WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is getting more public about his Christianity.
First he raised his Christian faith at a White House news conference this month. Then he went to church for the first time in five months. And on Tuesday he responded to a question with an expansive talk about how he chose Christianity, how Jesus Christ influences his life and how he prays every day.
These public displays of his religion mark a change from the first year and a half of his presidency, when he kept his faith a largely private matter – and they come after a poll found a growing number of Americans mistakenly think he’s a Muslim, or don’t know his religion.
“He does seem to be talking about his faith more,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “That is a contrast to the previous 18 months where he hardly talked about it at all.”
“It stands out because he’s not been overtly religious,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.
Obama has been a man without a regular church ever since he resigned from the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008. Obama’s membership in that church had become a political embarrassment after videos came to light showing racially inflammatory and anti-American sermons by pastor and Obama’s friend the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Obama has not joined a church in Washington and rarely attends services, saying he doesn’t want to disrupt the congregations. He does consult with pastors and preachers personally but has shied away from public discussions of his faith – at least until now.
That reticence appears to have changed since the release of a Pew poll in August that found 18 percent of Americans saying that Obama is a Muslim, up sharply from 11 percent in March 2009.
At the same time, the ranks of Americans who said, correctly, that Obama is a Christian dropped from 48 percent to 34 percent, and the number who can’t name the president’s religion rose from 34 percent to 43 percent.
White House aides said there’s no deliberate strategy at work to counter the false impression that Obama is a Muslim.
But, Goldford said, “He’s signaling he’s not outside the mainstream. It can’t be coincidental.”
During a Sept. 10 news conference at the White House, Obama raised his own faith while talking about anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
“As somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job,” he said, “I understand the passions that religious faith can raise.”
On Sept. 19, Obama and family prominently walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, his first visit to church since early April.
Tuesday he gave an elaborate explanation of his faith at an event in New Mexico.
“I’m a Christian by choice,” he told a woman who asked why he’s a Christian. “My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn’t raise me in the church.
“So I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead – being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me.”
He acknowledged that the United States is a predominantly Christian nation, while paying homage to its religious diversity.
For himself, though, he said that “understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God.
“But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to help them find their own grace. And so that’s what I strive to do. That’s what I pray to do every day. I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith.”