Obama Invokes Faith in Justifying Government Programs; Calls for Civility at Prayer Breakfast

By Fred Lucas | February 3, 2011 | 2:39 PM EST

President Barack Obama pulls out a chair for first lady Michelle Obama as they arrive at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama invoked faith on Thursday to justify the need for government programs he said can accomplish things that churches, non-profit groups, and businesses cannot accomplish in fulfilling God’s call to care for the needy.

“There’s only so much a church can do to help all the families in need, all those who need help making a mortgage payment or avoiding foreclosure, making sure their child can go to college,” Obama said this morning at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton. 

“There’s only so much that a non-profit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster,” Obama said. “There’s only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick with the care that they need. That’s why I continue to believe in a caring and in a just society. Government must have a role to play.”

“Our values, our love, and our charity must find expression not just in our families, in our places of work and in our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics,” said the president.

The annual prayer breakfast is sponsored by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian group. Obama said early in his speech that almost every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has spoken at the event.

Obama asked for prayers about the turmoil in Egypt and recited what he had said in the past about his personal faith journey. He recounted that his father, who he met only once, was a non-believer, while, “My mother, whose parents were Baptist and Methodist, grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion, and she usually only took me to church on Easter and Christmas – sometimes.”

He further said, “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. It was through that experience, working with pastors and lay people, 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.”

Religion has been a contentious issue for Obama. During the 2008 presidential campaign he dropped his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he had attended for two decades, because the anti-American sermons delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became a political liability. Obama maintained that he was unaware of the inflammatory sermons.

Since becoming president, Obama has not picked a church in Washington, D.C., though he attended St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House on Easter. Obama also has attended Sunday services at Camp David’s Evergreen Chapel with Navy Chaplain Carey Cash “fairly regularly,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in late 2009.

During his speech at the prayer breakfast, Obama stressed the importance of faith in his life and presidency.

“It is my faith then, that biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going,” Obama said. “And it keeps me from being overwhelmed. It’s faith that reminds me that despite being just one very imperfect man, I can still help whoever I can, however I can, wherever I can for as long as I can, and that somehow God will buttress these efforts.”

Obama also called for expanding the federal government’s involvement with faith-based organizations, an initiative started under President George W. Bush and continued by Obama.

“Sometimes faith groups can do the work of caring for the least of these on their own,” said the president. “Sometimes they need a partner, whether it’s in business or government, and that’s why my administration has taken a fresh look at the way we organize with faith groups, the way we work with faith groups, through our office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”

“And through that office we are expanding the way faith groups can partner with our government,” he said. “We’re helping them feed more kids who otherwise would go hungry. We’re helping fatherhood groups give dads the support they need to be there for their children.

“We’re working with non-profits to improve the lives of people around the world. We’re doing this in ways that are aligned with our constitutional principles. And in this work, we intend to expand it in the days ahead, rooted in the notions of partnership and justice and the imperatives to help the poor.”

The president further stressed the need for humility as a means of calming heated political discourse.

“One side’s version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom,” Obama said. “That’s why a second re-occurring theme in my prayers is a prayer for humility.”

“In this life of politics, when debates have become so bitterly polarized, and changes in the media lead so many of us just to listen to those who reinforce our existing biases, it’s useful to go back to scripture to remind ourselves that none of us has all the answers,” Obama said. “None of us, no matter what our political party or station in life, the full breadth of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in God’s hands, and there are some mysteries in this world that we can’t fully comprehend.”