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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 • 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. Andrew

    The GOP and KKK are historically interfused.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  2. dave

    Luke 19:8 "And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

    Tell me again how the rich helping the poor is an anti-Christian concept.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Kenny

      Good one! :-)

      October 22, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  3. David Mitchell

    Many of the so called standard bearers of the Christian faith sound similar to the Pharisees and Saducees of the Old Testament. It seems that they will not allow anyone to have a differing opinion of God than they have. I believe that having a different experience with God does not make you a heretic or an anti-christ; I am thinking of a certain woman at a well and a Samaritan that would probably have challenged the prevailing Christian theologians of the time.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  4. Jo

    I challenge the premise that fundamentalist Christians have taken over. There have always been more of us moderates – we are simply not yelling so loudly. I support Barrack Obama, I know he is Christian and I know he believes in rights and opportunities for everyone. Fundamentalists are a handicap for this country. I am a white, working American voting for Barrack Obama.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  5. Heather

    Is there a "right kind" of Christian? Everyone is going to say they lay claim to the "right kind" of everything. Does that make it the right kind? During the Protestant Reformation, that's exactly what people were thinking. Religions come and go and change drastically over many years, the only time there is ever claims of a "right kind" of anything is when a majority of the populace believes there is. To America, Obama is not "the right kind" of Christian simply because he is not like the Conservative Christian of America today, which is actually the majority. To me, a young Catholic, it doesn't matter. I grew up being taught how to serve rather than drive f

    October 22, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  6. Natalie

    OMG...this is an awful article...how can you question someones faith...its faith that is the whole point....

    October 22, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Mike

      Faith in something that contradicts observation is worthless.

      See, there are perfectly valid reasons to criticize faith.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. BF

    Doth a fountain send forth – sweet water and bitter? – In many things nature is a sure guide to man; but no such inconsistency is found in the natural world as this blessing and cursing in man. No fountain, at the same opening, sends forth sweet water and bitter; no fig tree can bear olive berries; no vine can bear figs; nor can the sea produce salt water and fresh from the same place. These are all contradictions, and indeed impossibilities, in nature. And it is depraved man alone that can act the monstrous part already referred to.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • David Mitchell

      I am in no way calling the president Jesus, I am stating a fact that the religious leaders had a problem with the theolgy of Jesus who had the audacity to equate himself with God. It seems God allows differing opinions even in the Garden of Eden, that's what makes him God, and it seems others would have you conform to their idea of God that's what makes them Human.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  8. Alicia

    I am sick of religion being important in elections in this country. I would like to think that most rational individuals are not religious at all.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  9. RES

    The Christian Right, which is neither, is the anti-Christ. They condemn anyone who does not beilive in their narrow view. Yet, Jesus is tha Alpha and Omega!

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  10. andysbasura

    what kind of lede is this CNN? Try not to wear it all on your sleeve.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  11. bluesjordan

    Christianity is about a relationship built on the solid rock, Jesus Christ, the foundation. Without Him, it's like building a house on sand, and that house will fall. In politics, both right & left wingers get mighty religious, but religion without Christ is a sandy foundation.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • lilygirl

      AMEN!

      October 22, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Anarchrist

      Then why would anyone need religion?
      If it can’t be “done right” without your belief in a bad fairy tale, then why bother with it at all?

      Demonstrate (do not assert) to me one thing religion does for the world that we could not have without it.

      And what about all the other religions that claim they are the only way?
      Are you going to tell me that out of the thousands of religions that all have an equal claim, you have somehow determined that the one you were conveniently raised with is the correct one? Using the same criteria you use to “know” the other religions are wrong, tell me how you were able to determine that yours is right.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Charles

      Except that you can't actually prove that any of the miraculous things Jesus supposedly did, or any of the claims to being God he supposedly made in the gospels are authentic, which calls into question the entire foundation of your faith. Christianity is no more "solid" than any other religion, including the ancient ones based upon myth.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  12. realist

    Pat Robertson is the quintisential "Wrong kind of Christian"

    October 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  13. Matt

    Separation of Church and State – This should not be a damn issue at all and the fact that its the leading story for two days is exactly what is wrong with this country and government.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  14. Anarchrist

    Considering how no two denominations of xtianity can agree on what a “true” xtian is, and they all point to one another and say, “They’re doing it wrong,” there’s no such thing as a “right xtian.”
    Unless you’re talking politically. In which case, they’re more like “Reich xtians.”

    Hell, you can barely get two individual xtians of the SAME denomination to agree. For some ‘mysterious’ reason, they all seem to think god hates the same things they hate and likes the same sports team.

    The funny thing about religion is that the laugh is on the believers.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • AviRaider

      Wrong on all accounts, by in large Christian denominations aren't out there looking for fights our doing the "one ups-manship" game. Foundationally we all agree otherwise we couldn't be called Christians.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Anarchrist

      AviRaider,

      If you really believe what you said, then you’re naïve.
      “Christian” is a buzzword that became heavily used in the 50’s to unite denominations against Communism and Secularism.
      If what I said is wrong, then why does one denomination of xtianity believe *x* rules and another believe in a different set, especially when it comes to passing into heaven?
      If you’re “all the same,” then why are there tens of thousands of denominations of xtianity? Why are you not a Snake Handler or Jehovah’s Witness or Westboro Baptist instead of whatever it is you are? Why are the protestants and the catholics still at each other's throats? If they beleive the same garbage, shouldn't they be best buddies?

      And have you never heard of the “no true xtian” fallacy?

      And you tell me I’m the one who is wrong. Hilarious.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  15. Pinkie

    At least they are calling him a Christain. I truly trust 2 groups in America. The military and Secret Services. They would never allow a muslim to head our country. I truly believe they would never allow a cult to run our country. I also think that they like this dude name Obama.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Charles

      I wasn't aware that the Const-itution forbade non-Christians from being elected president. Can you please reference where?

      October 22, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  16. Marcelle

    I think this type of story front and center, specifically the use of the words "wrong Christian" is suggestive that CNN is trying to move the election towards Romney. I think we are all better served by journalism that is unbiased. It is one of the reasons I check out stories on CNN less and less

    October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  17. lynn

    Your article, CNN, has garnered a lot of attention – just not the type you would welcome. I applaud the Democrats for not going after Romney on his religion – something Republicans and apparently CNN can not claim.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  18. mlblogsyankeeblogspot

    Article-inflamitory material designed to drum up sagging enthusiasm in the base through anger

    October 22, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  19. Timothy

    This is CNN. This is "news". The guy who wrote is the strongest argument for sodomy I've ever seen.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  20. TheyHungerForYourBrains

    The Right Wing Establishment's biggest enemy?
    Christ. Healed the sick, fed the hungry, and always prayed in private.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Ricke1949

      Prayed in private. Read the New Testament.

      October 22, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Gary

      Actually, not true about the praying in private. The Bible notes several of his "public" prayers, including the Lord's Prayer, and his "Great Prayer," at the Last Supper. There are also other prayers in public. What he was against was prayers for showing off one's own righteousness, rather than simply conversation with God. That's where he talks about going to the solitary place to pray. Not sure what all this has to do with the article, however.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • AviRaider

      Don't spread lies. Go to church sometim and actually dialog with a Christian. We are the most giving people on the planet. I've never not known of a church or it's congregation that didn't do something for the sick, the poor or the hungry. The article would have you believe that those Christian principles are lacking in churches today, but that's not true.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • AviRaider

      Don't spread lies. Go to church sometime and actually dialog with a Christian. We are the most giving people on the planet. I've never not known of a church or it's congregation that didn't do something for the sick, the poor or the hungry. The article would have you believe that those Christian principles are lacking in churches today, but that's not true.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:02 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.