President Obama has been without a pastor or a home church ever since he cut his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in the heat of the presidential campaign. But he has quietly cultivated a handful of evangelical pastors for private prayer sessions on the telephone and for discussions on the role of religion in politics.
All are men, two of them white and three black — including the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a graying lion of the civil rights movement. Two, the entrepreneurial dynamos Bishop T. D. Jakes and the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, also served as occasional spiritual advisers to President George W. Bush. Another, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leans left on some issues, like military intervention and poverty programs, but opposes abortion.
None of these pastors are affiliated with the religious right, though several are quite conservative theologically. One of them, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida, was branded a turncoat by some leaders of the Christian right when he began to speak out on the need to stop global warming.
But as a group they can hardly be characterized as part of the religious left either. Most, like Mr. Wallis, do not take traditionally liberal positions on abortion or homosexuality. What most say they share with the president is the conviction that faith is the foundation in the fight against economic inequality and social injustice.
“These are all centrist, social justice guys,” said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, a politically active pastor of Azusa Community Church in Boston, who knows all of them but is not part of the president’s prayer caucus. “Obama genuinely comes out of the social justice wing of the church. That’s real. The community organizing stuff is real.”
The pastors say Mr. Obama appears to rely on his faith for intellectual and spiritual succor.
“While he may not put ‘Honk if You Love Jesus’ bumper stickers on the back of his car, he is the kind of guy who practices what he preaches,” said Mr. Caldwell, the senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. “He has a desire to keep in touch with folk outside the Beltway, and to stay in touch with God. He seems to see those as necessary conditions for maintaining his internal compass.”
Bishop Jakes said he had been tapped for several prayer phone calls — the most recent being when Mr. Obama’s grandmother died in November, two days before the election. “You take turns praying,” said Bishop Jakes, who like the other ministers did not want to divulge details of the calls. “It’s really more about contacting God than each other.”
Mr. Hunter said of the phone calls: “The times I have prayed with him, he’s always initiated it.”
The Obama administration has reached out to hundreds of religious leaders across the country to mobilize support and to seek advice on policy. These five pastors, however, have been brought into a more intimate inner circle. Their names were gleaned from interviews with people who know the president and religious leaders who work in Washington. Their role could change if Mr. Obama joins a church in Washington, but that could take some time because of the logistical challenges in finding a church that can accommodate the kind of crowd the Obamas would attract.
The White House refused to comment for this article.
The pastor in the circle who has known Mr. Obama the longest is Mr. Wallis, president and chief executive of Sojourners, a liberal magazine and movement based in Washington. In contrast to the other four, his contact with the president has been focused more on policy than prayer. Mr. Wallis has recently joined conservatives in pressing the president’s office of faith-based initiatives to continue to allow government financing for religious social service groups that hire only employees of their own faith.
Mr. Wallis said he got to know Mr. Obama in the late 1990s when they participated in a traveling seminar that took bus trips to community programs across the country. Mr. Wallis said they “hit it off” because they were both Christians serious about their faith, fathers of young children the same age and believers in “transcending left and right” to find solutions to social problems.
“He and I were what we called back then ‘progressive Christians,’ as opposed to the dominant religious-right era we were in then,” Mr. Wallis said. “We didn’t think Jesus’ top priorities would be capital gains tax cuts and supporting the next war.”
Presidents through the ages have leaned on pastors for spiritual support, policy advice and political cover. The Rev. Billy Graham was a counselor to at least five (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush), and tapes from the Nixon White House reveal that their talks veered beyond religion to political and social topics that later proved regretful.
Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, regularly attended a local church. George W. Bush never joined a local church, but courted ministers on the religious right, which gained him favor with a major constituency for most of his two terms.
Pinning down Mr. Obama’s theological leanings is not easy, the ministers said in interviews. They said he is well read in the Bible, but has not articulated views consistent with the racially inflected interpretation of his former pastor, Mr. Wright.
Mr. Moss, who once worked alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and who only recently retired from his pulpit at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, said of the president, “I would simply say that he is a person of great faith, and I think that faith has sustained him.”
Mr. Moss’s son is the Rev. Otis Moss III, who succeeded Mr. Wright as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Mr. Obama’s former church. Mr. Wright and the president are no longer in contact, said several people who know both men.
Bishop Jakes said he sought out Mr. Obama in Chicago because of their common interest in Kenya and because he was impressed with the speech Mr. Obama delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Bishop Jakes is himself a nationally known preaching powerhouse who fills sports stadiums and draws 30,000 worshipers to his church in Dallas, the Potter’s House. He also produces movies, writes books and runs antipoverty programs in Dallas and Kenya, where Mr. Obama has ties through his Kenyan father.
Three of the ministers said their introduction to the president was through Joshua DuBois, who led religious outreach for the Obama presidential campaign and now heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mr. DuBois, who declined to comment, is himself a Pentecostal pastor.
Mr. Hunter, who leads a church in Longwood, Fla., said he was approached by Mr. DuBois in 2007 — a few months after he left his new post as head of the Christian Coalition, the conservative advocacy group, because the board did not want to enlarge its agenda to include environmental issues like global warming.
He has since written a book, “A New Kind of Conservative: Cooperation Without Compromise,” and gave an invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year.
Bishop Jakes, Mr. Wallis and Mr. Hunter said they were political independents. Mr. Moss and Mr. Caldwell publicly endorsed Mr. Obama, and Mr. Caldwell donated money to his campaign.
On the morning of the inauguration, Bishop Jakes delivered the sermon at a private service at St. John’s Episcopal Church. He likened Mr. Obama to the boys in the Book of Daniel who are thrown into a fiery furnace that is seven times hotter than it should be — and survive. “God is with you in the furnace,” Bishop Jakes preached to Mr. Obama.