to him not for communications reasons or political reasons," DuBois said. "We're not going to shift course in any way on the basis of a short-term event."
Hunter said the White House is wise to avoid being dragged into an artificial religiosity that would not suit the president.
"The worst thing you can do is overreact to this and get all religious publicly," he said.
But he added that the president should think about ways in which he can appropriately convey the depth of his faith to the portion of the public that wants to hear it.
"He needs to, in the course of normal conversation, and when it's relevant to the conversation, be a little more transparent about his very active engagement in his own spiritual formation," Hunter said. "You don't publicize them artificially. But he can be more transparent about what really is his spiritual life."