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Monday, February 7, 2011
Obama Begins Talking About Religion Again. Why?
President Obama inhabits a largely secular presidency, rarely blending his religious beliefs with his public duties, and spending more Sundays shooting hoops than going to church. So it was a notable shift when Obama went deeply devout for last week's National Prayer Breakfast, telling attendees the role daily prayer plays in his life.
"When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people," Obama said. "And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to forgive me my sins, and look after my family and the American people, and make me an instrument of His will."
A cynical interpretation would note Obama's intensely religious rhetoric -- even for a prayerful event -- coincides with the unofficial start of the presidential campaign season. At the same time, Obama talked frankly about his family's "certain skepticism" about organized religion, and noted his father was "a nonbeliever." Obama's own path to religion was through the civil rights movement.
"Religion is a touchy thing and it has to be handled very carefully to not make it seem like the president is doing it for political reasons," said Jim Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
Religion maintains a central role in politics and is likely to do so in 2012. Among other features, two Mormons, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are considering Republican primary runs, along with Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian.
While the Republicans are more closely associated with religion and politics given the strong role Christian conservatives play in the party, John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, noted the Democrats have their religious constituencies as well. Obama in 2008 won in part with the support of black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, Muslims and more, Green noted.
"The question in 2012 will be which side, which party will be able to develop that enthusiasm from their core religious constituencies," Green said.
Obama's former congregation in Chicago, Trinity United Church, came under scrutiny during the 2008 presidential campaign when pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons were judged by critics to be intemperate, even anti-American.
Obama has yet to find a regular congregation in Washington. The family reportedly enjoys attending services at the Evergreen Chapel when they are at Camp David, and have sampled local Protestant churches.
Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, was by contrast a born-again Christian who used evangelical language frequently in his presidency, often talked about how his religion informed his decision making, and was a regular church attendee.
Mark Gammon, an assistant professor of religion at Simpson College in Iowa, noted that Obama "comes out of that spiritually adrift generation," a background that made him compelling to many Americans.
"I think there are people for whom there are these religious litmus tests, and they take them very seriously," Gammon said of voters.