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.
If you call yourself a Christian, you have to have surrendered your life to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. That means you live your life and work for HIS causes, represented HIS way and done in HIS way. Not your own would-be reinterpretation of scripture. You don't get to "borrow" Christian language to endorse evil to make it somehow "Christian." Either get all the way in the Christian team - or risk being one of those that Jesus will say in the end He does not know. Doing something "for the least of these" is only part of the answer.
As usual, the thought of anyone with nuclear codes believing in the magical sky spirit is troublesome. The biggest, continuing issues of our time surround religion and who believes in what, how its different from what other people belieive and who is right. Religion should be a part of family life, in private. It has no place in the public theater and serves to only create hate, stifle progress and encourage war.
Athiests don't kill other athiests in the name of athiesm...but give a guy a book and a mission and you've got bloodshed. Every time.
Wrong. The Christian gospel and all that it means belongs front and center in every phase of life - public, commercial, educational, and private. The divide between "secular" and "sacred" is purely artificial and does not exist in reality - it is simply one more quasi-reality construct concocted by the devil and his kingdom of evil in attempts to continue to keep humanity enslaved to him and to sin to their present and eternal condemnation, and to keep the light, salvation, healing and abundant life away from everyone under the guise of promoting "freedom" from/of religion.
I am Mormon, but I am ashamed to say that too many Mormons are willing to throw Obama under the bus regarding his Christianity, even though Mormons have received the same treatment from "fundamentalist" Christian churches throughout the history of the LDS Church, and continue to receive such treatment. Romeny and Obama have much in common on this point, but Romney is willing to let the religious right smear Obama's faith, just as long as they continue to overlook that Romney is a Mormon.
Separation of Church and State.....Non Issue
This article is extremely offensive to both progressive and conservative Christians. Christianity has nothing to do with color–for both conservatives and progressives. The question is whether the Bible is the authority as conservatives practice, or whether man can be his own authority and use the Bible and then for guidance as lib progressives practice. Obama uses the Bible for guidance, but does not consider it authoritative–like many progressives. It is an old divide, and Obama changes nothing.
i taste a little tangier than usual today...hmmm
I have to say I cannot wait until CNN does a piece on Romney's faith and how his "magic" underwear protect him. As a Progressive Christian who vehemently denies the right's hold on society, I am appalled at this article. I do firmly believe in a separation of Church and State. My religion is between me and my God. This article if it does anything inflames me even more. I will be voting for Obama come hell or high water.
I am voting for Obama, I am a Mormon, and I saw this article as being neutral and informational rather than inflammatory. The religious right does have a hold on the conversation, though. They love to brow beat progressives to try to keep them from the polls. The best thing progressives can do is simply ignore them and vote. The religious right likes to tak about the intent of the founding fathers. I think Christians who are progressives need to move that dialogue from the political sphere to the religious sphere and start talking about the intent of Jesus Chirst and the founding apostles. This is the best way we can fight for maintaining a separation of church and state.
I joke and tell everyone if they want to vote for a President that hates GOD and doesn't want GOD in its Campaign , LOVES to have ABORTIONS, and loves GAYS, go right ahead and vote for Obama.
Also I like how the Clinton News Network had one of its own moderate the last debate and tried her best to help Obama. They need to help the VP as much as possible. If Obama looses the election, it will probably be mainly because people are scared of him and what would happen if he ever became President.
Jack Lemon said it best in "My Fellow Americans", "Don't Fall into the Trap, Democrats are full of Crap".
I don't pray to any gods, I love gay people, and I want abortion to remain safe, legal, and rare. Guess I know who I'm voting for.
You joke about Obama hating God, and yet fail to follow Jesus Christ's commandment to "judge not lest ye be judged." Didn't your parents, sunday school teacher, or pastor teach you that judging another person is an anti-Chirst and idolatrous act? You are acting as if you are God when you judge, as if God must follow your judgement or subvert His will to your own. This is the very thing that "fundamentalist" Christians have long lost and forgotten.
CNN DOESN'T WRITE NEWS ANY MORE. I'm sick of the opinion pieces!
But that is so angelic picture of Obama praying.
"ME" will fail you more often than not, but hey, that's just life. I have no problem with believing in SELF as long as you don't blame others for your SELF failures.
.... but good LUCK with that.......
Please speed up the evolution process!!!!!!!!! These neanderthal christians are going to be the death of me. The bible is nothing more, and nothing less than a collection of highly edited stories written down hundreds of years after the alledged historical acts that they describe, and in a variety of languages...some of which are dead and very difficult to decipher. Ever play "telephone" where you pass a message along to the person next to you? Try that for about 250 years, and see how close to the original you get. Then let the top 0.01% edit them and decide which ones get to make the cut for the final book, and will serve to keep the powerful in their positions for eternity. Then translate it again through several languages with diverse cultural norms. How dare anyone claim to know "what Jesus would have wanted." More cruelty and horror has been performed in the name of Christ than in the name of any other religion in the world.
This is the real point. Fairy tales should be omitted from the political process.
This one lie has been repeated by so many Atheists that I wonder what you know of the word delusion.
I'll take President Obama over a racist Mormon cult member any day!
So long- as he's not mormon.
This article is exactly right in explaining how universal health care is a very christ-like thing to do. I'm an atheist myself, but I can understand where Obama and the writer of this article is coming from. I can only imagine the kind of spoiled rich jerk-offs that are inheriting their daddy's fortune who are saying that "Jesus never said help the poor by taxing the rich!!!". That is the crappiest argument ever, considering the bible features nothing but derision for the wealthy
It's NEVER EVER EVER EVER the job of the President to inflict his religious beliefs on the nation or on the policies of government. And Obama has done a great job of that. Who cares what his beliefs are. Romney will inflict his beliefs, specifically with abortion. When a president does that, then we have to worry about what he believes in.
But by Obama supporting abortion, isn't he doing the same thing as Romney opposing it? He's still imposing his belief system on America now-you just don't agree with Romney. Sometimes the left in thinking everyone should just 'get along' is more biased and opinionated than the right ever will be. Agree with me, says the left, or you're not open-minded. It's an oxmoron life they lead-
But isn't Obama offering more freedom by legalizing abortion? By allowing it, he has given people who support it the right to use that invaluable service, and the people who are against it don't need to worry themselves.
By allowing it, he supports it, which means it's a belief he holds.
The real anti-Christ’s in this election are Romney and Ryan. Look, folks, go read your Bible. The anti-Christ will pretend to be a follower of Christ, just as Romney and Ryan do. But the anti-Christ will *disobey* Jesus' commandments, just as Romney and Ryan do.
Jesus said to take care of the poor. Romney says he doesn't worry about the poor - and complains that the poor don't pay enough in taxes, while he (Romney) takes tax deductions for his dancing horse. Jesus said that the wicked hate the poor, and that it's as impossible for a rich man like Romney to enter heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Ryan hates Jesus just as much as Romney does. Ryan wants to eliminate Medicare - the primary source of medical care for the poor.
Romney and Ryan talk about Jesus, but they are fooling Christians. These evil men *are* the anti-Christ, and the Bible clearly says so.
Really? THEY are the "antichrist"? You fool! Obama is destroying the American way of life, he's cut medical for our troops, the troops that were fired upon at Fort Hood have no benefits, because Obama declared it a non-terrorist act, the economy is in a shambles and THEY are the antichrist? Wow, your head is so far up your you-know-what that you can't even see a way out, can you? Another Obamabot.
I agree with much of what you say, although, it's not possible for anyone to know what I really said back when.
a Quatroni: Stop lying. The troops wounded at Ft. Hood are receiving care. But it's Romney who wants to throw my friends off insurance, which will ruin them.
sounds like someone finally read a holy book and knows what they are talking about. you my freind are either a true chirstian or catholic, or a possible athiest/ agnostic. either way Kudoos for actually knowing what was ment and the true values of a religion i was once raised in but have found to many contradictions in ideology from its leaders.
By taking care of the poor, it is not said that support should be unending. Taking care of the poor means helping them to support themselves first and foremost-understanding how to help them in that manner is more meaningful and sustainable for the long-term health of both themselves and the economy. It's a slippery slope that the left is on, and it comes dangerously close to redistribution of wealth conversations.
Yes, he's the wrong kind of Christian, he's black.
how could you say that? i'm a conservative Christian and your statement is positively horrible.
Believes that the Earth is really only a few thousand years old.
Thinks the bible is the direct word of god and demonstrates no contradictions.
Feels science should be expelled from public schools and replaced with baseless assertions that are as absurd as the idea of a magic, talking bowl of fruit salad who grants wishes.
Wants religion and government to go hand-in-hand, especially if it’s their religion.
Claims to follow the teachings of jebus – who was in favor of healing the sick, giving to the poor, and loving thy neighbor – but is against the healthcare act, thinks anyone with less money than them should “work harder/plan better,” and thinks human/equal rights are reserved for whit american xtians.
Rely on priests and pastors for their dose of the scripture like good little mindless robots, instead of reading the bible for themselves and questioning the absolutely crazy garbage it says.
Believes that bombing brown people in 3rd world countries is the xtian thing to do and that jebus would somehow approve.
THOSE are the wrong kinds of xtians.
Religious pioneer = new cult leader or heretic
MUSLIMS ARE NOT CHRISTIANS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He is the wrong kind of ANYTHING in my book.
Fear of Other is a powerful, powerful drug.
Uh-huh. Amd where do you get your information? From your gay-bashing pastor? Maybe Fox News?
Drug-addled dinosaurslike Limbaugh?
Or maybe your 'god' just beams all that crazy- erm, I mean "message," straight to your tiny little mind.
You believe the word of the bible, don't you? I mean, anyone who believes Obama is a Muslim is likely to believe in other crazy garbage.
WV–West Virginia– tells us all what we need to know about this post.
Clearly muslims are not christians, but then again with people like you Facts mean nothing. you just go on Blind hate. I can see why you claim to model you life after Jesus, like most good Christians who love to Preach the Bible, but rarely find/know the message that is in it.
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.