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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 • Evangelical • 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. AMP

    Unless media and norrow minded people stop using religion as their weapon, this world will never have peace. All problems we are facing is because we have been wrongfully convinced by narrow minded, selfish and arrogant religios leaders whose is goal to gain cheap pubilicity while emptying people pockets.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  2. BL Reed

    Obama is just a very very poor president. This and all the other CNN articles are just smoke and mirrors. Why don't you do an in depth article of ALL the actions Obama has taken as president and discuss the merit or lack thereof. It's election time CNN, lets actually put the merits of HIS presidency up for discussion.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  3. melanie

    I don't know where you are getting your information that he is a Christian. He is no more Christian than I am a man! He pretends to be a Christian to get the vote, but he was raised a Muslim he was raised to hate America & their Christian beliefs. It is obvious as the day is long. This is what he has wanted his whole life to have us against each other, to have this country in total upheaval so he can bring in his socialists agenda. He was raised in a socialists home with American haters for role models.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Primewonk

      More ignorant, fundiot, talibangelical, teabagger, bullshit. Sorry.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • PJ

      Melanie, are you Mitt Romney pretending to be a woman? He has morphed into so many things–you just do not know. Either way, you have created facts again and you sound like an IDIOT (actually-you are an IDIOT)

      October 22, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Rationalintn

      Yes it's OBVIOUS melanie. President Obama hates his own daughters and wants to leave the country they live in, in a terrible state for them and their own children. What parent doesn't want his/her children to be worse off in the future? It's just payback for childhood misbehavior, right? You make complete sense.

      It's comical. I wonder if people like this actually believe what they write?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • sam stone

      melanie: you are delusional. get back on your meds, or at least stumble in front of a speeding bus

      October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  4. Guest

    http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/religion-miscellaneous/difference-between-mormons-and-christians/

    October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  5. Jannae

    ohiomark, you are a fool...anyone who believes Obama is a Muslim is a fool. Hopefully you don't vote for Romney...scary thought! Anyone who votes for him is voting against themselves, unless they are wealthy. If you vote for Romney you'll get what you deserve if he wins.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Ozwald

      2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 says that God is going to send a strong delusion to fool those who do not believe in the truth of His Word (yes, the literal Word, the Bible). "And then shall that Wicked [Antichrist] be revealed…him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,… And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie…That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness."

      October 22, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • sam stone

      ozwald: which interpretation of the bible is god's LITERAL word?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  6. jacq

    Obama is a Progressive Christian by his words, actions, and spirit. That is the essence of Chrisitanity. Are Mormons Christians? Why are we not asking Romney about his religious practices and beliefs? I think America would and should be interested in the Mormon Faith as it pertains to Christianity and other practices. You might be surprised as to what they believe.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  7. Patti Hale

    Obama is the Right kind of Christian-not Right Wing which is a distortion of Christianity!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  8. FinnLisa

    I could not possibly have less interest in what kind of "Christian" my president is.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  9. Culpepper

    GOOD !!!! A president who challenges the Religious Right's grip on the national stage is EXACTLY why I voted for him.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  10. Kay Barnes

    Most people that say they are Christians, are Christians in theroy ONLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  11. dtboy

    Real "Christians" don't use the authority of government to force their morality upon others or to mandate God's commandments.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  12. Seoras

    If you profess Christ as savior, you are a Christian. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else is politics.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • PaulB

      What if you think Jesus was Satan's brother, God the Father was once a man, and that one day you might get to become a god as well? Still a Christian then?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  13. Sam

    I always find it strange that people like Rev. Cass don't see that they are a part of the reason more and more Americans have turned away from Christianity. I am a Christian myself, and attend a progressive mainline Protestant church. We are actually thriving in a major East Coast city because there is a hunger among many people to hear the Word of God taught without judgement and hatred. We may not be a megachurch, but I would challenge Rev. Cass to look anyone at my church in the eye and tell them that they are not a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  14. barnabasmonkeypants

    That headline is embarrassing.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  15. Help Please

    Can a Christian reader here help me. Please explain how you reconcile the Mormon's Angel Moroni and the golden plates of Nephi and the Gospel according to Malachi? IS IT POSSIBLE for Christian to vote for a Mormon? How? It seems t me that Mormonism has taken and twisted Christian history and teaching.

    This is an honest question.

    Can we vote for a Mormon?

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

      You make the assumption that you need to vote for person who is a "christian". if you have that veiw, noone will ever meet your agenda. History has shown that some "christian" presidents have done a terrible job as president, while others who may not believe you have to be "born again", have done wonderful jobs. The bible tells us to Pray for our leaders, it makes no judgement that those leaders need to believer what you think they should to be a leader. Let it go and look at what he wants to acomplish as president, and let God take care of the rest.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Culpepper

      You need to question the sanity of a presidential candidate (or any person for that matter) who fanatically devotes themselves to a religion that is built upon a magic hat and magic underwear

      October 22, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Carl

      Of course a Christian can vote for a Mormon. If you think he'd do a better job as president than his opponent, that's what should matter; Mormon, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Free Man in the Republic of Texas

      Re:
      Help Please

      Can a Christian reader here help me. Please explain how you reconcile the Mormon's Angel Moroni and the golden plates of Nephi and the Gospel according to Malachi? IS IT POSSIBLE for Christian to vote for a Mormon? How? It seems t me that Mormonism has taken and twisted Christian history and teaching.
      This is an honest question. Can we vote for a Mormon?

      We are electing a government official NOT a pastor.
      The role of government is to praise good & punish evil. To do this the government official MUST understand what is good; and what is evil.

      OBAMA lacks this ability at the most fundamental level LIFE.

      For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Romans 13:3-4

      October 22, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Dave

      Mormonism is not a mainline Christian sect. It is a cult by definition. They call Joe Smith a prophet. All the prophets I have ever read about (in the Bible) use God's Word to stand on. Joe Smith created the Book of Mormon, which gets more attention than the Bible. When a religion focuses more on itself or a human, than on God and His Son, then it is a cult. Read the material put out by Southern Baptists. It is really a good analysis and comparison.

      I'm not voting Romney, Mormonism is one reason, but there are plenty of other reasons too.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  16. Elmo not happy

    That's interesting to point out how Jesus was non-violent and Obama because of drone strikes is not being very Christian like.

    However, G.W. Bush who we all agree embodies a more traditional image of a Christian American President did a lot more warring than Obama ever could and Mitt Romney, also from a non-violent faith is pushing for more military spending and hits at invading Iran.

    I think American Christians have traditionally wanted the exact opposite out of the Federal Government than the Bible asks of Christians. They want the Government to start wars, judge others for their lifestyles, renounce charitable activity and play favorites to the most well-off individuals.

    Meanwhile, the bible asks to turn the other cheek, remain non-violent, asks the rich to give up their belongings and care for the poor and to leave all judgement to God.

    Funny.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  17. Wham Bama thank you Mama

    Obama believes the wrong fairy tale. His bad.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  18. Bobby

    Very, very few of our presidents have been anything other than Christians in name only. As to almost all of them, their private writings are at best ambiguous as to their degree of faith, which itself indicates they were not very devout. George W. Bush was supposedly devout, but since he left office I haven't read or seen anything about his engaging in any evangelical pursuits.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  19. pattipaws

    Politics and religion do NOT go together.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  20. vamom23

    Wow, what a judgemental article. That is the problem with religion today...we should not judge each other, only HE can judge us. To try to compartmentalize someeone's religion or to categorize someone's religion is a sad state of affairs, my friends. CNN, you should be ashamed.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
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About this blog

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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.