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.
Obama's Christian without being "Christ-y". If more people were like that, organized religion would do a lot more good because people who don't follow the same (or any) faith or interpretations wouldn't be so freaked out and try to oppose everything they do.
One of the strengths of the US has always been the separation of church and state. I wish we would keep it that way. Labeling people or groups of people is dangerous. Don't believe me, just look around the world.
He starts from a huge, deep hole for most ignorant Americans: 1.) He's Black 2.) He's a Democrat. This article is ridiculous. Whatever position he takes, it's the wrong one. He cannot win with half the country. That's not HIS fault, that's the fault of the ignorant.
Exactly. I really don't know how so many people are able to combine their "christian" views with their hatred of an individual.
Now, since Billy Graham has endorsed a Mormon for
President of the United States, and taken the Occult
statements about Mormonism down from his website,
will ALL American Seminaries remove Mormonism from
their list of Occults from their Apologetics courses?
Should we not name any Occults in our Apologetics?
Do we need our bibles, anymore, to identify anything
Good or Evil?
New King James Version (NKJV)
5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Only One Gospel
6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
2 Corinthians 11:3-5
New King James Version (NKJV)
3 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity[a] that is in Christ. 4 For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!
Paul and False Apostles
5 For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles.
2 Peter 2:1-3
New King James Version (NKJV)
2 But there were also false prophets among the people,
even as there will be false teachers among you, who
will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even
denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on
themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow
their destructive ways, because of whom the way of
truth will be blasphemed. 3 By covetousness they will
exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their
judgment has not been idle, and their destruction
does[a] not slumber.
2 Peter 2:17-19
New King James Version (NKJV)
17 These are wells without water, clouds[a] carried
by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of
Deceptions of False Teachers
18 For when they speak great swelling words of
emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh,
through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped[c]
from those who live in error. 19 While they promise them
liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for
by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought
And to add...."Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: But he that acknowledges the Son hath the Father also. (1 John 2: 18, 22, 23). Romney and all Mormons deny Jesus to be the Son of God, Redeemer and Savior of Mankind ! And now this Spirit of Anti-Christ is poised to take the office of the President of the United States of America...woe to the World.
When did Obama claim he was a prophet? I'll believe Obama before I believe that a convicted felon found cold tablets in New England that say God had another book, when the bible specifically says there won't be one. Or that polygamy is or ever was ok.
This is an irrelelvant article. This man's religious beliefs/non beliefs mean nothing to me. A president is not to be a spiritual leader. It is expected that a president will be a secular leader. He is a poor excuse for either.
What matters is if you want the country to be run by a socialist communist ideology vote for Obama or a capitalist vote for Romney. Quite simple. Oh, you might want to watch Obama 2016 in case you really believe religion has nothing to do with it.
Just because it doesn't mean anything to you, doesn't mean its irrelevant.
How can so many miss the most central truth of the Bible and Why Jesus died on a Cross. The bible is about man's sin and God's effort to redeem him from his sin. Jesus died to save man from sin. Jesus taught clearly to receive his salvation one must repent and quit his life of sin and seek him and his righteousness. Jesus said repent or perish. Christianity begins with first a personal repentance and change of life without that there is no Christianity.
fort – the christian doctrine of original sin is absurd.
You do realize that the change of life is a process not an event, don't you?
I'll do whatever it takes to have the Easter Bunny visit my home and leave me with a basket full of Hershey Kisses. I'm even prepared to believe your fairy tale for adult morons. I promise honest injun!
AMEN! You are right, 100%. Anyone, President or otherwise, who would invoke the name of Jesus to endorse behaviour the Saviour called sinful, is blaspheming. Am I a hate monger for saying what the Bible says? It seems Truth tellers are labelled such, these days. But then we are told in the last times, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil."
Ummmm...it seems to me I died on a cross because I pi$$ed of the Romans.
All because I asked "Who made the salad?"
They have no sense of humor.
So where does the Book of Morman sit on that bookshelf. It clearly has additional chapters of scripture that aren't in the Bible that traditional Christians use. At least Obama was studying from the same Bible as traditional Christians. It's funny how Christians have suddenly stopped demonizing Mormanism and denouncing it as a cult. Now they welcome the Morman faith as basically another denomination of Christianity since their other option is to vote for a Black Christian president.
It's clear that people like Cass, Bass and Andrew have zero understanding of the Bible they claim to love so much. I find it disgusting that they would question someone else's faith while simultaneously arguing against the tenets and beliefs of Jesus. They are just as bad as the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they are intolerant religious zealots who spread hatred against anyone who holds even the slightest difference in opinion or belief.
Who is the 4th Estate to question anyone's religious beliefs? You folks have the mantra that it's the people's right to know. Bull. The people should mind their own business and stay out of everyone elses. Pluck out the Plank in your own eye before pointing out the cinder in your neighbors. Besides, what kind of Christian is Romney? He's not a Christian at all, he's a Morman, they seem to put Joseph Smith before Jesus Christ. Really, if you want to start a religious war in this election, define your belief before bringing up the beliefs of others.
Religion needs to stay out of politics. That is so scary, that tea party boob ryan and romney with his mormon religions and the beliefs they spew have no place in our government. We are all free to worship or not to worship and don't need those two buffoons telling us what is morally right, who do they think they are..
Intestingly jeremiah wright never came up in the artlcle? Barry sat and listened to hate and bigorty for 20+ years, and oh, he didn't agree with it...............barry is a liar.
You obviously didn't read the article.
Check the third paragraph above the picture of Obama and Rick Warren.
I am a Christian. I have attend "church" all of my life. My belief in my Savior and his teachings has not nor will not change. Part of that belief is humans have a choice in the actions they take and they have to reconcile their actions with their God. So in keeping with these beliefs and the teachings of my Savior I say this: let's decide to hate all sin but love the sinner. I have my issues I have to deal with so I have no right to judge you on yours. Another teaching from my Savior was "render unto Cesear what is Cesear's". This was said during a time when the "spiritual" leaders in that day was trying to trick Him into say something that contracted the current Gov't ruling. In other words Religion has no place in the Gov't!! You can not decide that one religion's belief has to be the standard for all!! For those that disagree please read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Read the entire book not just the passages that support what you want.
WVLady63...Barack Obama is NOT a Muslim. He is a Christian and a great human being who has served our Country well so far and, if elected, will better our Country over the course of text four years. Anyone who can't make a list of his accomplishments is ignorant to what has transpired during his Presidency. Articles that CNN posts this close to the election are harmful to the President and are distasteful. CNN is becoming very right-wing lately. I have noticed on-air, as well as on-line articles. I watch many news channels and read many articles from various sources, so I'm not opinionated. It is, however, obvious that CNN has been changing their views and leaning more to the right. This article may have some factual significance, but shouldn't be posted this close to the election. How about an article about the Mormon Romney ideals? The Mormon Church is a very different form of Christianity. In fact, I don't believe them to be Christians at all. Joseph Smith is the focal point of their beliefs, not Jesus.
this is what the country needs right now, a way to loosen the choke-hold the conservative right has on politics. Remember that there's a separation of church and state here
There is no such thing of Separation of Church and State.
I stopped reading after the statement that Obama is a religious pioneer. You have got to be kidding.
So you stop reading, and post a comment without knowing what the story was about???
You know, Jesus was called the same names by his own religious leaders of his time, the Pharisees. Heck. they even set him up to be extermianted by the Romans. Doesn't that give you a little pause in your opinion of Obama as a "Christian", i.e., a follower of the Teachings of Jesus Christ as found in the Four Gospels ?
Anyone who still calls Obama a Muslim, or claims he is the anti-christ, or that he was born outside the US really needs some psychiatric help. Even leaders in the Republican Tea Party recognize that Obama is Christian, and has a valid US birth certificate. And they have for years. I suspect those that still claim this are racist and/or in complete denial of the facts.
Wow, Mr. Blake, if the number of poster comments are any indication, you scored a lot of hits with this article. Congratulations.
To be honest, I don't think of Obama as any kind of Christian, and I am pretty agnostic myself. While he may refer to himself as a Christian, and I guess we have to take his word at it, I do not see much evidence that this is the case. Specifically his time with Reverend Wright, which was just a cloaked organization for Black Liberation Theology. Not much real religion going on there, in any traditional sense.
That's because we look more at the word "Reglion," which these days could mean almost anything. Christians are to focus on a God walk and principles and not be concerned with a religous stance. Religion as we know it is now a dead practice. Real christians do evolve.
The question should be whether the conservative white extremist Christians who have co-opted Christ in America are the "wrong kind of Christians." Answer: YES.
Mr. Blake: CNN has become the Pig's Head from the Lord of the Flies. Way to go, Guy! You just jump on in there and introduce a front page religious hate spread on President Obama, just before the election. You are so wrong to do this, and chatter about Christianity at the same time. Why not publish the Mormon Book about how to subjugate women? OR simply ask the question: Is Mormonism really the foundation of Scientology? What trash you serve up, Sir. What trash. To say any more would not be Christian. To publish what CNN publishes, is Un-American.
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.