Video: Obama talks faith and good works

updated 2/5/2009 12:50:15 PM ET 2009-02-05T17:50:15

President Barack Obama on Thursday signed an order establishing a White House office of faith-based initiatives with a broader mission than the one overseen by his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.

Obama said the office would reach out to organizations that provide help "no matter their religious or political beliefs."

Obama is calling his program the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

He said in this time of economic crisis, it was proper for the government to be providing help to Americans.

But no matter how much the government does, "the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone."

The president will also appoint Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal minister who headed religious outreach for Obama's Senate office and later his campaign, to lead the partnership's office and name 25 religious and secular leaders to a new advisory board.

Before signing the measure, Obama told the annual National Prayer Breakfast the program would not show favoritism to any religious group, and would adhere to a strict separation of church and state.

The office is broader than one in the Bush administration that just dealt with faith-based initiatives.

Addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama also spoke of how faith has often been a divisive tool, responsible for war and prejudice. But, he said, "there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being," and all religions teach people to love and care for one another. That is the common ground underlying his faith-based office, he said.

In personal terms, he talked about the role of faith in his life, from his Muslim-born father and a mother skeptical of organized religion to his own embrace of Christianity as a young man.

"In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding," Obama told the gathering of lawmakers, dignitaries and world leaders. "This is my hope. This is my prayer."

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Dogged throughout the presidential campaign by rumors that he was a Muslim, Obama described his background in a household that wasn't religious.

"I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I've ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done," he said.

During his presidential campaign, Obama said he wanted to expand White House faith-based efforts begun under Bush. But while he endorsed Bush's initiative to give religious groups more access to federal funding, he also promised to make some changes to the office.

Obama's advisers want to be certain tax dollars sent to the faith-based social service groups are used for secular purposes, such as feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, and not for religious evangelism. The administration doesn't want to be perceived as managing the groups yet does want transparency and accountability.

Obama pledged during the campaign to allow taxpayer-funded religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion — but only for the activities run on private funding.

One question is whether the faith-based office will issue grants under the Bush rules while the hiring policy is worked out.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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