President Obama’s “Pastor-in-Chief” (TIME Magazine) and longtime spiritual advisor, Joshua DuBois led the White House faith-based initiative during Obama’s first term, and served with the President for years before that. Joshua writes a regular religion column for The Daily Beast and has authored several cover stories for Newsweek magazine. Joshua graduated from Boston University and Princeton University, and is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. He lives in Washington D.C. with his new wife, Michelle.
KW: Your book centers around a series of devotions you sent to the President. What is the story behind the devotions you began sending to Obama?
JD: It was really a God thing – I certainly didn’t start working in politics thinking that I would send the President of the United States a devotional every morning. I was a young staffer on the 2008 presidential campaign, a preacher’s kid from Nashville, doing outreach around the country. I had worked for then-Senator Barack Obama for a few years by then, as a junior member of his Senate office, but I did not know him all that well.
But privately and alone, I would pray for him: that God would protect him and his family; that he would operate with wisdom; that God would instill in him a renewed sense of purpose each day. In one of those moments of prayer, in the middle of a particularly difficult time on the campaign, I felt the spirit of God nudging me. It was as if God was saying to me, “Joshua, instead of just praying for your boss, why don’t you reach out to him, and send him an encouraging word.”
My first response was that God must have picked the wrong person. I loved Jesus and was deeply committed to my faith, but I was not a pastor at a major congregation, although I had been an associate pastor at a small church. My graduate education was in public policy, not theology. In general, I did not feel particularly qualified to email a devotional to a United States Senator.
But God’s command was clear, and persistent. And so I reached out to a friend of mine, and got Senator Obama’s personal email. I drafted a note of encouragement based on the 23rd Psalm and a poem I loved; this first message was on finding rest and replenishment in the middle of tough times. And I pressed send, not knowing what the response would be.
A few minutes later, to my surprise, Senator Obama wrote me back. He said that the email was exactly what he needed that day, and he asked me to send a new devotional each morning. 6 years later, I’ve been doing just that.
KW: You have now compiled the devotionals you sent the President in a book for other people, The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama. Tell us more about the book. How did you develop the material? And what do you think people will get out of it?
JD: The President’s Devotional is at core a journey through the word of God. It focuses on what God’s word has to say to leaders — and I believe we all are leaders, in various ways. So readers will learn from the Apostle Paul about how to endure suffering. They’ll derive lessons from King David about relishing moments of joy and gladness. They’ll pick up cues from Esther about boldness. And they’ll delve into the words and life of Christ.
I think the special thing is that The President’s Devotional uses culture, history and song to amplify biblical messages for leaders. Many of the morning meditations weave scripture together with wisdom from everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Johnny Cash, Fannie Lou Hamer to C.S. Lewis. There’s a devotional about repentance that pulls from 1st John and Dostoevsky, and one about wisdom that draws from the book of Proverbs and John Wayne.
I think busy readers will be able to dive into The President’s Devotional as a part of their quiet time each day, and emerge with a clearer sense of God’s love for them; how they can tackle tough challenges; how they can love those who are difficult to love; and how they can enter each day with a fullness of purpose.
KW: The President’s Devotional also includes 12 essays to begin each month of devotions. What are these essays about?
JD: Many of the essays are about my faith journey in the White House – how my faith was tested in difficult times; how I found my way back to scripture after falling away; how I got through moments of disagreement with my colleagues; and how I learned to handle the criticism that is inevitable in politics. Others are about President Obama, and some lessons I’ve learned from him along the way. For example, one essay is about how President Obama encouraged me down the path towards marrying my wife, and another is about a time I saw him lead with vulnerability, when my father passed away.
There are also snapshots of life in the White House. I describe to readers what it was like taking the Presidential motorcade up the side of a mountain to visit with Billy Graham. There are other stories like that as well.
KW: What has been the reaction to The President’s Devotional? Has any of the reaction surprised you?
JD: First, I think committed believers are finding it to be a weighty and helpful supplement to their current devotional time. Many believers have reached out to me surprised that the devotions are as bible-based and theologically meaty as they are. The book gets into some heavy subjects: temptation; power; discipline; dealing with opposition. But each devotional seeks to leave the reader – first the President, now everyone else – in a better place, closer to Jesus than when they started.
Second, (and this was a surprise to me): pastors and other leaders are finding it to be one of the more complete collections of quotations and anecdotes that exists in the marketplace today. I had a very difficult time over the years hunting down nuggets of wisdom from historical figures, artists, theologians and musicians alike. As any pastor will tell you these quotations and stories are hard to find. So I think The President’s Devotional is making sermon and speech prep a little easier for some!
KW: You led the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in President Obama’s first term. What would you want people to know about it?
JD: Well first, I want people to know that it exists – many people aren’t aware of it!
Second, the faith-based initiative is a vibrant, effective unit of government that helps faith-based organizations and other nonprofits partner with the administration to tackle big challenges. We worked with congregations and nonprofit organizations on a range of issues, from setting up a nationwide network of job training centers at congregations, to kicking of a campus service challenge, to building an interfaith network to combat human trafficking. The office was an ally for faith-based groups in the White House, and continues that important work today. I would encourage folks to reach out to the OFBNP to learn more: their website is whitehouse.gov/partnerships.
KW: What are a few things religious people can do to come together for the common good?
JD: I think as believers we must be intentional about cultivating relationships with people who are “different” from us in one way or another. If we seek to do work for the poor, we must be intentional about developing real friendships with those who have less than us, and hearing from them first – that makes our work on their behalf so much more effective. If we seek to advance a message about racial issues, politics, gender, or sexual ethics, we must first seek out and develop friendships with racial minorities, people from other political parties, women, and those in the gay community – including people whose beliefs may at times diverge from our own. These types of connections do not threaten our faith; if anything, they make our efforts for the kingdom, and for the common good, stronger, more deeply rooted, and more informed.
KW: DC can be a politically charged and polarized city. What one question do you think we should be asking that we’re not that could begin to change the climate to one of cooperation and diplomacy?
JD: I think we must all ask ourselves the question: have we lived a life of active, rather than passive, civility? That is, when we see someone being divisive, using fear and falsehoods to sully the public square, were we silent, or did we actively speak out against it?
Civility, decency and cooperation are not easy – in today’s world, they are positively radical and counter-cultural. The most divisive voices have taken ownership of the public square, whether it’s on Twitter, cable news, Facebook or elsewhere.
If we want to see greater cooperation and diplomacy, then millions of us will have to speak out for it. We have to demand it from our elected officials, and from each other as well. It seems contradictory: a forceful civility; an active, lived decency – but that’s what it will take to turn the environment in Washington around.
KW: Finally, are there any devotionals that speak to the topic of civility and cooperation?
JD: There are many – here’s one.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
“Every time your enemy fires a curse, you must fire a blessing, and so you are to bombard back and forth with this kind of artillery. The mother grace of all the graces is Christian good-will.”
–Henry Ward Beecher, Extemporaneous Discourses
Grace towards one another is our weapon.
Time after time, battle after battle, we respond with it. The enemy will win some rounds but when we respond with God’s grace, we have already won the war.
Prayer: Dear Lord, every time my enemy fires a curse, help me to fire a blessing. Let me respond always in grace, and thereby overcome. Amen.