President Obama used an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday to reaffirm his faith at a time when Republican critics have accused him of a “war on religion,” telling an audience of religious leaders that his policies are grounded in his Christian beliefs.
Obama, speaking to 3,000 people at the Washington Hilton, used passages from the Bible to make the case that his push for a more equitable economy is rooted in a long-honored value system. And he suggested that his proposal to increase taxes on wealthier Americans is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
“For me, as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’ ” Obama said. “It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.”
As he has done in recent speeches, Obama emphasized that theme of economic fairness, aiming to draw a contrast with Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor caused a stir Wednesday when he said in a CNN interview that he was “not concerned about the very poor” because they have a safety net in place.
“I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’” Obama said. “I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs -– from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.”
Some conservative leaders reacted with disappointment to Obama’s remarks, saying that the president had chosen to politicize the event.
Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition said that for the president to tie his tax policy to Jesus’s teachings “is theologically threadbare and straining credulity.”
“I felt like it was over the line and not the best use of the forum,” Reed said. “It showed insufficient level of respect for what the office of the president has historically brought to that moment.”
Obama’s administration has been under fire from Catholic leaders and Republican presidential candidates for its decision to require religious organizations, other than churches, to abide by new rules mandated by the Affordable Care Act to pay health-care insurers to cover contraception for women. At a rally Tuesday night, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Obama was “declaring war on the Catholic Church.”
The president did not directly address those critics during the prayer breakfast. But on the White House blog Wednesday evening, Cecilia Munoz, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, defended the policy. Munoz noted that most Catholic women have used contraception and that 28 states already require contraception coverage.
“The Obama Administration is committed to both respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services,” Munoz wrote. “And as we move forward, our strong partnerships with religious organizations will continue.”
During his remarks, Obama encouraged those attending to pursue their values and common ground “with respect for each other.”
“I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates,” he said.
The president also recounted his own path to faith after growing up in a household “that wasn’t particularly religious.” He said he begins each morning with a prayer, and he concluded with a personal anecdote about a day when, while vacationing as president in North Carolina, he made a pilgrimage to a mountaintop retreat to visit the Rev. Billy Graham, who was 91 years old at the time.
Graham prayed for Obama, the president recalled, and then Obama returned the favor.
“I didn’t really know what to say,” Obama said. “What do you pray for when it comes to the man who has prayed for so many? But like that verse in Romans, the Holy Spirit interceded when I didn’t know quite what to say. And so I prayed — briefly, but I prayed from the heart.”
He added: “I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment — asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong.”