ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – President Barack Obama, in a rare discussion about his religious beliefs, described himself on Tuesday as a "Christian by choice" who arrived at his faith in adulthood because "the precepts of Jesus Christ" helped him envision the kind of life he wanted to lead.
Obama talked about his beliefs when he was asked, "Why are you a Christian." The question was posed by a woman at a backyard conversation here, part of a series of meetings Obama is holding to talk informally with Americans.
Some conservatives and political opponents have questioned Obama's Christian faith. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll in August found that 18 percent of people wrongly believe Obama is Muslim - up from 11 percent who said so in March 2009. Just 34 percent said they thought Obama is Christian.
"I'm a Christian by choice," Obama told his audience here. "My family didn't - frankly, they weren't folks who went to church every week. And my mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didn't raise me in the church.
"So I came to my Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead - being my brothers' and sisters' keeper, treating others as they would treat me," he continued.
"And I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we're sinful and we're flawed and we make mistakes, and that we achieve salvation through the grace of God," Obama said. "But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people and do our best to help them find their own grace."
Obama said he seeks to do that through daily prayer and public service. "That's what I strive to do. That's what I pray to do every day," he said. "I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith."
Obama is the son of a Muslim father from Kenya. His mother was from Kansas. As a boy, he lived for several years in predominantly Muslim Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather. Some think his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, sounds Muslim.
Obama turned his extended reply to the question about his faith into a subtle call for religious tolerance.
"One thing I want to emphasize, having spoken about something that obviously relates to me very personally, as president of the United States I'm also somebody who deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and no faith," he said. "That this is a country that is still predominantly Christian, but we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and that their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own."
"That's part of what makes this country what it is," Obama said.
Obama was a longtime member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But during the 2008 presidential campaign he resigned from the church and cut ties with its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after videotapes surfaced of sermons in which Wright shouted "God damn America" and accused the government of creating AIDS.
Wright had helped Obama embrace Christianity, officiated at his wedding and baptized Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha.
Obama and his family have worshipped at several churches in Washington, and aides say the president enjoys attending services at the chapel at the Camp David presidential retreat. But he has yet to join a congregation in the nation's capital.
Obama's questioner said she had three "hot topic" questions for him. Her other questions were about abortion and whether he'd take home some of her husband's chili peppers.
Obama said abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" and that such a decision should be made by the woman involved, not the government. And, he said, he'd take some of the peppers to go.
"I like spicy food to go with your spicy questions," Obama said.
Darlene Superville reported from Washington