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Scripture that inspired Obama

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As the former head of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under President Barack Obama, Joshua Dubois would seek and offer scripture to serve as inspiration in daily life and in the face of national tragedy. Gwen Ifill sits down with Dubois to discuss his collection, titled “The President’s Devotional.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: the spiritual nourishing of the president. That’s the focus of the new book by the man TIME magazine dubbed the pastor-in-chief.

Joshua DuBois, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has penned The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama.

Gwen Ifill spoke with DuBois recently, and has our book conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua DuBois, you write in this book that God still surprises.

JOSHUA DUBOIS, “The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama”: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: So, how much of a surprise was it that you ended up at the White House writing devotionals for the president?

JOSHUA DUBOIS: It was a huge surprise.

I ever never looking for this. I was a political staffer on his 2008 percent. I had worked for then Senator Obama for a couple years by that time. And one day, I just got a sense in my spirit. He has all sorts of supports around him. He has policy advisers and political support and even Secret Service protection, but who’s looking after his soul?

And so I decided to take a big risk and sent him an e-mail to his BlackBerry. I didn’t know if I was going to get fired when I did that. But I shot him a note about the 23rd Psalm and how to find restoration and rest in the middle of trouble.

And I was waiting for a response, and in a few minutes, he wrote back and said it was exactly what he needed. So, it’s just — I just kind of jumped out there.

GWEN IFILL: And there are 365 devotionals in this book, one for every day of the year.

One of the things you write about at some point is how the president would call you and say, “I need a piece of Scripture for such and such.”

JOSHUA DUBOIS: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: And you would have to just come up with one.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: That’s right.

Yes, the first time that happened, I was caught off guard a bit. He was giving a speech on the genocide in Darfur, and I got a number — a call from a number I didn’t recognize and had to come up with some Scripture. But, over time, I learned to be ready, both in the very positive moments, like the Scripture that he used in his 2008 DNC speech, but also some really trying times as well, like the Scripture he uses to comfort a nation after a tragedy.

So, it was really great working with him on those things.

GWEN IFILL: You know, the president doesn’t talk that much about his faith, at least not in front of public audiences. And I wonder if that’s a balance that you had to strike.


Well, you know, I would rather have a leader that lives a sermon, instead of preaches one. And I really think he seeks to live out his faith in a lot of different ways, in the way that he’s a father and a husband and the quiet way he seeks to maintain his integrity and character.

But he also cultivates his faith behind the scenes, through reading these devotionals and praying with pastors in the Oval Office. He does a prayer call every year on his birthday, where some pastors pray over him for the year ahead. And he does goes to church every now and then at St. John’s Episcopal, so…

GWEN IFILL: But, every now and then, you have to be — you had to be in the position, especially when you worked in the White House, of being there for the bad news, too, like when — even during the campaign, when his pastor, Reverend Wright, it emerged he had said some very harsh things from his pulpit in Chicago, and they had to — he had to come up with some sort of a solution or at least some sort of way to speak to that.


And I talk about this in the book. It was a very, very difficult moment. But it was also a time where I was able to see the president’s integrity. I thought he addressed some really tough issues of race head on in his speech in Philadelphia, and tried to get the country to think about some things we actually haven’t talked about in a full way in a very long time.

So it was a tough issue. I sort of walk through in the book what that was like. But we eventually made it to the other side.

GWEN IFILL: On the other hand, the White House is also a political environment.


GWEN IFILL: And you would run head up against some political imperatives, for instance, the conscience clause in the Affordable Care Act.

You felt very strongly that churches ought to not have to pay into a system that they didn’t believe in.


GWEN IFILL: But you lost that fight.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: I did, but, you know, the illuminating thing about that whole issue — and it’s something I walk through in an essay in the book — wasn’t the policy disagreement.

Yes, I had a disagreement with some colleagues about policy. But I initially really approached the relational aspect of that issue in a wrongheaded way. I started demonizing my opponents and questioning their motives. And what I walk through in the book, in The President’s Devotional, is how I began to unpack that and realize that people can have sincere disagreements with me, but still be good people, people that God loves, and that I need to figure out a way to love them as well.

GWEN IFILL: Even when ultimately the person you disagree with is the president?

JOSHUA DUBOIS: Well, and I’m not sure I disagreed with him.

I think there was a lot of complexity to the various solutions that were out there. And I actually think the White House ended up in the right place, balancing the rights of women with the rights of religious organizations. But, if there was some disagreement, I know that it’s not on me to question others’ motives. And that’s not the place I was in at first.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us the story about what happened when you went to Newtown, Connecticut, with the president, because that was certainly a stressful time, where one would think you would have to rely on your faith to get through it, looking into the faces of those parents.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: It was absolutely devastating.

You know, I got the call on Saturday that the president wanted me to go with him to Newtown to visit with those families after that horrible day the Friday before. And I was just in these classrooms with hundreds of people, mothers and fathers and little brothers and sisters, who just a few days before had sent their little ones off to first grade or second grade, and expected them to come home, and they never did.

And to see the president give each individual full measure of support and care, and have to look fathers in the eyes who were kind of holding up the picture of their daughter or their son, or have to talk to little and brothers and sisters who would never see their big brother or sister again was devastating.

But it was also a moment where I really saw the president become a pastor in some ways.

GWEN IFILL: This is one of these situations where we know in life you’re not supposed to mix religion and politics, and yet you were in the position where you kind of had to do both.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: Yes. I could not help in those moments just going in those rooms and just praying over those folks and speaking words of the Scripture of my faith in those spaces. And that’s not to impose it on anyone else, but that’s what I relied on in those moments.

GWEN IFILL: How did you get permission to publish this? These are private correspondence. Those moments in that Newtown high school were private.


Well, I had been sending them to the president for years. I have thousands of them for over six years now every day. And I just — I talked with him. And he agreed that if these had been useful to him in starting his day on the right point and learning how to love God better and begin each day with joy, then maybe they would be useful to other folks.

And so he had no problem with it at all.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s not all biblical. You invoke Johnny Cash and Nina Simone.


JOSHUA DUBOIS: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: You name it.

But I would like to end by having you read just this one interesting passage.


Yes, this is from April 23, and it’s called “Outward.”

“A prayer for perspective. Dear God, let me lift my head off my own chest and focus on the other, my family, my loved ones, my friends, my neighbors, my enemies, those loosely connected to me halfway across the world. These eyes of mine are so frequently focused inward. Dear lord, today, turn them out and give me vision to see the needs of others other than my own. Amen.”


Joshua DuBois, author of The President’s Devotional, thank you so much.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. Thank you.