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.
You would have to be crazy not to see that an invisible magic super-buddy in the sky controls everything and gets you parking spots.
Obooboo believes all roads/paths lead to God; that is not Christianity, it is universalism. In Christiankity there is one path to God and that is through his son Jesus Christ.
Christiankity? Is that your cat?
We are told not to bear false witness.
If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Yes, people can CHOOSE to be charitable. Research has shown that conservatives and Christians are the most giving.
Zippy Conservatives and Liberals both seek to promote worldly goals. Both look to limit their responsibility and increase their personal freedoms while limiting others. The trick is not to find people who pray well in the open but to stick with the ideals Jesus noted. Sadly we like to justify our sins.
We good Christians always know that the parts of the Bible we don't want to follow are optional, and the parts we want you to follow are mandatory.
This article is beyond ignorant. Just because he is a christian does not mean he needs to impose his christian views on all people. Bush is a Christian too. Why are you views on him? I personally don't appreciate anyone President or not trying to impose their religious view on me. Why are your thoughts are Romney who's grandfather had five wives as a Mormon. You're an idiot!
Haha why so mad? This article wasn't about Bush, Romney, or any other political figure, it was about the current president. Quit your whining and open your eyes.
So often I hear republicans pretend or claim that they have some kind of moral higher ground because they oppose abortion because it involves the killing of the unborn. However, the republican party also claims to be "hawkish" and more eager to rush into war where the killing of innocent children, men and women, young and old, happens on a frequent basis, and then go on to call it "collateral damage". To me these two postures are polar opposites and lead me to believe that the stance against abortion by the republican party is nothing more than a religious front to win over the support of people of faith in God. To put it more bluntly, the republican party may very well be an example of a wolf in sheep's clothing.
I so agree with everything you so said. Abortion has become a political tool that Republicans use to gain the votes from the Conservative Base. Once in office, no one does anything. Romney has changed his opinion to whatever suits him. I agree that Obama comes from the faith of Martin Luther King and he has chosen to not impose his beliefs on others.
My spiritual leader asked today if I would vote for Jesus... I say I am a christian but would I vote for him if his plan was to send unharmed troops to help less privileged countries? Would I vote for him if his plan was for me to share what I have with those less fortunate living next to me? Would I vote for him if he asked me to pray for my enemies or AlQuaeda? Would I vote for him if he asked me not to pollute the world he has given me? Would I? May be not, it is difficult to follow the Christ... May be I'd just be another bigot hiding behind religious believes to justify my rightiousness.... may be I'd just feel like Judas Iscariot in selling him for a tax cut... But, if I had ever had a chance of being enlighten by the Holy Spirit I'd have the guts to follow Him just for once....
I like that!
Vote for Jesus? Your "spiritual advisor" is a theological ninny.
Ask your spiritual leader if HE would vote for a man that REJECTS Jesus Christ.
Ask him if he will vote for a man who believes that Jesus Christ was 'just one prophet among many'
So many people keep attacking President Obama's faith with rumors started by partisans, and ignoring the fact that BY DEFINITION Mormons are NOT Christians. They reject Jesus as man's Redeemer, and they do not recognize Him as the son of God.
Well... your honesty is certainly Christ like.
I'm pretty sure that the separation of church and state means we shouldn't even be talking about Obama's religion.
This article and the subsequent responses are appalling. Now not only do you have to be a part of the right religion (christianity) but now you have the be the right kind of christian?? What in the world? The judgmental comments by people on here claiming to be Christians are the reason why so many Americans are turning away from the religion or becoming, as some of these commenters would say, "damned heathens". What happened to "love thy neighbor as thyself" or "Love does no wrong to it's neighbor, therefore love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law"?
Really hard to take religion seriously if this is is a testament to their intelligence.
To get this straight – a Morman is NOT a Christian, so why a Christian church would support Romney – money!
And because we will be able to change the American flag to be a picture of Jesus wearing a cowboy hat and holding a rifle. No, you don't tell me what Jesus would do, Jesus was American and so am I, I will tell you what Jesus would do. And Jesus wants fossil fuels.
President Obama is not the wrong kind of Christian. The problem here is that too many Christians are so wedded to their politics that they have allowed it to become their religion. The Bible is clear: pure worship and religion that is acceptable to God is to take care of the poor, widows, and orphans, and to be a voice for the voiceless. To many people claiming the mantle of Christianity today have never considered their obligation to others – the Republican Party tells them they don't need to. So no, Barack Obama isn't the wrong kind of Christian. Christians are reading the republican play book in place of the Bible.
Excellent comment in few words. Thank you.
All I can say is that this is the kind of Christianity I was brought up to believe in – completely based on 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Oh – and if it should make any difference (and it really shouldn't) I am a white person brought up in the Chicago area, with the religious basis of our family coming from my grandmother who was born & raised in Joliet (IL). To me, what Obama is referencing is exactly appropriate – both because of what was said in the bible, and because of the area of the country he lived in when he developed his Christian beliefs.
So many comments. So little inspiration. Obama is Christian by label. Romney is Mormon by label. Pick your label. It's like going to a grocery store. Myself, I usually I buy the store brand. It's cheaper and tastes pretty much the same as the name brands. Too bad we don't have someone running for president under the store brand. The name brand is way too expensive, any way you look at it.
I personally believe we shouldn't vote for a president (or any elected official) based on his/her religion. So, vote Obama or Romney for their Policies, vision, and personal character and not their religion. However, if you want to have a "christian" president your vote should be for Obama, as Mr. Romney , belongs to the "cult of Mormonism" according to Christian righst and their iconic Pastor Billy Graham (at least as of few days ago!)
"He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.
'No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible. These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.' -Rev. Gary Cass"
Really? The bible estimates the world to be what, approximately 6000 years old? And that Noah fit 2 of all animals onto a boat, etc. etc.? But you don't call THAT contradictory?
Billy Graham is the wrong kind of Christian and Romney isn't a Christian at all. He's a rich warmonger and double talker. He has bought Billy Graham and will sellout America and undo everthing that Obama has tried to do to help people after the idiot Bush ruined this country. The first thing Romney said he'd do is to reverse Obamacare. People who have been waiting for years to get their health issues looked after will now probably die. Horrible man with no heart.
Obama represents mainstream Christianity from 2-3 decades ago. Unfortunately in the last two decades what was once a fringe of Christianity has rapidly grown into the mainstream. The mainstream has become a minority. To say this is a shame is to understate a frightening reality.
Jesus Himself said: "You shall know them by their fruits" – OBAMA is NOT a CHRISTIAN – End of story.
If Obama is not a Christian, than what exactly is Romney the morman? Hmmm.....
"You shall know them by their fruits" All you have to do is read the posts on this blog to see the reality of that statement!
And if anyone could spot a fruit, Jesus could. He had a harem of 12 of them.
Yep. Obama cares for the poor, wants everyone to have access to health care and wants the rich to pay their share. Definitely not a christian. But he's a good American.
Prayer changes things
I dare John Blake to question Mr. Rooney's faith by posting an article "Is Romney the 'wrong' kind of Christian"?
Mormons are not Christians.
How would YOU know, turdy? You don't know a "Gaul" from "gall."
Mormons do not believe in the Virgin Birth, nor do they believe in the Trinity; therefore, they ARE NOT Christians ... Fact check it for your self.
Whatsamatter, nope? Lose your "m"? As in "mind"?
Poor you, little turd be tooled. Oops, I meant "nope." My bad.
I always get you two confused. You're just like to peez in a pod. All yellow and smelly.
Well I know the wrong kind of christian and they not a chrisitian, these types are hypocrites, they are greedy, they do not want to help those in need through no fault of their own, they are war mongers would rather talk war rather than peace, they are wolves in sheep clothing, they will pave the road to hell, they will do the christian talk but they are not, they are really demons, they will tell you I believe in God, well the demons believe in God and they tremble, James 2-19, I notice this is the way a lot of republicons talk, they are not chrisitans you can judge a tree by the fruit it bares, and the fruit of the republicons policies are ungodly, they care nothing about the poor, they are full of greed, they love the fetus but they hate the child when it gets here, like taking away a child's healthcare, and food out of a child's mouth, their policies are evil and so are they.
Obama was in Jeremiah Wright's church for twenty years, until Jeremiah damned America....then Obama had to disown him and hide him.....he also wears a ring that says – All power to Allah....hmmmm
Christian preachers with any backbone have ALWAYS said 'you reap what you sow' and that no person or nation is above God's judgement. Conservatives just didn't like the fact that Rev. Wright was a black man pointing a finger at a country that has only had white leaders in the White House until Obama showed up. There's a ton of hypocrites in the U.S.
This is a lie that some of the republicons are saying that President Obama wears a ring that says all power to allah, this is a lie, as far as pastor Wright church a lot of people did not listen to the whole sermon, the bible even says a nation is damned when it turns from God he was not damming America, the republicons took this out of context and played the parts they wanted people to hear they always do this, and they will keep lying on the president and they will still lie when he is out of office, they are just liars, this is why they like romney rob me so much, because he is a liar.
Outright, bald-faced lies, NATHAN. Shame on you. YOU are a LIAR.
That you have to lie, says EVERYTHING about YOU and your own personal (lack of) integrity..
Mitt Romney's whole religion is based on a rejection of Christ the Savior. He's a MORMON... Do you not know what that means?? It means Romney thinks Jesus Christ was "just a prophet" – NOT the Son of God.
During the last election, Republicans got angry at the pastor of President Obama's former church... a CHRISTIAN Church.
They DEMANDED that the candidates have a 'town hall' type meeting at Saddleback Church to discuss their faiths. Know why that didn't happen this time? Because the President is an actual Christian, and Mitt Romney is a MORMON.
You need to stop lying (might want to check the Bible on that point) about what the President has said about his faith, and learn a little about the non-Christian you're no doubt supporting.
Mormons do NOT believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and man's Redeemer.
THAT is a fact. Nathan.
When you're willing to BETRAY God and lie to support your position, you need to take a step back.
I'll pray for you, because your willingness to lie and use God in pursuit of partisan political causes put you in some serious jeopardy.
detailed and supported evidence that Obama was fathered by Frank Marshall Davis, a communist union organizer in Hawaii. Very detailed. Very disturbing. Identifies all of Obama's influential people through the years, including connections with the CIA, weather underground and socialist community organizing (agitating) in the years leading up to this presidency.
Watch it for yourself. Decide for yourself. I have and did. Over 3 million sent to people in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Watch instantly with a netflix subscription.
All power to Allah....hmmmm
While you are obviously judging Muslims with your reference...here is a reference for you, from Jesus himself: There are those among you who say they are disciples of mine, to them I say I did not know you..for others (Muslims?): There will be many in heaven who did not profess to know me, but will receive their reward because they fed me when I was hungry, they took care of me when I was sick ( i.e. they did God's will). Are you judging others?
This is a lie but what if he did? So what? It's funny how people hate Muslims but it's ok to be a Mormon.
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.