Magazine article The Christian Century

Obama's 'Spiritual Cabinet' Offers Advice and Prayer

Magazine article The Christian Century

Obama's 'Spiritual Cabinet' Offers Advice and Prayer

Article excerpt

Near the end of a bumpy first year in office, President Obama readied for a Christmas vacation in Hawaii, but before he left, he called on a group of five ministers for a spiritual recharge.

Like previous prayer calls, this one was more personal than political.

"He certainly does not ask us how we would run the country and what issue to pursue or not pursue," said Charles Blake of Los Angeles, presiding bishop of the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, who was on the phone with the president last December.

For ten minutes, the president and the pastors prayed for peace, an economic recovery, protection for U.S. soldiers, and for Obama to be guided by a wisdom and power beyond himself.

Glimpses into Obama's spiritual life have been rare since he became president. He split with his longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, after the fiery minister nearly derailed Obama's campaign, and he has not joined a church in Washington.

"Having been burned, for lack of a better word, during the campaign and early days of his administration, I would not be surprised that he would be rather discreet about any revelations of his religious life," Blake said.

Still, Obama continues to champion the role of faith in public life, frequently summoning the spirits of Martin Luther King Jr., Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and even St. Thomas Aquinas to frame his policies in moral terms.

Like previous presidents, he regularly seeks the counsel of longtime Washington insiders, including Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein and retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to shape decisions about the Iraq war, health-care reform and the economy.

But Obama has also turned to a group of fresh--and relatively unfamiliar-faces to manage religious issues in his administration. They are recalibrating America's engagement with Muslims, revamping the White House faith-based office and tending to the president's own soul. A year into Obama's presidency, each of the following seven people has become an essential member of what might be called his "spiritual cabinet."

Denis McDonough

When Denis McDonough was in eighth grade, he heard his older brother, a Catholic priest, deliver a homily entirely in Spanish. McDonough soon learned Spanish himself and became an expert on bridging cultural gaps.

Now, as Obama's deputy national security adviser and chief of staff of the National Security Council, McDonough is working to strengthen international bonds strained by the Bush administration's go-it-alone approach to foreign policy.

Traveling by the president's side on overseas missions, the 40-year-old Minnesotan is a crucial player in Obama's quest to engage Muslims, find common cause with the Vatican and restore the country's moral authority.

McDonough helped craft Obama's landmark address to Muslims last June in Cairo and his robust defense of American foreign policy--including the waging of "just wars"--at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway.

A key component of Obama's foreign policy is the Catholic concept of the common good, McDonough said. "It's a general posture of seeking engagement to find mutual interests but also realizes that there is real evil in the world that we must confront," he said in an interview at his West Wing office. "The president also recognizes that we are strongest when we work together with our allies."

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In addition, McDonough has schooled Obama on the internal politics of the Catholic Church, an institution he knows intimately. His brother Kevin was vicar general of the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, another brother is a priest-turned-theologian, and his best friend in Washington is a Redemptorist priest. A graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, he helped evaluate a young theologian on the faculty, Miguel Diaz, before he became ambassador to the Vatican last May. …

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