It was 2008, in the trough of a long, hard presidential campaign for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
One morning, a young staffer named Joshua DuBois sent a message to the candidate's BlackBerry. DuBois, who by then had been everything from a Pentecostal pastor to a Princeton public-policy grad student, had written some spiritual reflections, weaving together Biblical verses with pop tunes and meditations on history, culminating in brief prayers.
"I'll send them in the morning from time to time, if it's helpful," he wrote.
Yes, Obama replied, send them - every morning.
And DuBois has done so since, becoming a kind of adviser, or at least spiritual kick-starter. He tries to stockpile his entries, he says, writing in quiet times after church, or whenever ideas come.
"The very first one," DuBois says by phone, "was on the 23d Psalm. It was a tough time in the campaign, an economic crisis, political opposition heating up. I felt it was important to get him thinking about his soul."
DuBois is on a reading tour for his book, The President's Devotional (HarperOne, 400 pages, $24.99), which arranges some of his morning reflections in calendar form for, as he puts it, "everyday leaders - anyone with responsibility in our life, and that's all of us." Each month begins with an essay on the spiritual and political life. Now in Nashville, DuBois went through Philadelphia this month, stopping at Esperanza College of Eastern University.
Devotionals have a long history, especially among leaders, for whom they double as meditations on how to do their jobs well. Thus, DuBois offers, on June 14, "In Silence," which ends with this prayer:
God, in your presence, I sit in silence.
The devotionals address when to listen to others; how to take criticism; how to love your enemies; how to embrace responsibility. Good for leaders to know. For anyone.
Obama "is a committed Christian," DuBois says. "But he's not the kind of man who's going to shout it from the rooftops every day. He cultivates his faith in private. He spends time in prayer with pastors in the Oval Office. He devotes more time in services than people know."
At 25, DuBois became director of religious affairs for Obama 2008. Among his essays is the story of how the campaign faced a firestorm over remarks by Obama's erstwhile pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
DuBois and two senior advisers wrote a statement. Obama walked in, read it, rejected it ("In times like this," DuBois reports him as saying, "you just can't - I mean, you really cannot - 'spin' "), said it had to be more direct, and rewrote it on the spot. It led to Obama's March 18, 2008, speech on race in Philadelphia.
DuBois eventually worked as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (where he learned how to take a good deal of nasty criticism).
Democrats, of the two major parties, have the rep, earned or not, of being the less spiritual. Why is it hard for the blues to talk church?
They do, DuBois says, beginning with Obama. His first awareness of Obama was spiritual.
"At the time, I was trying to decide between a career in faith and a career in politics. I wanted to work for a Democrat with faith and values. This one night, I was having a burger at this place, the TV was on, and it was the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and here was a man saying, 'We worship an awesome God in the blue states.' That electrified me. That made me realize this man was different."
So . . . spiritual Dems?
"Many Democrats are people of strong faith and values," DuBois says, "but it's not as well known. Some think you have to keep church and state so separate you can't even talk about religious values in the public square. Not so."
He points to a June 2006 speech in which Obama called on his party to be forthright about the role of faith in public life, or "others will fill the vacuum."
Does the president have any favorite meditations?
Obama likes "Johnny Cash," the Aug. 30 entry that twins a passage from Romans with "Folsom Prison Blues." He likes "He Danced," Sept. 21, which weaves Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" ("to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free") with David, "dancing before the Lord with all his might." And he likes "Nina Simone," Sept. 29, which twins her rendition of "Feeling Good" with Psalm 59, and concludes: "We can take control of our song, our Psalm."
DuBois is now a columnist for the online news and opinion site the Daily Beast and cofounder of Values Partnerships, a nonprofit that advises leaders on faith-based efforts. He sees opportunities for the parties, and for those of any or no faith, to join forces in civic life.
"You see it in issues such as immigration reform," he says, "or human trafficking."
So, these devotionals are political, civic, and spiritual, all at once. Readers are telling him, DuBois says, "I opened your book because Obama's face was on the cover - but I bought it because of what it says inside."
"The President's Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama" by Joshua DuBois
HarperOne, 400 pages, $24.99EndText