In this Oct. 17, 2013, photo, President Barack Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Regrouping after a feud with Congress stalled his agenda, Obama is laying down a three-item to-do list for Congress that seems meager when compared to the bold, progressive agenda he envisioned at the start of his second term. But given the capitals partisanship, the complexities of the issues and the limited time left, even those items - immigration, farm legislation and a budget - amount to ambitious goals that will take political muscle, skill and ever-elusive compromise to execute. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama isn’t an overtly religious man. He and his family rarely attend church. He almost never elaborates in public about his own relationship to his Christian faith.
But away from the public eye, his advisers say the president has nurtured a spirituality that’s served to help ground him during turbulent times.
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.
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 Scripture with reflections from literary figures such as Maya Angelou and C.S. Lewis.
“I’ve certainly seen the president’s faith grow in his time in office,” says 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 such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., DuBois says.
He says the president’s spiritual strength comes from his belief that God will carry him through to see another day even in times of crisis.
“Because of these grounding aspects of his life, he doesn’t let the day-to-day challenges really shake him,” says DuBois, 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 from all but the most general descriptions of his spiritual life.
He distanced himself from his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when the Chicago pastor’s anti-American rantings threatened Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Persistent and 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 might come from the daily devotionals DuBois started sending Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, 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 said. “And it has meant the world to me.”
At pivotal moments in Obama’s presidency, DuBois sometimes chooses texts that offer lessons appropriate to 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 conflicts Obama confronts 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 times of crisis, from hurricanes to 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.’ ”