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.
I am disappointed in President Obama. Our nation is in moral decay, and he seems to cater to the extreme left agenda. I wish he would "man up" and adhere to Christain principles. I think America became a great nation because it acknowledged God. Our nation is deteriorating because of its attempt to declare our independence from God. It worked when it was Great Britain...it wont work with God!
So should we follow the 10 Commandments and the content of the Sermon on the Mount?
Yes, when that great Jesus loving president W was in office, we got those Jesusy wars and God-loving torture and a Christ concentration camp in Cuba and that good Christian "ignore the flooded city for days" love and, uh, yeah, Christian presidents are so much better.
Without God working well for us Brits. The non religous are not killing each other over fairy tales.
What a crazy article. Why are any of you questioning the President's faith? If he says he is a Christian who am I or you to question him. A bunch of judgmental Christians you are.
He is too intelligent to be a Christian. Probably a secret atheist. Has to play along with the stupid American public to get elected.
Wow, a bunch of Christians fighting over who is more Christian, could there be anything more dumb and boring?
You guys should at least give a lot credits to Obama for not forcing his wife Moochelle to wear a burqa . ;)
If you refuse the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, you can not properly claim to be promoting Christianity.
It is a blasphemous mistranslation to call it that. All TRUE Christians know that it really is the Sermon on the Mountie, when Jesus came to Canada and enjoyed the loveli lakes (though a møøse once bit his sister).
All I know is Obama is the wrong type of president for America.
Good Christian Bob, I agree with your statement. Signed: not so good Christian Giovanni
Prayer does not change things . What prayer can do is give people the inner strength to change things. So pray, volunteer and then go vote for Obama .
We prayed to Jesus to save us, but the gunman shot us in the head anyway.
Jesus would NOT approve gay marriage and killing of babies.
Anyone who does NOT follow Jesus is NOT a Christian.
The Bible never mentions abortion so stick with what it says and not your wishful thinkiing.
Jesus never had bad things to say about gays, but plenty bad to say about hetero marriages.
Jesus said two things about hetero marriage.
1. No divorce, no way no how.
2. Ditch your wife and kids and follow him, and you will be richly rewarded in heaven.
Tell – I am a gay Christian, and there are many of us. God loves all of His children, gay and straight.
Observer – Well said!
@ observer, I'm pretty sure abortion wasn't even a concept in those times. Christ never said anything about a lot of our lives aspects today specifically. By your reasoning you could say that Christ never said it's OK to watch TV, so we shouldn't watch TV. But you can apply his teachings to our time. For example, the whole don't kill others thing definitely applies to abortion.
The same Bible that says "thou shall not kill" also supplies a long list of commands from God to "kill". Then it says to kill anyone who kills anyone. Classic.
As for which of the two presidential candidates is more christian? The answer is simple, one beliefs in Christ but does not follow him in perfection (as probably none of us do), and the other does not belief in Christ as the son God so why even bother. Only God knows the heart of each person and we should be more attentive to where the two candidates want to take the country. One candidate believes in everyone getting a fair shot at a decent life, while the other believes half of the country is mooching of wealthy people like himself whose wealth fell from the sky, or so they belief.
The only right Christian is Christ himself.
Sadly most people are Christians as a social organization to belong to. It is very hard in the US to act like Jesus told us to act.
So it sounds like from this article that Obama is imposing his "religious beliefs" on the entire country. I'm not cool with that and you shouldn't be either.
Id so much rather have Schmitt force his Mormon/"Christianity" on me that saves babies but endorses hatred and killing adults who don't believe whatever the hell it is Schmitt and the GOP believe.
If Jesus was President, what programs would he support? The amassing of wealth or the uplifting of the poor and sick?
Jesus as president? Didn't read that Bible thingy, did you?
Jesus would not have belonged to a BLACK NATIONALIST church.
Jesus would not have belonged to any human made church.
He wouldn't have belonged to a Christian one either. He was a Jew.
It was Paul who reimagined Jesus into something different than what Jesus was talking about.
Constantine didn't help much by giving the Christians power. The Dark Ages immediately followed.
Jesus organized his own church while on earth (The Church of Jesus Christ). Gave apostles authority to run it after he ascended to heaven. They were eventually all killed off by wicked people, hence the great apostasy AKA the dark ages. He then restored his church to the earth in the 1800's (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). We now have a living prophet and apostles on the earth today that guide his church by revelation. The church has missionaries all over the world who share this message with those who are interested. They travel by two and wear white shirts with black name tags. They'll be more than happy to talk to you if you want.
Everyone knows that the true reformed church is "The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Aardvards, batteries not included"
Wow, I'm just aghast at the guy who says "a progressive Christian is a contradiction." A true Christian is, by definition, VERY progressive. Jesus the Christ was WAY ahead of his time and VERY "progressive" in terms of his treatment of those considered undesirable and outcast (that being everyone except wealthy healthy males) in his culture . ..He didn't get along so well with the pious religious hypocrites and religious "leaders" who were in bed with the corrupt politicians, teaming up to oppress and exploit for their own gain the common folks. Jesus was so progressive he threatened the patriarchal status quo, and that is why is was crucified – he called for a radical change in the world and those in power feared his ideas so much that they killed him. Those "progressive" ideas are still so scary to those entrenched in power positions (that bing healthy wealthy males, and women who kiss up to them) that they still persecute anyone who even slightly (or radically) disagrees. Mr. President is in good company. By the way, “Out of Many, One” is the translation of "E Pluribus Unum."
You can call your self Progressive or any other name. But if you reject the word as written in the Bible you are not a Christian. So many want to pick and choose what is a sin or not so it fits their beliefs and lifestyle. All that counts on going to Heaven is following the bible if you reject the bible you might as well say you writing your own book cause you are.
I couldn't disagree more. Christianity was/has never been "progressive". It's not something that is meant to be adapted TO US and our time....it's meant for US to adapt our lives TO IT. The term "progressive christian" is in fact, an oxymoron.
Well, I couldn't agree with Grace more, Tyler.
Wrong question. The article headline should read..... Barack Obama – The wrong kind of President!
If you do good yet you worship wealth (Mammon) you are still violating the first commandment.
The real reason for the anger against Obama is not that he might be the wrong kind of religion, but because he is the wrong kind of color.
Ok, everyone – I'm in the house! Now we can get this party started!
The real anger is not about his color. It's about his crapy policies and hatred for America. He's taking us down slowly from the inside. The only thing that would be different in a second term is that he will take us down quickly because it would be his last term.
Obama is just not white and delightsome enough.
A Christian is one who is not ashamed to say that Jesus is Lord of their life and that he or she has been saved by the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, our Creator. If you never hear these words from someone, then you'll have to wonder. True Christians find it easy to share their faith, because they know how the grace of God has saved them. And that is a free gift to all. A true Christian will share that, since Jesus said it should be done. The problem is that the media and politicians confuse or manipulate the issue to lead those less informed in their direction.
So our President or Gov. Romney couldn't win no matter how good and faithful they would be. Faith goes with truth, and that hits people the wrong way, no matter who you are. The deal is that we should focus more on character, integrity and ability to run the country, and less on religion. That will make it a more productive discussion.
Obama isn't the wrong kind of Christian. He's just an inept president.
(Interesting how the media tries so hard to make excuses for Obama's weak presidency and poll numbers).
He's a huge improvement over the bumbling cowboy the Republicans had before him.
Hi, kids – today's show is brought to you by the letter "O" and the number 16 Trillion.
The previous president left you with two wars (one of which he started for false reasons); your parents could have been part of the more than a half million people losing jobs each month; the stock market was plummeting; and he said he didn't care about the man who caused all the horror on 9/11.
@Observer, you sure aren't very observant for an observer. You obviously haven't observed what a shoddy job Obama has done.
To Zipppy....more of an inept congress. Remember the health care bill was a republican idea. Look back at what Newt said originally about health care and of course Romney implemented the same in MA. The main objective of the congress was to make President Obama a one time President. Why is that so ignored? The wars were never added to the budget under Bush. You should seriously want to replace congress. They allowed this Country to go through the economic downfall rather than work with the President. Right will always prevail. President Obama will be again the President for the next 4 years.
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.