The Political Subtext Of Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast Address

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President Obama has spoken three times at the National Prayer Breakfast, and there has been a pattern to his speeches. He thanks his guests, speaks briefly about the history of the National Prayer Breakfast, and then delivers what amounts to a essay on faith in light of current events. In 2009, he quoted Jesus, the Torah and the Koran, while making reference to Buddhists, Hindus and Confucius. In 2010, he spoke about Haiti, and the need for more civility in Washington. On Thursday, as his presidential reelection approaches and large numbers continue to misidentify his faith, the president took a different tack. He spoke at length and in detail about his personal faith.

A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the south side of Chicago. And it was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my lord and savior.

In 2009, Obama used the first-person pronoun “I” 15 times in his prayer breakfast address. He used the word 10 times in 2010. This time, he referred to himself with that word 44 times. He offered in more detail than ever before his own use of prayer. At times, it almost sounded like a sermon.

So my prayer this morning is that we might seek his face not only in those moments, but each and every day, that every day, as we go through the hustle and bustle of our lives, whether it’s in Washington or Hollywood or anywhere in between, that we might every so often rise above the here and now and kneel before the eternal, that we might remember the fact that those who wait on the Lord will soar on wings like eagles, and they will run and not be wary, and they will walk and not faint. 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. 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.

The political advantages of a speech like this are self-evident, given that last August only 34 percent of Americans correctly identified him as a Christian. (Eighteen percent incorrectly said he was Muslim.) But the speech should be put in a broader context. Even though the 2012 election has not started, Obama is clearly laying the groundwork by seeking to short circuit conservative critiques. His last State of the Union can be read as a demonstrable refutation of the claim that he does not believe America is exceptional, or as Mitt Romney’s paperback book title suggests that Obama does not “Believe in America.” It was a speech dripping with praise for American exceptionalism, and national optimism. In the same way, his prayer breakfast is clearly an attempt to claim his own Christianity, something he has tried to do in subtler ways before. Rather than Confucius or Islam, Obama mentioned T.D. Jakes and Joel Hunter. He was sending a signal to the Republican field: He will not allow others to define his own beliefs for him.