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.
Alright, here's the deal from a "progressive" Christian whose entire family is conservative. Conservatives are not evil, hateful people. They've just been taken for a ride by the Republican party. They first roped in the Conservative Christian with TWO issues: prayer in schools and pro-life policies. The first issue played on the conservative's often irrational fear for the spiritual health of their children growing up in a school devoid of the messages they themselves grew up with. Not very inclusive of others, but understandable at its core. It's the SAME thing that gives passion to atheist parents or those of other religions. Then there's abortion–an issue that still slays any hesitation a conservative might have about voting Republican. It's a conscience thing–they literally feel that if they vote for anyone but a Republican, they are enabling more abortions, which they consider the worst kind of murder. Those two issues basically lock conservative Christians in, whether they like it or not. But times are a-changing. As the article states, young evangelicals are starting to find the way out. Unlike their parents, they grew up in schools with no prayer, and abortion has been legal for their entire lives. To this new generation, gay marriage is an issue of imparting equality and dignity with those you might disagree with. Within 15-20 years, I guarantee you the Evangelical Christian vote will hit both sides of the aisle.
You Christians are so hypocritical and dont even follow your own bible ... which is just a book of fairy tales.
What a bunch of mularky...the supposed "Christian covenent" created by our (predominantely non-christian by todays standards) founding fathers was designed to seperate church and state, as any modern republic such as ours should be. We live in a very liberal age where conservatives must remain to their values and stil tolerate those who wish to deviate from religious norms. Just as I feel our government should not adhere to sharia law, I equally believe we should abstain from letting christian religious beliefs hinder the rights of others under different denominations. This is coming from a (Christian-Deist)
Interesting, well said. I assume you recognize that separation of church and state protects the church as well. It seems that what your saying is going to become increasingly harder to accomplish – especially in that what's being demanded is not tolerance, but endorsement. Unless I'm missing something...
Obama, the NO kind of Christian
The KNOW kind of Christian, the kind that actually knows what they're talking about, you mean? :-)
>> Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."
You know who would hate anything to do with having sympathies? Jesu... Hey! wait a second. No he wouldn't.
Scary about the level of hatred and hostility that people can get whipped into.
Considering just how many evangelicals come into being "born again" from leaving Catholicism, mainstream protestantism, and even other faiths, do you'd think they would question the loyalty of all of them, wouldn't you?
First of all, calling Obama the first black president isn't quite right. He's the first "half-black" president. I know he would like to forget that he's also half caucasion, but that fact is never going to go away. Second, trying to declare his version of religion as somehow being progressive is really demonstrating how hard up the mainstream media is getting to find something - anything - positive yet valid about this president. Really, you're reaching for straws at this point.
You really need to read some black Americans' perspective on their own experiences, rather than lecture them on what to call themselves, because you just make yourself look dumb when you post this kind of stuff.
I agree! God save us from Pharisee Christians
First Obama has always been proud of his white mother and granparents- who raised him. And in this country a drop of black blood makes you black- read a book from time to time.
Second, this a well-balanced article addressing the President's faith and the common missconception (perpetuaded by the racist right) that Obama is a closet Muslim or the anti-Christ.
And, finally, if you stopped watching fake news you would see the many positive things the president have done for this country.
Won't enumerate them cause you heard them all before but you go deaf and blind.
As Christians the far right Evangelicals are the worst kind- economic succes and the cult of individuality is not in tune with Jesus' teachings. What a perversion and thank God the children and gran children of these hypocrites are waking up to that fact.
Just because you go to a Christian church, read the bible, worship, quote and believe strongly in Jesus' teachings, doesn't make you a Christian...
...nice, guys. Real nice.
Wow? I'm a pastor. I've been a Christian for over 30 yrs, and I don't understand what you're trying to communicate Mr. Blake. But, reading through the comments here shows me what you're provoking – confusion and misinformation.
Wow, the fact that you do not understand such a simple article is enough evidence why most people should not be pastors.
The Evangelical Rigth- promoting ignorance since- well- forever.
hfranqui – Uh... so, you're assuming a lot about where I'm coming from... And you think that your perspective isn't the problem? Tolerance, right? But, for what it's worth, I commented not that I didn't understand the article facts, or the concepts, but that I didn't understand the reason for this article – meaning, what Mr. Blake's purposes were. Thanks for revealing more of the real issue are nation faces, but I'm sure you already know and understand that.
Well, you accused the author of "provoking – confusion and misinformation" because of a well researched article explaining what are the mian influences in Obama's faith. Important for as we know different Christian churches follow different dogma and that translate into different world views.
And yes the President has been demonized as teh anti-Crist, as a closet Muslim and more. So who is intolerant here?
it is not the President who is trying to imposse his religious beliefs to the whole country- it is the religious right- of whom many members behave like the Taliban.
Patriots? what a joke.
I got about three paragraphs into that article and came to this conclusion. Who cares what religion the president is? Christians and other religious people will divide a population faster than anyone. Get rid of your religion! It is divisive and spreads fear and hatred for those who aren't like you or believe exactly as you do.
Hey – what about all the birthday cards I'll be getting in a couple of months?
I don't tell people to ignore your birthday!
Hey – what about all the birthday cards I'll be getting in a December?
I don't tell people to ignore your birthday!
Why is this b.s. back on the front page for a second day in a row?
Because Romney is desperate...only way he knows how to play is dirty.
There will always the racial bigotry in WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) or more specifically Protestant Fudametalists like Billy Graham and his Southern Baptist followers....What these peope forget is the amazing grace of Jesus Christ where " he demonstrated love and forgiveness to ALL. No exceptions...Let's put aside religion from politics. Our minds are "too small" to comprehend God's justice.
Not to mention the fact that, if there was an individual named Jesus (I think it was actually Joshua), he had brown eyes, relatively dark skin and black curly hair and was a devout Jew. The blue-eyed blond Jesus is pure fiction, as are much of the New Testament gospels which were selected and edited by a committee chosen by the Roman Emperor, long after the presumed time of Jesus. Their goal was the strengthening of the power of Rome, not the Jewish God.
I thought that Romney was the wrong kind of Christian...
You shall know them by their works. Obama = job creator. Robmey = Job provider to China.
Dave = No-Load
Dave you are apparently a moronic fool.. So let me help you out..
Obama = Socialist, America hating, Kenyan, anti-colonialist, liar, cheater, job killer.
Romney = President, American, Patriotic Successful business man, that wants to fix America's problems that Obama created.
PRESIDENT ROMNEY 2012 – 2020
San and True...... do you always traffic in lies and distortions fed to you by FOX commentators? You recall a commandment about bearing false witness, don't you. You can make up all the opinions you want, but you do not have the right to invent your own "facts".
to "True American"
Being racist does not make you American it makes you a bigot.
Romney a Patriot? He hid in France during the Vietnam War his sons wouldn't consider serving in the military even though we been at war for a decade. Wearing a flag pin doesn't make you a patriot.
Your only oposition to Obama is that he is black and that his name sounds foreign to you- you are but a poor excuse of a human being.
The more I listen to you folks today, the less I want to hear.
All I ever really said was to treat one another they way you want to be treated.
Be nice to one another, and help each other out when it's needed.
Is that really all that complicated?
And don't pass judgement on each other – who do you think you are – me?
You are NOT Jesus Christ...you are a Desciple of Christ.
There you go – passing judgement!
"He's been called the antichrist"
By who? By nuts that's who. Holy misleading headlines. You'd think all conservatives called him this for it to show up on front page CNN but they don't. CNN thank you for helping Romney win this. Every time you and your media friends make Republicans look incompetent and they wow everyone during the debate only helps things along. If it wasn't for your biased reporting and the shock that Romney knows his stuff during the first debate Republicans would stand no chance.
This is why religion sucks. Just because it goes against your belief doesnt mean it should be unlawful you religious nut cases. Evolve, grow, and get with the times. Religion is way outdated. It also should have absolutely no bearing on your Presidential choice. If you forgot, we have the freedom of choice in this country, if you dont like it then move out of here.
First off, I'm a Jesus freak---I also believe in the freedom of choice-so let me choose if my tax dollar goes to another for wanting to abort their child and if you are gay then go do what you want but just just don't do it on my dime!!!
One thing we all must keep in mind 24/7 is that God will not be mocked. Again, something each and everyone of us need to keep in mind.
There are lots of people mocking God every single day. I don't see too many lightning strikes around here.
I don't know....Dad seems to have a pretty good sense of humor.
Silence! Or Zeus will send a lightning bolt up your backside! DO YOU DARE QUESTION ZEUS?!
I mock the idea of a heavenly, vengeful jerk every day. Haha.
Jerry....which god, there are many who claim supremacy.
The Xtian Taliban is alive and well in this country, practicing their very own special blend of hatred and racism.
There's a reason the Romans used to feed them to the lions....
That's my kind of entertainment.
To petemg, we are NOT a Christian Nation. We are a nation that practices many religions. The founders did not make this a CHRISTIAN nation. Some were deists, some were agnostics and some were Christians. They were different and so is this country. And Obama was right when he said "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?”
The Bible supports slavery and polygamy, but many ignore that part while spouting that God believes in one man and one woman. You can not take part of the Bible literally and ignore the rest. that hypocritical.
Amen...(savor the irony) Well said!!!
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.