WASHINGTON — President Obama drew on the Bible and his interpretation of the Christian faith Thursday to deliver a sharp critique of his chief Republican rival’s economic program, speaking at a forum that in the past has been largely free of electoral politics.
Speaking to about 3,000 people at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama emphasized the importance of his Christian beliefs in his politics and personal life, arguing that his efforts to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, promote health-insurance reform, help families with college tuition and send troops to prevent human rights abuses in Uganda were grounded in his faith.
“I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy … that’s going to make economic sense,” he said. “But for me, as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ ”
Obama’s remarks injected religion, a treacherous issue for him and Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, into the center of the race.
A Christian, Obama has faced voter doubts about his religious convictions for years. On Thursday, he affirmed his relationship with the Christian mainstream, which is terrain that Romney, a Mormon, has had some trouble navigating.
Obama described his “faith journey” in terms that coincide with the central themes of his re-election effort, drawing on biblical passages that have helped underpin what he has called “the social gospel.”
“The Bible teaches us to ‘be doers of the word and not merely hearers,’ ” he said. “We’re required to have a living, breathing, active faith in our own lives. And each of us is called on to give something of ourselves for the betterment of others.”
Although the Obamas have not regularly attended church in Washington, he noted Thursday that he prays each morning and speaks frequently with ministers and religious advisers.
Some conservative leaders reacted with disappointment to his remarks, saying that the president chose to politicize the prayer event.
Obama also has come under fire for his decision not to exempt faith-affiliated organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, from a provision in the health-care law that requires employers to cover birth control without out-of-pocket costs in insurance plans. Churches and institutions of worship are exempt.
The decision is emerging as a campaign issue, and some religious conservatives have argued that he is hostile to the practice of religion.
In his remarks Thursday, Obama did not directly join the debate. But he laid out a simple scriptural grounding for his policies: caring for the least of these, being one’s brother’s keeper, demanding much of those to whom much has been given. He went on at length about a meeting with the Rev. Billy Graham.
“I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment, asking God for guidance not just in my personal life … but in the life of this nation,” he said.