President Gets Personal At National Prayer Breakfast

President Obama addressed the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC yesterday, as every president has done since the event's inception in 1953. But many faith leaders were surprised by Obama's personal tone. In this week's Tell Me More feature Faith Matters, Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and president of the christian social change group Sojourners , discusses the president's speech and the ongoing debate around his personal faith.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

He's considered a hero by many conservatives, but politicos from across the spectrum will mark what would have been Ronald Wilson Reagan's 100th birthday this weekend. We'll talk about his legacy with particular focus on his relationship to minorities. That conversation is coming up.

But first, to our Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And just yesterday at the national prayer breakfast, President Obama opened up about his faith. Every president has attended every year since the event began in 1953. But President Obama surprised some faith leaders with his unusually personal tone.

President BARACK OBAMA: My earliest inspirations for life of service ended up being the faith leaders of the civil rights movement. There was, of course, Martin Luther King and the Baptist leaders, the ways in which they helped those who had been subjugated to make a way out of no way.

MARTIN: And President Obama went on to say he found his faith when he was working as a community organizer in Chicago.

Pres. OBAMA: And 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 myself.

MARTIN: We wanted to get some perspective on the president's speech, so we've invited the Reverend Jim Wallis back to the program. He was also there. He's the founder and president of the organization, Sojourners. That's a Christian group focused on social change. Reverend Wallis, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Reverend JIM WALLIS (President, Sojourners): Michel, always great to be with you. This is a great show. I love to be on it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

You wrote a blog post about the president's speech and one of the questions that I had as - I was wondering whether you were, in a way, gently chastising him because you talked about how in this speech, he talked a very great deal about the poor. And he talked a very great deal about his own personal faith walk, which is not something that he has discussed in a number of other places, most notably in the State of the Union. So, in a way, were you gently prodding the president on this point?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, as you know, I've known him for a long time. And the speech reminded me of the conversations we used to have. But I did notice these two things. One is he was personal and knowledgeable about faith. So his biggest critics, who challenge his faith and question his faith, would have a hard time after hearing yesterday he wanted to walk closer with God and make sure that walk is my first and most important task.

He said, I wait upon the lord every morning and every night. And it was very personal. At the same time, as you suggested, I noticed he spoke about the poor or the vulnerable 12 times. So it was almost, as he got closer to his faith, he get closer to the poor, which I think makes sense. But that was much more of a kind of an over conversation about poverty than we heard in the State of the Union or we often hear from the White House.

MARTIN: Do you feel that, in part, this was strategic, in part, to answer these critics who have raised questions, continue to raise questions about whether the president is really a Christian after all?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, he even implied, I think, Michel, that he and Michelle, his wife, the first lady, been hurt by these accusations. I felt a little of that yesterday. But he responded by not defending so much, as by affirming this is my faith. And he is a person of faith. And in this case, the president does know faith and it's very personal. And he knows of what he speaks.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, would you just tell us a little bit about the national prayer breakfast? It's kind of an odd event in some ways. It's not held in a church. It's held in a hotel ballroom. It was organized by kind of a private, quasi religious organization. It dates back to the Eisenhower era. What is this event? And why do you think it's important?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, it's sort of a time to - where people want to acknowledge the importance of prayer and faith. And that can be kind of a civil religion, civic faith kind of common denominator thing. Or it can be much too sectarian where some people feel left out of it.

I remember my favorite ones are when Bono spoke at the prayer breakfast and talked about every faith tradition calls us to stand with those who are left out, left behind.

I remember Senator Mark Hatfield spoke years ago when I was in seminary and he called the war in Vietnam a national sin and shame in front of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. I saw their faces and they weren't happy with that. So when it can raise up issues that we ought to be accountable to, whether we are religious or not, I think that's when it's probably at its best.

MARTIN: Reverend Jim Wallis is the founder and president of the organization Sojourners. That's a Christian group that's focused on social change. His latest book is "Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery." And maybe he'll come back and talk with us about that one.

Rev. WALLIS: I'd love to, Michel.

MARTIN: Reverend Wallis, thanks so much for joining us.

Rev. WALLIS: God bless.

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