WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who rarely speaks of his faith, defended some of his administration's policies Thursday by saying they reflect his religious convictions.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said his efforts to regulate Wall Street financiers, health insurers and "unscrupulous lenders" reflected in part his belief in "God's command to 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' "
"I do so because I genuinely believe (the policies) will make the economy stronger for everybody," the president said. "But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years."
He also said that some of his policies stemmed from a "biblical call to care for the least of these: for the poor, for those at the margins of our society.
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"Caring for the poor and those in need. They are values that have always made this country great ... and they're the ones that have defined my own faith journey."
His remarks came a day after his presidential re-election campaign seized on Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's remarks that he's "not concerned about the very poor," but Obama didn't mention Romney, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president's words weren't political.
Romney's full statement, in a CNN interview, was that he wasn't concerned about the poor because they had a safety net, and if it had holes, he'd fix them. Nor is he concerned about the wealthy, who are doing fine by themselves, he said. His focus instead is on middle-income Americans who've suffered most from hard times, he said. It's a standard line of Romney's on the campaign trail, but Obama's campaign and some liberal media seized on the part about the poor and cited it out of context.
The president, whose administration came under fire over the weekend from religious groups, including Roman Catholic bishops, for requiring some faith-based employers to include contraceptives in their insurance plans, didn't address that conflict in his remarks Thursday.
At the White House, Carney said that no individual would be required to use or prescribe contraception.
"This rule does not force anyone with a religious objection, such as a Catholic doctor, to prescribe or provide contraception," he said. "It merely requires that insurance companies provide coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them." He said the policy was a recommendation of the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine.
Obama, who's proposed a tax on the richest Americans to pay for a payroll tax break for the middle class, suggested religious underpinnings to his call for "shared responsibility," saying that asking those who've been "extraordinarily blessed" to give up some tax breaks makes economic sense.
But, he added, "For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that 'For unto whom much is given, much shall be required.' It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who've been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others."
The president, whose outspoken former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, imperiled his race for the White House in 2008, has largely shied from overt demonstrations of his faith. He and his family haven't formally joined a congregation in Washington, but they've attended services at several churches and at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland.
But Obama offered a glimpse of his spiritual life Thursday, telling the crowd that he says a brief prayer upon waking each morning and spends time "in Scripture and devotion." He said he prayed "from time to time" in the Oval Office or by phone with several pastors who were present, pointing out Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser and senior pastor of an Orlando mega-church, and Bishop T.D. Jakes, founder and senior pastor of The Potter's House of Dallas.
"But I don't stop there," the president said. "I'd be remiss if I stopped there, if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try — imperfectly, but I must try — to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation."
He alluded to his own religious upbringing, noting that he grew up in a household "that wasn't particularly religious" and found Christ "when I wasn't even looking for him."
He recounted visiting the Rev. Billy Graham while on a family vacation in Asheville, N.C., calling it "one of the great honors of my life.
"I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment, asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong."
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