WASHINGTON – Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are none in the Oval Office in the depths of war and recession.

President Barack Obama devoted much of his Thursday to faith. He spoke of his path to Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual rite observed by every predecessor since Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

And he unveiled a new and improved White House office dedicated to tapping the energy and goodness of the nation’s faithful while observing those tricky church-state boundaries the Founders set forth a couple centuries back.

“Faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life,” he told a few thousand praying breakfasters at a Hilton ballroom.

He quoted a hadith from the Muslim Quran and a passage from the Jewish Torah to underscore his point about the universality of the Golden Rule. He gave approving shout-outs to Buddhists, Hindus, followers of Confucius and “humanists.” He even recognized agnostics.

After breakfast, Obama met at the Oval Office with an eclectic group of 15 religious leaders tapped to advise his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships – a rare idea from his predecessor that Obama has embraced.

Critics complained that the Bush-era Office of Faith-Based Initiatives blurred the line between government and religion, and was created to funnel tax dollars to church-run programs.

Some of the complaints faded with time. Obama will review rules that let churches discriminate in hiring. But the thrust is generally the same: getting help to the needy.

Dr. Frank S. Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a pastor in Taylors, S.C., readily averred that “he (Obama) was not my first choice for president.” But he’s eager to help his country and his president – and provide a conservative counterweight.

Obama and the head of the faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentacostal pastor, assured him that council members are expected to speak their minds. Page wasted no time.

“I would rather that had been left off,” he said of Obama’s Quran reference. “I understand his desire to be inclusive.”

Meanwhile, the Obamas have yet to pick a church in Washington. The choice will be closely scrutinized, after the dust-up over their inflammatory longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

“Given the enormous problems that the country faces,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, “it’s quite safe to assume that prayer, even not in the confines of a church, is something that he practices regularly.”


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