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The Gospel according to Obama
President Obama is not just a racial trailblazer, but some say a religious pioneer as well. No president has ever shared his type of Christianity, historians say. Some say he may revive a form of Christianity that once dominated America.
October 21st, 2012
06:59 AM ET

The Gospel according to Obama

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.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church • Courts • Creationism • Culture & Science • Culture wars • Evangelical • Evolution • evolvution • Faith • Fundamentalism • Gay marriage • Gay rights • God • History • Homosexuality • Interfaith issues • Obama • Protestant • Religious liberty • Same-sex marriage • Schools • Science

soundoff (8,626 Responses)
  1. necrom23

    Obama's not the right kind of Christian the same way Martin Luther was the wrong kind of Catholic.. or the way Jesus was the wrong kind of Jew. Thank God for the freedom we have.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  2. "Dreams From My Real Father" is now available on Netflix to watch instantly. Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself.

    "Dreams From My Real Father" is now available on Netflix to watch instantly. Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself.

    Detailed and supported evidence that Obama was likely 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 (his mother's father), a fraudulent parental relationship, the weather underground and his activities in 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 on Netflix.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Observer

      Supply PROOF to show you have ANY TRUTH in your nonsense.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Roger Tallywhacher

      Well if Frank Marshall Davis is Obama's father, then both his parents are AMERICANS! I guess the right-wingers will have to cancel that aeroplane ticket back to Kenya.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Chuck-e

      The proof's in the movie. I've seen it. It's true

      October 22, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  3. Tyler

    "..it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felton says. NOT A STRETCH AT ALL!!!!

    October 21, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Observer

      It's hard to believe that anyone is so ignorant as to bring up the birth certificate LIES again after Trump and the birthers were made total fools.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Tupac Chopra

      Thank you Tyler for that lesson in "How to make a complete jackass out of yourself in 30 words or less."

      October 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Joel

      Wait, is he Muslim, or atheist? I can never keep that straight.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Observer

      It's not a stretch at all for Tyler. That tells us everything.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • LOL

      Birthers are funny.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  4. This is the best election ever!

    If Obama wins, the Religious Right will be thoroughly pissed off.

    If the Mormon wins, the Religious Right will be thoroughly pissed off.

    Life is good.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  5. Joel

    Wow. Hes not Christian because he doesn't use the right lingo, he doesn't speak the same way as an American born-again evangelical. Wow. The only true Christian comes from the American evangelical tradition with its roots in 19th century revivalism. That's perhaps the most staggeringly arrogant thing I've heard this month, and exceedingly un-Christ-like.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  6. Mike23

    He is as christian as Sheikh Osama Ben Laden. Once you're born in a family in which the father or mother is muslim, you are muslim for life no matter what. He said so in his book and he also said that he will side with muslims against christians. Any wonder why he invites his "brothers" to the white house many times to celebrate their religious (Eids) and let them pray outside on the WH lawn when he cancelled the national prayer day and consistently attack christians and christianity. He also knows that if he really converted to christianity, his life will be in danger as long as he lives. I heard that he got this miserable ring from the Saudi King after he bowed in front of him.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Observer

      Nearly 100% FACTFREE comments. Well done.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Joel

      Lies.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Ipod

      Truth : He was born as a Muslim, raised as a Muslim boy in Indonesia then converted himself to somewhat a Christian in his young adult life. So is he a wrong kind of Christian? You damn right, he is a wrong kind!

      October 21, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • george

      His father was an Atheist! Your facts are coming from Obama-hater sites!

      October 22, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • Bill

      That is an ignorant statement. The idea that someone born to a Muslim parent (which, by the way, isn't true, given that Obama Sr. was a Christian by the time he was six and an atheist by adulthood) must automatically be a Muslim regardless of their opinion on the matter shows a fundamental lack of knowledge on the very nature of religion - that it is a belief system, not an ethnicity.

      Frankly, I wish he was a Muslim. Hell, I wish he was a socialist. But he's not.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  7. Mr Mark

    As if there's a "right" kind of Christian.

    For my money, they pretty much all suck.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  8. william legge

    A Christian? Really? I think not.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  9. Ezra

    The photo caption for the first photo says racially twice when you mean to say religious in the second sentence.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  10. RichardSRussell

    We will never run out of Christians who claim that any OTHER kind of Christian is not the RIGHT kind of Christian. They usually say it about each other.

    The only thing that'll ever settle it is if Jesus shows up and points at one group and says "It's them." Wanna hold yer breath?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  11. CNNLoveObama

    He is a wrong kind of President..Never in US History America has seen this kind of president..Blah Blah Blah..nothing else...He is good at only one thing WRONG CHANGE promises and LYING MOVING FORWARD..

    October 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Observer

      So should we vote for Mitt "I Was Completely Wrong" Romney? lol.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Roger Tallywhacher

      @Observer: Mittens never know if and when he's coming or going. Much like "the right kind of Christians".

      October 22, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  12. Giovannip

    Wakeup, as someone who wants to be Christian I completely up agree with you and so would have Jesus when he was on earth.....

    October 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
  13. Rob

    *holds envelope to head*

    50% of these comments will say "Obama is the wrong kind of Christian because he's a Muslim."

    October 21, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  14. Surthurfurd

    Why is quoting the words of Jesus in the Bible so upsetting to the Left Wingers and Right Wingers?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  15. Wakeup

    I am actually dissapointed that he is claiming to be a Christian. I think he is an athiest like all rational people are, but he is afraid to admit it. However, I don't blame him as he wouldn't have a chance of winning an election in a country where Christians are narrow minded, and judgemental of all others who don't believe as they do.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • calkinsart

      screw you, cnn for publishing such crap. what about romney? talk about the wrong kind of christian. it's disturbing when grown men of any kind ascribe to a fairy tale. i would vote for an atheist no matter what side of the isle they belonged to

      October 21, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  16. GodisI

    you want a preacher then go to church we are not electing a preacher we are electing a President the last thing we need in this position is a christian or a preacher get it straight people we need a leader

    October 21, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Pat G

      I completely agree. I'm still trying to absorb the notion that to many people one must be a Christian to be the President Of The United States. If the person were overall honest, loyal and was concerned about helping ALL people, then I don't really care what religion they are OR if they even practice any. There have been an awful lot of bad Christians out there....and being one doesn't make you better able to serve our beautiful nation.
      I am a Christian and I simply don't care if my president is one or not.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  17. Jim

    A true Christian is never, never against the Bible like he is.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Observer

      Right. A true Christian is a "family values" Republican like Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, Jerry Sandusky and all the other hypocrites.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Surthurfurd

      Like who is? Referring to the Morman or the person who believes he is a Christian? For the most part people only claim to be Christian and refuse to follow what Jesus told us to do; because, it seems impractical to us.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Joel

      Hey, I wish he would stop killing innocent people with flying robots too, but we gotta work with what we have.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  18. Giovannip

    Christ left judgment to his holy father. No Christian is able to judge, may be criticize but not judge. We are decided by our own ignorance, by the inability to love as God intended us to. If all of so called Christians joined in a minute of prayer for higher good, the world would be a better place....

    October 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
  19. Frankly Speaking

    To many in the GOP, Obama is the WRONG COLOR to be President. If they REALLY cared about electing Christians, they would not have nominated a Mormon.

    And, I don't care what a man PROFESSES to be. What I care about is how his faith is manifested. Obama has made a real effort to help the disadvantaged. George Bush, who wore his faith proudly on his sleeve, did little more than start two wars. Jesus said we should help the poor. He said nothing about starting wars.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Tmandoug

      Like they say if you disagree with president Obama's policies than you are a racist, please get over this excuse, I am so tired of hearing that . You do realize you are also a racist if you vote for President Obama just because of his color. You do understand the word racism don't you.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Joel

      You don't understand the entire concept of racism, Tmandoug. At all. Go read about the notion of "privilege" and get back to us.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  20. Manny M.

    It may also be helpful to recall that most people who come to the US are seeking either economic opportunity or religious freedom. It also helps to recall that the United States is not a theocracy, but a democracy. With that, the government ought to secure the basic freedoms and privileges of citizenship; however, it is not the government's role to take care of the poor and the orphans (elderly included), but the local church.

    Please read the book of James, Chapter 1 verse 27 – it tell us all what religion truly is:

    "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

    That is for individuals in the community, not the government.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • Safrt

      So you believe that before government began social services like welfare and food stamps and subsidized housing that we actually had no problem with poverty? Before that the churches fully housed, clothed and fed all those in need, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity?

      They didn't.

      If you cut government social services, we'll go back to the days of finding elderly people starved to death in their homes and malnourished children unable to concentrate at school due to the ache in their belly.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:44 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.