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.
This story makes it easy to see why Westboro Baptist is based in Kansas.....
I was raised Episcopalian and I am certainly not 'born again'. I never heard anyone say that unless they were a 'hard shell Baptist'. The religious right might be more vocal and more organized but there are more people like me who don't go to church and do not and have never accepted the Bible literally. Organized religion is only for keeping people on salary. If they did follow the Bible word for word they would notice there is no mention of choir master, youth group leader or the rest of it. I think it says 'when three are gathered'. I do not want someone else's religion in the White House. I do not want some white guy in a suit telling me or my daughter what we can and cannot do.
There is nothing Baptist about Westboro. They are cult it doesn't take one much to figure that out.
I'm a Christian, but- my how "Christians" judge? I wish "Christianity" and the "church" wasn't as corrupt as politics and really followed what Jesus Christ tried teach us (and by most accounts failed). If that were the case, there would be no poverty in this country and maybe in the world! Oh- and the people in this country would not be split down the middle with hate for each other instead of LOVE.
Rusireus – you forget what Jesus even said – the poor will always be amongst us. The reason it is so bad is because of sin and false love, the pie in the sky type of thinking you prepose.
You forget who does most of the help in the inner cities – churches and religious groups.
17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words [a]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. The love of money is the root of all evil. The more you have the more you will recent the have not. What happen to Bill Gates and his wife?
Matha, you can quote scripture, or copy and paste, but not think past your nose. Your question on what happened to Bill Gates? Oh come on, the man has a foundation helping a lot of schools and kids out. I would suggest he donates more than you. I know for sure he has helped our homeless shelter in the city where I live with donations.
Its sad that a good liberal President like Barrack Obama has to pretend to be religious just to get blind masses to vote for him. We all know that all sensible people like the President are atheists.
In the early church there was a simple way to determine whether a person was a Christian. They were asked whether they believed that Jesus was the son of God. This was enough to have you ostracized, imprisoned, or even executed.
If our president says he believes that Jesus is the son of God, then he is a Christian, by the standards of the earliest Christian community.
Wow, what a one-sided propagandistic blog post. CNN, you lose credibility by putting this on your front page of your site. There are so many generalizations and unfounded premises here it is beyond the pale.
Way to take a stand without actually take a stand!
I'm talking to you, btw, not CNN.
It is The Economy, Mr. President. Your Economy, Mr. President. And BTW, God did not damn America.
Nice try wolfpackbob. The BUSH CHENEY DEPRESSION ( which is what it will be known as by future historians) is now over thanks to the deft, correcting policies of our President. We are now in full recovery mode i.e. The OBAMA RECOVERY, GOT IT? Ten Trillion dollars of our 16Trillion debt was left by YOUR OWN George W. Weapons of Mass destruction Dumb- Bush for two Botched Wars ( one was the invasion of a country by Mistake). By allowing OIL Companies, Banks and Wall Street run ramshod over the hard working people of this country we sufferd the complete destruction of our entire financial system! Sorry wolfpack but that sure looks like God Dammed America for it! Stop your whining and and don't put your check book away wolfy-boy, and take some of that personal responsibility you for your buddies like to spout off about and PAY YOUR BILLS!!! FREEDOM doesn't come for FREE! I love that old saying; don't you?
we need a wiccan president
Cool! I nominate you as the first human sacrifice to the Solstice god.
Brownback: "Welcome to MY house". Obama: "This is everyone's house This is God's house." Now, which one do you think Jesus would agree with?
Religion is ridiculous. The wrong kind of Christian? I love this, "If you don't interpret the Bible the way I do, then you are not a true Christian" hogwash. How many hyper-conservative preachers have wee seen in the past 4 years spew this "anti-not-like-me" filth? Conservative Christians look at the world through a soda straw. Wake up!
Please name one. For that matter what is a conservative Christian and a liberal one?
You're pathetic, CNN. You're really pathetic. Oh, because he's not white? Oh, ok. Good job, CNN. Let me guess, he's the wrong kind of American, also?
You failed reading comprehension class, didn't you?
Wow. You said what everybody was thinking he is the wrong kind of American. You really stepped into that one.
CNN – the wrong kind of news.
Unfortunately, a lot of the far right (so-called Christians) confuse the worshiping of organized religion with worshipping God and Jesus. Sadly, I feel that organized religion is turning Americans away from Jesus. You can't say to people get Jesus in your heart like us and then constantly spew hate and intolerance.
I believe that our government can be influenced by the teachings of love and helping others but shouldn't be dictating a certain interpretation of the bible to all. That is what we see happening in the middle east with the Taliban and their interpretation of their Koran.
As a person who grew up in the Methodist traditions and spent time in the United Church of Christ, I find this discussion puzzling. Obama has always sounded like a good Methodist to me; that is a standard, traditional Christian. The Assembly of God, Pentecostals types in my Christian world have always been the weird ones. When did the world get turned upside down?
April 14, 1906 – Azusa Street Revival.
Before that about 5BC to 33AD.
Way to go, unfairly singling out your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Diana Butler Bass? Gary Cass?? Steven Andrew??
Why didn't you just call me John?? Even I'm more believeable than these kind's of references..
CNN is in a mad scurry to drum up as many votes for Obama as possible. If there are any undecided christians out there, CNN will tell you that Obama is your kind of christian. First, there are no undecideds. Everyone knows who they are going to vote for. Second, Why does it matter what kind of christian he is? Market him as a Muslim......I really don't care. His faith doesn't make him any more or less of a leader. When faith becomes the backbone of your administration, then I have a problem with that......and almost every president has been way too faith conscious. I digress........I cannot wait for this election to be over so I can stop watching CNN campaign for Obama. I don't know if these articles come straight from Obama's administration, or if the writers value their job so much that they will suck anything. Either way, CNN has proven itself to be a liberal puppet and a useless news organization.
First, I do not exist. The concept of a 13,700,00,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is ludicrous.
Second, if I did exist, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors or how and why it was compiled with certain writings included and others excluded, nor how it has been edited over the centuries, yet you cite it for the most extraordinary of supernatural claims.
Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Ja.panese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Iron Age Middle East.
Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who elected to withhold all evidence of my existence in the first place.
Fifthly, in the same vein, I would not make about 5% of the human population gay, then punish them for being that way. In fact, I wouldn’t care about how humans have $ex at all, given that I created all of the millions of millions of species on the planet, all of whom are furiously reproducing all the time. Human $ex would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Has it ever occurred to you that your obsession with making rules around human $ex is an entirely human affair?
Sixth, I would have smitten all you Christian activists, and all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric even for a sick, sadistic bast.ard like me to contemplate).
Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.
Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.
Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?
Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you cringed in fear during the Dark Ages and thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.
Move on – get over me. I did.
say all that on your deathbed staring death in the face, then it will mean something.
Reading your post just makes me sad for you that you can spend so much energy writing such a lengthy denial of our creator. I feel a lot of pain in you and I pray that you will one day realize the truth. God loves you.
Well written. Jesus was a liberal who challenged the conservative views of his religion during his life. He violated the laws of Shabbat when he performed healings on Shabbat as doing God's work. He preached that wealth was only as good as it was given to help the poor. He was an advocate of women's rights in a patriarchal religion and society. Jesus would not consider the right wing conservative movement as Christian. In fact, it is anti-Christian.
@ Harry Long: Jesus was a social progressive yet a theological conservative. We have no such thing in American politics.
Actually that is not a violation of laws of Shabbat – as any orthodox Jew who is a doctor or EMT will attest to. Saving a person's life (outside of war, obviously) trumps all else and it was regarded as such before Jesus's time as well. Just a FYI.
Obama + late term abortion says it all = not a Christian, not Christ like; THAT SIMPLE.
Every person believes/worship in something... God, self, gov't, money, mother nature.... etc.
If you believe in nothing, you're like to believe in anything.
I believe in ME. If you're in a jam, figure a way out of it because no one else is going to. If you're in a tough situation and overcome it, it's because you were smarter or stronger than your opponent – not because some mystical being in the sky saved you. Quit worrying about who cares about you and start caring about yourself. That's the only way you are in control of your destiny. One more thing. There is no such thing as "luck".
Wow. Wonder how much Romney is paying CNN to keep this particular story on it's front page. I guess that's one way to divert attention away from being Mormon and not wanting anyone to center on that. Just another example of the rudeness of Romney and the desperation.
You have the wrong strawman. It's the other guy.
did you actually read it libtarrrrddddd or was it too long for you? it is actually pro obama
Huh? What in the world does this have to do with Romney?
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.