This series features reflections on faith in America—from prominent thought leaders and individuals of different religious backgrounds or perspectives.
For this issue, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were asked an identical set of questions and given the opportunity to respond freely. Their answers appear in Cathedral Age as they were given in full.
Cathedral Age How does faith play a role in your life?
President Obama First and foremost, my Christian faith gives me a perspective and security that I don’t think I would have otherwise: That I am loved. That, at the end of the day, God is in control—and my main responsibility is to love God with all of my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself. Now, I don’t always live up to that standard, but it is a standard I am always pursuing.
My faith is also a great source of comfort to me. I’ve said before that my faith has grown as president. This office tends to make a person pray more; and as President Lincoln once said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.”
Finally, I try to make sure that my faith informs how I live my life. As a husband, as a father, and as president, my faith helps me to keep my eyes on the prize and focus on what is good and truly important.
Governor Romney Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another—to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.
Cathedral Age Do you have favorite scriptural passages, prayers, or other words of wisdom to which you often turn?
Governor Romney I am always moved by the Lord’s words in Matthew: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me.” (Matthew 25:35–36, KJV).
President Obama I do have a few favorites. Isaiah 40:31 has been a great source of encouragement in my life, and I quote from it often. Psalm 46 is also important to me; I chose to read it on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is a good one as well.
I’ve also been blessed to receive a daily devotional from my faith advisor, Joshua DuBois, who will send me Scripture or thoughts from people such as C.S. Lewis or Howard Thurman every morning.
Cathedral Age How do you view the role of faith in public life?
President Obama There are many ways to approach this question, but two clear aspects of the role of faith in public life come to mind immediately. First, faith has always provided a moral framework and vocabulary for this country to come to terms with its most pressing challenges. One of the great things about this nation is that it is a place where people from all walks of life can advocate on behalf of their faith and beliefs and be open about what drives and motivates them.
From slavery to the suffrage movement to civil rights, faith—and the moral obligations that derive from our faith—have always helped us to navigate some of our greatest moral challenges with a recognition that there’s something bigger than ourselves: we have obligations that extend beyond our own self-interest. We face big challenges in this country, and we’re coming to the point where we will decide if we’re truly in this together or if each individual ought just to fight for what serves them best. For me, and I think for many other Americans, faith tells us that there is something about this world that ties our interest to the welfare of a child who can’t get the health care they need, or a parent who can’t find work after the plant shut down, or a family going hungry.
Second, faith motivates people to do incredibly compassionate and good work that helps our nation thrive. Now, I’ve been familiar with this for a long time. One of my first jobs was as a community organizer where I was funded by a Catholic Church grant to help families on the South Side of Chicago who were struggling after the local steel plant closed. But I must say this has become even more real to me during my time as president. Through the letters I’ve read from individuals whose faith led them to serve in Joplin or Colorado Springs in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and the work of my faith-based office (which has done incredible work to strengthen partnerships between the federal government and faith-based non-profits to serve those in need), it is more apparent to me now than ever how integral faith is as a motivating factor for so much of what keeps our country moving forward.
Governor Romney We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders—in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.
Cathedral Age As a country of great religious diversity and divisiveness, how can faith play a role in unifying America?
Governor Romney I believe that while we are a country with so many differences in creed and theology, we can all meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.
President Obama Faith lets us know that there’s something bigger than ourselves, and that requires a certain basic commitment to one another. This country has a rich tradition of seeking to create an environment where people of different beliefs can live together and share common goals. As Americans, I think we understand that—in protecting our ability to advocate for our own positions—we must protect the ability of those who come from different backgrounds and beliefs to do so as well. Faith demands that we see the image of God in one another and respect it.
Cathedral Age Some people have questioned the sincerity of your faith and your Christianity. How do you respond to those questions?
President Obama I spoke about this a bit at the National Prayer Breakfast last year. You know, there’s not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president, and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word, and to make my life look more like His. I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others—trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold.
Governor Romney I am often asked about my faith and my beliefs about Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. Every religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These should not be bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
Cathedral Age What does a political leader’s faith tell you about him/her as a person?
Governor Romney A political leader’s faith can tell us a great deal or nothing. So much depends on what lies behind that faith. And so much depends on deeds, not words. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office is whether he or she shares these American values: the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty. They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.
President Obama Faith can express itself in people in many ways, and I think it is important that we not make faith alone a barometer of a person’s worth, value, or character. I will say that oftentimes faith can serve as an impetus, or even a reason in itself, to view issues outside of just the perspective of our own personal advancement. There is a sort of selflessness that often derives from faith that I think is a powerful force for good.
I didn’t agree with former President Bush on many issues, but I did respect him as a good husband, a loving father, and as a man of faith. I don’t know how he would have approached the issue of immigration reform or AIDS in Africa if he were not a man of faith. If he’d been someone solely concerned with hard politics—or what people would say about him—I’m not sure he would have had the gall to step out on those issues. But he did, and I think it’s clear that his faith was a major part of that.
Cathedral Age How can our government and faith communities work together as a positive force for the nation while also respecting the boundaries between the two?
President Obama I think we’ve made some important progress on this issue during my time as president through our work with my Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The constitutional principle of a separation between church and state has served our nation well since our founding—embraced by people of faith and those of no faith at all throughout our history—and it has been paramount in our work. That is why I signed an executive order that implemented recommendations from my Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships that included some of our nation’s top church/state experts. We’ve also expanded how the government views partnerships with faith-based and non-profit organizations from solely a financial focus to include non-financial partnerships.
I have also had the approach that partnerships are a two-way street. Faith communities often know their cities better than most anyone else. They also have an institutional memory and history of service that we have and can continue to learn from. On the other hand, the federal government has tools and resources that faith communities often do not have. We’ve been intentional about connecting non-profits in the same field with one another to share best practices, or to form private sector partnerships. In a field like mentoring, we’ve brought corporations to the table to facilitate private funding for non-profits doing this work. On an issue like human trafficking, we’ve worked with faith communities not only to care for trafficking survivors through financial partnerships but also to inform their congregations about how to identify possible trafficking victims through non-financial partnerships.
We can always do better, and we’re getting better every day, but one of the greatest sources of optimism for me over these last four years has been to see so many heroic and humble Americans serving others out of the kindness of their hearts, and the moral imperative of their most core beliefs.
Governor Romney As governor of Massachusetts, I worked hard to promote faith-based social-service organizations, and I appointed my wife, Ann, to lead my efforts. Clearly the boundaries between church and state must be respected, but there is a large space in which faith-based organizations can do good for the community in which they serve. In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. The Founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation “Under God,” and in God, we do indeed trust.
Cathedral Age Washington National Cathedral is called to be the spiritual home for the nation. From your perspective, how can the Cathedral live out that mission?
Governor Romney From the beginning this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action. The mission of the National Cathedral, as I conceive of it, is to preserve, protect, and advance that tradition as a national house of prayer.
President Obama I believe that clarity about most anything in life is the result of seeking answers, not settling for what we know already. The National Cathedral has a proud history of hosting conversations about questions and debates of great importance and of allowing different perspectives as part of that conversation.
I think the Cathedral has found that our faith and overall decision-making is strengthened by being exposed to other ideas and testing them. This is how the Cathedral can continue to serve its mission, and how America can continue to live up to its highest ideals as well: by carving out space for important conversations and ideas, and intentionally including those of different viewpoints in those discussions.