Obama: "A Christian by Choice"

President Barack Obama in Albuquerque, NM Sept. 28, 2010

President Barack Obama in Albuquerque, NM Sept. 28, 2010

President Obama is "a Christian by choice," a conscious decision he made after growing up in a family that didn't practice its religion, the president told a group of Albuquerque, N.M. residents Tuesday during a backyard discussion.

Asked about his spiritual beliefs by a local woman during a question and answer session with the crowd, the president said the church came "later in life."

"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 I would want to lead," he said, adding that Jesus taught the world humility.

"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. 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. And so that's what I strive to do. That's what I pray to do every day. I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith," the president said.

Obama's comments come on the heels of several recent controversies over his religion, including comments about the construction of a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero and polls that found many Americans believe he is Muslim. The Pew Research Center poll, released in August, found that one in five Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim and only a third believe he is a Christian. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had no idea what religion Obama practices.

Though he made clear he is a Christian, the president emphasized his appreciation for tolerance of all religious beliefs.

"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 of no faith," he said. "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."