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.
Wow! Now that was the longest story I've struggled through in a long time, especially one that clearly has no point at all. It just amazes me how the left seems to think that everything about this man is "progressive" and everything this man does has to be some form of "pioneering", what a bunch of BS!
First of all, I come from a very religious family where my grandmother was an orphan whom was raised by the clergy, I grew up in the Roman Catholic church but parted ways with it as an adult because I have my own opinions that don't & cannot jive with religion. My point is that I've lived both sides of this proverbial coin, for a long time I was still very religious but did not attend church and eventually that gave way to losing my religion all together, not a loss that I regret but a sort of loss none the less.
Now, to call Obama some kind of religious "Pioneer" has to be one of the most absurd things that CNN will print this week and a week is a long time for CNN to go without an equally silly blunder.
What I mean is that this guy has even flip flopped on his religion just during his time in office, when he first came on the scene all he could talk about was his beloved church and the beloved Rev. Wright whom Obama so quickly & easily washed his hands of once it became apparent that Wright would damage Obama's political career. Here's a tip Mr. President, no one that has even half of a brain actually believed your nonsense story telling us that you had never heard sermons such as the one's released by the media, just one more lie on top of the dozens he tells daily.
Next thing we know, you clowns are going to be labeling this man as a Prophet for goodness sake when in fact his only real accomplishment in this world was actually getting himself elected. He didn't do anything of substance prior to being elected and has done nothing of any real worth since becoming President, the man's a joke and when he constantly brings up his "faith" (whatever that may be at the time) he sounds even more foolish since half the people in this nation still think he's a musIim for goodness sake.
What do you mean Obama has done nothing as President?! The world gave him a Nobel Prize soon after his election. Wink, wink.
What makes any other religion less crazy than Mormonism? Seems to me they are all on equal footing
Just what kind of Christian is the right kind of Christian for America? The one that parades in a white sheet and burns crosses?
How dare CNN try to distort the American public into thinking Obama is a christian. He's pure muslim. No question about it. And like all the other people who plan to vote for this maggot, lacks the intelligence and knowledge to see through the CNN rhetoric that is being printed.
Wow. So much hatred. How very Christian of you.
Dont all of your realize you sound like Christian radicals? No different than radicals from other faiths.... oh except of course you are right in your beliefs.
I dont care what religion any President of the United States is. Separtation of church and state forever!
wow, if having faith and beliving in un-factual non sense like the hate you spew means I am godless, than I can live with that! I agree seperation of church and state. I vote for a good human, don't care about their religion!
We all have the right to believe what we want, unless it harms or promotes harming someone else. I personally think religion is mumbo jumbo, but I'm not offended by people who believe a God or Gods.
Just get on with it.
"Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says." Did this guy, Cass, just call all Catholics Communists? Social justice is preached in our church, in our hymns, in our ministry names and in our thoughts and acts. Some of us try to forget about it but to most it is a core value in our religious life.
Would this article be just in time for the election? This is just disgusting that Reublicans. Would go to this length. Was voting for Romney, but this kind of garbage will make me consider voting Obama?
This is mind control writing and I don't think there is any place that should provide this kind of forum. Does CNN edit anything? It seems CNN is turning into another FOX. Mr. Blake should issue a public apology for assuming he can see into the hearts of others. It's this type of thinking that makes one leave the church!
To some, Obama is the 'wrong' kind of Christian – This article should be renamed " To some, Obama is the "worst" kind of Christian.
He has shown over and over with his liberal agenda that he is the furthest thing from a Christian. Masking Christinaity under the guise of "helping the poor" is a poor excuse for promoting morally bankrupt policies that the next president will now have to waste time reversing. These last 4 years were just a side show of liberal crazies running our government. I welcome back the conservative leaders into the WhiteHouse on Nov 6th. Vote for Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan for a safe, sound secure goverment that will proser us all instead of divide and conquer.
Ever heard of something called self delusion?
SHAME ON CNN FOR POSTING THIS ARTICLE. MONEY TALKS AND CORRUPTS CNN APPARENTLY!
There is no such thing as a religious pioneer, unless you mean new cult leader or heretic. If Obama actually has faith that is not just for politics, it is heretical.
Another load of grabage from cnn
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!
There is no Satan either
I know, thats just my tag line
Obama's religious views are irrelevant. The only thing that is important is the job he does. He can follow Christianity, Islam. Judaism, Mormon, Wikka, be an atheist, or whatever. It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is whether he is leading this country in the right direction.
Anytime a politician pushes a religious viewpoint should be viewed with extreme caution. Not only is he being blinded by the Book; he is also going to alienate those who do not follow his beliefs.
A person's religious view are a private matter. They have no place in government or public life,
I really wish that more people in this country felt this way.
To you maybe, but gladly, you dont speak for the rest of us over 300 million citizens. Many many do consider the religious/spiritual beliefs of the candidate for president. because it shows you what kind of person they are and where they dray thier morals from. The current occupant is God-Less thats for sure.
Harvey...you are absolutely correct.
to a certain extent I think this is true, religious belief should have no importance when it comes to being a leader. that said, I think it's good to be aware what a leaders belief is, because like it or not, it does have an effect on how he leads, idealy it should not, but it does. example, if a presidental candidate had a faith that condoned killing all black people (just an example people, dont get your undies in a bundle) that would be something I think we should know about. just sayin
A persons religion shouldn't be a qualifier for president, but their beliefs still matter. I don't want someone with crazy beliefs running the country. As a citizen thy can believe whatever they want, but they must make sound laws based on legal theory, not simply their personal brand of morality
Don't have intercourse with men but with women, or have you become mad?
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.
All religions should disappear from the face of the earth.
well said Martin, religion is the downfall of sociey it preaches hate and creates war. Why can't the religious just see that it does not matter what you say you are, it's your actions through life that count! I can live with me just being a good person without being affilated with faith.
IF there is such a things as an American presidential anit-Christ it is certainly NOT Barack Obama - it was Ronald Reagan-very icon of the me, Me, and more ME cultural that began during his tenure. I received a complete education and training in the teaching of Christ - and yes- I still do believe in those values - if not the politically toxic dogma many churches have spawned. On a bad day - I know the New Testament forward and backward. It's NOT about ME - It's not about YOU-it's about US -- All of US. It's about actually giving a damn about the needs and pain of other people and not just about ME and MINE. Today George McGovern passed. He laid his life on the line many times during the war. He continued severing his country the rest of his life with honor and honestly. It is true that a lot of people didn't agree with him - but in his day no unknowable or respected conservative implied that McGovern was unAmerican. Ronald Reagan was the person who used the presidency to "cat call", ridicule McGovern and those who honestly, deeply feel that American should value to social justice for all people. He began the rhetoric (i.e. "bleeding heart liberals), trickle down economics, deregulation etc. Remember school lunches and removing cheap enough canned vegetables children's lunches because "ketchup qualifies as a vegetable"? Well - yes - it IS true that Barack Obama is not a Reagan Christian. He is actually a New Testament kinda guy - us, Us, US. I realize that for many people don't give a fig about anyone but themselves and how many toys they can buy for themselves but don't say that "God is on your side" when you do that. People all over the is country (not just the Southern states) claimed God was on their side when they enslaved and exploited human beings. And –today –we are still doing it. Liberal is NOT anti-Christ. It's anti-Reagan. There IS a difference!
Nothing in this article touches on what it is to be a Christian: Romans 10:9 "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.", and follows to Romans 10:13 " for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That's it. No geopolitical view, or stance on social issues, define whether a person is Christian or not. So if Obama believes this, then yes, he is a Christian. Romney, on the other hand, believes in another God completely. And his religion states that all other Christian denominations are Apostates. Any Evangelicals want to stand up for MItt now?
Very well said.
The founding fathers were NOT christians, not by a long shot. They were products of the age of enlightenment and had a dim view of christianity. The "christians" who are currently dominant are ignorant, uneducated and doomed to extinction since their ideas are idiotic in the face of the scientific facts. They can go on and on about science being wrong about things but their evidence to the contrary is non-existent. They live in a fantasy land.
...Yet they run to science (medicine), that bastion of reason and rational thinking that has debunked all their myths, for everything that ails them and they won't even allow life support to be turned off when someone is completely brain dead. And it's all because deep down they are terrified of dying. So they cling to their fairy tale religion and vehemently oppose anyone who questions it because they really question it themselves and don't want to be reminded of that because when they are they have to confront their dread of dying...
God isn't real, people need to wake up.
That's an answer between him and his Creator.
It is down right offensive and ignorant for CNN to start off an ariticle by questoning someone's faith. A man's faith s between him and God and the media went too far this time
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.