By John Blake, CNN
President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals.
When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”
The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:
“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say.
“Barack Obama has referred to his faith more times than most presidents ever have, but for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,” says Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, an evangelical activist group based in Washington that focuses on poverty and social justice issues.
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“It is not the faith of the religious right. It’s about things that they don’t talk about. It’s about how the Bible is full of God’s clear instruction to care for the poor.”
Some see a 'different' kind of Christian
Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.
No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”
“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”
Some Christians, however, still see Obama as the “other.” He doesn’t act or talk like other Christians, says the Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian president of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission.
“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.
Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto.
Obama talks about his faith and attends church, but Cass says that doesn’t mean he’s a Christian.
“Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. “You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”
The origins of Obama’s faith
The suspicion about Obama’s faith may seem odd at first because he’s written and spoken so much about his spiritual evolution in his two autobiographies, “Dreams of my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” Other books, like “The Faith of Obama” by Stephen Mansfield, also explore Obama’s beliefs.
The 1925 “Monkey” trial of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher who taught evolution, drove fundamentalists underground, some say.
Mansfield says Obama is the first president who wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Obama’s mother was an atheist and his grandparents were religious skeptics (Obama’s family has challenged the description of his mother as an atheist. Obama called her “the most spiritually awakened” person he’d ever known, and his sister called their mother an agnostic).
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Mansfield called Obama’s boyhood a “religious swirl. He was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, and strains of Hinduism and Buddhism while growing up in Indonesia during the 1960s.
“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominantly black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.
Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.
In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:
“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”
When many people think of Obama’s religious experience in Chicago, though, they cite his exposure to the angry sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and “black liberation theology,” a movement that emerged in the late 1960s and blended the Social Gospel with the black power movement.
Bass, the church historian, says another black pastor shaped Obama’s theology more: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He attended liberal Protestant seminaries where he learned about the Social Gospel’s concern for the entire person, soul and body.
Obama has reached out to evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, seen here praying at Obama’s inauguration, but many still doubt his faith.
King once wrote that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them …is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
But King and the black church also fused the Social Gospel with an emotional fervor missing from white Protestant churches, Bass says. Other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by the Social Gospel, but they weren’t shaped by the black church.
“This is the first time we’re hearing the Social Gospel from the perspective of the black church from the Oval Office. It makes it warmer, more emotive, more communal," Bass says. "There is less fear of linking the Social Gospel with the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Exodus and Jesus’ healings.”
The emphasis on community uplift - not individual attainment - may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.
King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”
“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”
Obama is not a Christian, some think
For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity.
Jesus was nonviolent. Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Afghanistan that have not only removed terrorists, but killed civilians.
The Bible talks about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Obama invoked Jesus when he came out in support of same-sex marriage. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule," Obama told ABC News during his announcement.
Jesus talked about helping the poor. But he never said anything about creating a massive health care law that taxed the rich to help the poor, some Christians argue.
But Wallis of Sojourners says Obama’s push for health care was a supreme example of Christian faith.
A situation where 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance is “a fundamental Christian problem,” Wallis says.
“Health is such a Gospel issue. Jesus was involved in healing all the time, and to have some people excluded from health care because they lack wealth is a fundamental Christian contradiction.”
Wallis has been one of the most persistent defenders of Obama’s faith. But no matter how much Scripture he and others cite, doubts about Obama’s faith have followed him throughout his political career.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson once said that Obama distorted the traditional understanding of the Bible “to fit his own world, his own confused theology.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, publicly questioned Obama’s faith, then later apologized.
Conservative Christian books and websites are filled with stories of Obama allegedly trying to suppress the nation’s Christian heritage.
The Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” says Obama is trying to change the national motto from “In God we Trust” to “Out of Many, One,” and he’s ordered the Pentagon to remove biblical verses from its daily report.
“That’s the most serious thing someone can do to a nation, trying to separate a nation from God,” he says. “He seems to be trying to change the Christian laws our Founding Fathers made.”
Andrew says Obama is actually an enemy of Christianity. In his book, Andrew argues that the Founding Fathers were Christians who created a “covenant Christian nation” and calls for a “national repentance.”
“I think he’s an anti-Christ,” Andrew says. Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity.
Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says.
“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”
Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights also disqualifies him from being a Christian, Cass says.
“It’s the most pro-abortion administration in the history of America. On every social issue – the sanctity of life and of marriage between men and women – Obama is on the wrong side of every moral issue,” he says.
He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.
“No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible,” Cass says. “These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.”
Cass says he doesn’t know what Obama believes.
“He’s conflicted,” Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."
How progressive Christianity lost the public square
There was a time when Obama’s brand of Christianity would have been understood by millions of Americans, historians say.
Obama along with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha leave church after attending a Sunday prayer service.
The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.
The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.
Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.
“The notion that religious people should be about feeding the poor and helping the homeless is a carryover of the Social Gospel,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio. The Social Gospel was adopted by many Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, says Bass, the church historian. Some of the Social Gospel churches grew popular because they provided the poor with everything from English classes to sewing instructions and basketball leagues.
“The first American megachurches were liberal, Social Gospel urban churches,” Bass says.
The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.
But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.
Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”
The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.
That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.
“They have millions of adherents who believe in a literal six day creation and a literal Adam and Eve – so it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felten says.
Progressive Christians eventually lost the messaging wars to this fundamentalist subculture, Bass says. Their nuanced view of faith couldn’t compete with the “spiritual triumphalism” of conservatives.
“If you get up and say we’re right and we have the truth, then you have a powerful public message,” she says. “They have a theological advantage in the public discourse. It’s comforting to have things clear, to have things black and white.”
The result today is that the Protestant tradition that shapes much of Obama’s Christianity is fading from public view.
The share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
White mainline Protestants make up only 15% of the nation’s population, the survey revealed. The study also found that the fastest growing "religious group" in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.
Another generation of Christians, though, may bring a new version of progressive Christianity back.
The lines between younger conservative Christians and progressives are blurring, says Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”
Pally spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She says her research revealed that more than 60% of young evangelicals support more governmental programs to aid the needy, as well as more emphasis on economic justice and environmental protection issues.
“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” she says.
Her perspective suggests that Obama’s faith may be treated by history in two ways:
He could be seen as the last embodiment of a progressive version of Christianity that went obsolete.
Or he could be seen as a leader who helped resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation.
Obama has done nothing to prove he has any faith in any religion...to suggest a new type of christian is insane...and any picture of him leaving a church is few and far between.
If he does not believe in God...then so be it...but at least be man enough to say it...rather than hide behind it when you need votes...
It is just satanic to mix good (care for the poor) and bad (support of gay marriage) behaviour. Seemingly, Obama wants to entrap the naive multi-tudes by his strategy of mixing good and bad. I guess his heart is not as beautiful as his face.
"..., but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-se-x marriage, ... " Mr. Blake said.
Simply the fact that Obama supports same-se-x marriage, and blasphemously appeals to Jesus in this context, is a clear indicator or evidence that he is no Christian at all.
A gay man is simply a maniac concerning his s-exuality. He has completely forsaken the trust in the Lord that he may give him a wife in due course, and know he fuc-ks with men. Such a disbelief should not be supported by the society or the state.
We should not support gay marriage but help single men and women to find appropriate partners of the opposite gender.
We have too little people in our society which bring about healthy community, this is our problem. Community is nothing which is there for no reasen but must always be promoted and supported by highly spiritual people.
Such an unselfish love which wants to bring about community is typical for real Christians. As we become more and more lonely this is a clear sign that the true Christian faith is about to disappear from the earth.
Christianity could not disappear fast enough for me. God and Jesus are imaginary and harmful to human kind.
Rainer, I am a Christian who holds the same beliefs. We are all different. And you, in my view, like many tea-party have a very ignorant view of the bible. You may have read the bible, but you haven't understood God's administrations. I'm always very sorry to see/read theses judgments from people, as God would tell you, that is YOUR judgment on yourself. We are not called to judge, discern yes, but not judge. I always feel bad for people who think like you and what you are faced with at death: your own judgment on yourself. Very sad reflection of Christ. For it is not about your "good works" it is about what JESUS DID, not what you do. Get behind Jesus, not you... keep you eyes off other people, because your own skeletons are are now, quite exposed.
Where is CNN going with this? The issues are what should be on debate ... when we start to divide people according to their faith, what makes western society better than any other? This is fanning the flames of racism, segregation of political and ethnic lines in addition to working as a media vice. I usually watch CNN because they are not drawn into the FOX news type style of politics. This is a slippery slope when someone has to quantify their faith and the media doesn't concentrate on real issues like people dying for freedom around the world, earthquakes, deep poverty in Europe and Africa and the global struggle for access and equity to education. The media bias is steering this election outcome and I don't think that the candidates even with all the money that they have spent have as much power as the media do in shaping and forming the opinions of voters.
if you think i am a hate filled moron then you really need to go back to school and pull out the books on econmics, political science, and us and world history. ill tell you all i am a preach and do belive in the bible. yes i am a christian but i am only a man so yes i do sin i am not perfect and do not claim to be so. but i base all things on facts. i do have personal beliefs just as everyone does, but it should not matter what your faith is to be president as long as your faith does not hurt american like muslums. fact muslims belive in a woman being at home and making babies, why do you think a former obama legal aid stated working for him was a border discrimanation. and women make less then men in the white house. lets stop focusing on religon and focus on ecomics obama just has not got it done and remember he stated in 09 and i quote, if i cant get the job done on everything i promised ill be a one term president. lets agree with one niether is fit for the office but romny is econmicly better
A hate filled moron who can't spell.
"In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
Comment: and this is how we learn to respect and to be tolerant of each other. Bravo Obama!!!
They're all the wrong kind.
No man would proclaim his faith just for political gain would they?
Given what is know about his upbringing, the man who brought him to his faith (Rev Wright) and the stunningly few if any people that will say attest to Obama personally having helped them (no i don't mean a govt program) – it would not be a stretch to say Obama is really not that much of a spiritual guy.
He is not a Christian. His own pastor, Reverend Wright, said he wasn't convinced he had converted to Christianity. He was brought up a Muslim. There is nothing wrong with that. If he would just admit it. More important is that he was raised by communist grandparents and mentored by Frank Marshall Davis, a card-carrying communist. Now that is a problem.
Those are strange words indeed coming from Rev Wright.
Martin Luther said:
There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason, especially if she enters into spiritual matters which concern the soul and God. For it is more possible to teach an ass to read than to blind such a reason and lead it right; for reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed." "Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees it must put out of sight, and wish to know nothing but the word of God.
God is imaginary and the enemy of reason. Visit http://www.godisimaginary.com
Personally, I like Old Testament god better than New Testament god, the old one was a vengeful, smiting jerk!
Obama's Religion is called MARXISM.
Looks like all humans born from 200,000 B.C.E. to around 33 C.E are all going to Hell! There is NO god!
I have several family members who are fundamentalist christians. They were talking to each other about "real christians'" and how they just know someone is not a "real christian". A year later one of them is in jail for molesting my nephew. I guess he was a real christian though because the others could tell he was.
He should have become a priest or a scout leader in the Christian run BSA. Sounds like he would fit right in.
The bible is a source of horrible morality. The Abrahamic god cares more about being worshipped than who is good or bad. Christians believe that, no matter how good of a person you are, if you choose the wrong religion, you deserve to BURN for ETERNITY. This would be to say that Ghandi and billions of other good people are burning for eternity right now, and deserve it. This is not a good moral value.
Not to mention the God of the Old Testament clearly condones immoral behaviour such as slavery, torture, murder. If you seriously believe that a loving God, at some point or another, encouraged people to own slaves, beat them to death, or stone their kids to death for misbehaving... you are not right in the head. Clearly these are not GOD'S WORDS, they are MAN'S WORDS.
You cannot take the bible literally this day and age... religion has to be watered down or it becomes crazy.
Obama is too lazy, or doesn't care to, commit just one hour a week to God to go to church.
Me too! Hail Satan!
He's got my vote !
I agree! Obama would rather practice chipping balls with hi nine iron or pitching wedge. Or maybe shoot some hoops during church hour!
In my above post, I meant to say with "his" nine iron or pitching wedge...
If that is your take on it, neither did Nixon, Reagan or either Bush. Given the disturbance, for security's sake, that having the President attend a public worship service causes, many presidents worship in the White House by inviting religious leaders of different faiths to come there and hold a service. When the Obamas are within the secure confines of Camp David, they attend services at the chapel there. I don't know what your faith is, but your hate is coming through just fine.
The spirtual and intellectual bigotry exhibited by these "conservative" Christian leaders (Andrew? Cass?) is appalling. From my perspective, progressive Christianity goes to the heart of the message of Christ, and is a more true application of the lessons and principles found in the Bible, rather than the treatment of the Bible as a literal history book whose explicit words are to be taken exactly as written. Of course, the bigger debate is "which words?" and "written by who?"
You rae so right, Skyjmpr, the most unifying characteristic of most religions is immediately installing fences and gate-keepers between humankind and the Creator. The rank bigotry of Cass and others will be far from sweet perfume in the Lord's nostrils when they stand at the gate of Heaven.
John Blake. You just don't get it. Evangelicals, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc., are all forms of Protestants. Obama is the right kind of christian, and the wrong kind of color. Protestant churches are still largely segregated. Like many, you just can't accept the truth. Come to Jesus, son.
Who cares what religion anyone is? It should be a personal thing. CNN...I am disappoint. Obama's Christianity...Romney's Mormonism...you're feeding the sleeping masses with unimportant nonsense and creating division within the U.S. using a wedge of religious mumbo jumbo. I could care less if Obama or Romney worshiped a magical flying unicorn that can poop cancer healing rainbows, as long as Obama/Romney is good for the country. Now GTFO pl0x.
If more Christians thought like Mr. Obama, more people might be willing to stay with religion. Instead, many people are turning away from Christianity. The reason for that is not just because we're more educated and don't buy into biblical logic. It's because Christianity has turned away from the teachings of Jesus. We might be willing to put up a bit with the fairy tales in the bible if the Christian community actually did as they preached.
Mr. Obama is not an exclusionist, as so many Christians are these days, he's an inclusionist. He will not cast you away and call you a sinner because you are gay....or because you are Muslim....or because you've made a mistake in your life.
Mr. Obama is more like Christ than most Christians. I'm not saying he's a saint, but he appears to try to live his life as Jesus taught us to live. Don't judge; help your brother....that's what Jesus preached. How many so-called followers of Christ actually do that?
What ever happened between the separation of Government and religion?
That was to keep government out of religion, not the other way around
Need to read up on the context, because that is not the correct interpretation.
The founders did not want the FEDERAL govt favoring one religion over another. They were thinking the various denominatiosn of Christians. It did not apply to the states and in fact some states actually collected revenue for the particualr denomintions in their states.
Herein lies the rub. It's all about being Christian for some people, namely the Christian orthodoxy. I don't care what kind of Christian you are or whether you're Christian at all so long as you don't lead the nation/support legislation based on your particular religious views. let me make this clear: A CHRISTIAN MAJORITY IN THIS COUNTRY DOES NOT MAKE THIS A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY. I'm not Christian, flat out reject Christianity and should not have my religious liberties boiled down to the Christian orthodoxy telling me they won't force me to convert while making me living under laws based on Christian religious doctrine. It's amazing how the Christians who want to force that issue complain about the oppression of Christians in other countries based on the official religion of that country or the fact that Christians are a minority in that country while still trying to enact their personal Christian version of sharia law here.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.