Religious Biography

Barack Obama

Born in Hawaii and raised in the U.S. and Indonesia, President Barack Obama “[grew] up in a household that wasn’t particularly religious,” according to his remarks at the February 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Obama’s father, who Obama saw only once as an adult following his parents’ divorce, was a Kenyan immigrant who was raised in the Muslim faith but “was said to be a non-believer throughout his life,” Obama said at the 2011 prayer breakfast. His mother “grew up with a certain skepticism about organized religion,” Obama stated. “And yet my mother was also one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew.”

Following his mother’s remarriage, Obama moved to Indonesia, where he attended a Catholic private school and later a secular, Muslim-majority school, he said in a 2008 interview with BeliefNet. Obama also was raised for a period by his maternal grandparents in Hawaii, where the family briefly attended services at a Unitarian Universalist church, Obama wrote in his 1995 book, “Dreams from My Father.”

But in my moments of prayer, I’m reminded that faith and values play an enormous role in motivating us to solve some of our most urgent problems, in keeping us going when we suffer setbacks, and opening our minds and our hearts to the needs of others.

– Barack Obama speaking at the February 2012 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from Columbia University, Obama, then a self-described religious skeptic, went to work for a faith-based community organizing group in Chicago. In a 2007 speech to the United Church of Christ General Synod, Obama described how he first attended Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and was inspired to belief in Christianity by a sermon titled “The Audacity to Hope” delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright. At a 2008 presidential candidates’ forum, Obama said he was attracted to Trinity and Wright’s sermons because they “spoke directly to the social gospel, the need to act and not just to sit in the pews.” Obama eventually was baptized at Trinity, an experience he described in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” as “a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But … I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

According to The New York Times, Obama listened to recordings of Wright’s sermons during his years at Harvard Law School. Following graduation, Obama reconnected with Trinity, marrying Michelle Robinson Obama at the church and baptizing their daughters, Sasha and Malia, there. But when video clips of some of Wright’s controversial sermons were aired during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama began to distance himself from the pastor in speeches, ultimately denouncing Wright’s comments and resigning from Trinity.

According to media reports, Obama has attended services at several churches in Washington, D.C., since becoming president but has not joined another church. The Washington Post reported in March 2012 that “the president has visited St. John’s [Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square] more than any other congregation since he moved into the White House.” Other congregations where the Obamas have attended services include Zion Baptist Church and Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. A June 2009 Time magazine article reported that Obama worships primarily at the nondenominational Camp David chapel.

Throughout his career in national politics, Obama has referred to religion frequently in his speeches. In an address at a 2006 Sojourners conference, for example, Obama spoke on the role of faith in the public square, saying that “the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. … If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” In his 2007 address at the United Church of Christ General Synod, Obama praised religion’s role in American history, saying, “[M]en and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women’s rights – and above all, abolition.” In 2011, in speeches commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Obama quoted the Bible, including Psalm 46 and Psalm 30.

In his February 2012 address at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama spoke about the role of prayer in his life as a public official: “At a time when it’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and clamor of our own lives, or get caught up in the noise and rancor that too often passes as politics today, these moments of prayer slow us down. …  We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to Him.”

As president, Obama established the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to promote government partnerships with both faith-based and secular groups. The office retained the basic administrative structure of President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Obama also formed the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships comprised of community faith leaders.

Questions from the public about Obama’s faith, which cropped up during the 2008 presidential election, have persisted during his presidency. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 18 percent of U.S. adults said Obama is Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009; 34 percent said Obama is a Christian and 43 percent said they did not know his religion. Following the poll’s release, the White House issued a statement about the president’s faith, saying, “President Obama is a committed Christian, and his faith is an important part of his daily life. He prays every day.”

Obama highlighted some of his personal religious practices at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast: “I wake up each morning and I say a brief prayer, and I spend a little time in Scripture and devotion. And from time to time … [religious leaders] will come by the Oval Office or they’ll call on the phone or they’ll send me [an] email, and we’ll pray together, and they’ll pray for me and my family, and for our country.”

The Pew Forum previously published a longer version of Obama’s religious biography as part of its Religion and Politics 2008 coverage. To read the previous biography, click here.

Updated June 15, 2012; originally published on November 8, 2011
PHOTO CREDIT:© Bill Ingalls/NASA/Handout/NASA/Bill Ingalls/Corbis