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.
Conservative Churches and Christians need to be more open and realistic rather than imposing their own rules on politicians and brainwashing common people. They should rather help poors instead of emptying their pockets.
Interesting. I've been a Christian most of my life, a pastor for over thirty years, and a Progressive. I know exactly what the author is talking about, though – I've had people on the so-called "Christian Right" condemn my faith as not "real" because I had no emotional conversion experience (where in the bible does it say we have to have that?), and because of my political beliefs, which I believe are more in concert with the Bible than fundamentalism – which, by the way, is a Johnny-come-lately to the church, which means that there were plenty of "authentic" Christians before fundamentalism, who didn't believe in all that. You could include Paul and Jesus in that number. Maybe if they actually knew anything about their faith, its history, and the Bible, they'd be a little more humble.
Progressive Chrisitian? Apparently you never picked up that God's word is the same today as it was yesterday.
Amen good sir.
30 years as a pastor and you believe Jesus is a progressive? lol! Jesus condemned sin, expanded the definition of sin to include the mental portion as well (ie, not just action but thought). The command from Jesus was to preach the gospel to the world, since this world is not the true form of God's overall plan. Progressives care more for this world than the next, and care mostly for the problems of this world.
Actually Charles, that's the problem. The Bible was supposed to be a guide which allowed growth (Growth is a synonym for adaptation, evolution, change, etc.) as opposed to a dogma which condemns the very universal principle it was designed to sustain.
The Bible (or Bibles, depending on your religion) were the first guidebooks for humanity, its ethics, laws, etc. They were meant to evolve as do we. LOOK AROUND. THE MAJOR CONSTRUCT OF THE UNIVERSE IS THE LAW THAT THINGS THAT DO NOT CONTINUE TO CHANGE, GROW or EVOLVE... WILL AND ALWAYS DO DIE OUT.
You can see it in a child that refuses to learn from their mistakes. A man that refuses to listen to truth and act accordingly. Et cetera.
My point is most's view of God is so small and feable that it borders on disrespectful not to mention that it's stupid. GOD IS ALL POWERFUL, OMNIPRESENT, ALL WISE, ALL SEEING, AROUND US ALL and IN US ALL. But he can only have one religion? If religion is God's language couldn't he be smart enough to be bilingual? Being a progressive Christian is the ONLY way to actually BE Christian in my mind. To not move forward in a positive manner kinda goes against everything Jesus and God appear to be about.
Actually Godbodian the bible isn't meant to be guidebooks for humans. The laws do not evolve. The bible is God's word to man about His plan and spiritual growth. Keep it simple and reflect God's glory not add to His glory becuse you are not adding glory to something that has it all. The man thing is that YOU ARE THE SALT (Matt 5:13). The salt preserves. By being progressive then you are doing the opposite of that. You have a dispute then refer to His word. If you are "prgressing" then you have no word to come to because everyone has added their own belief.
And by the way Godbodian when you asked "But he can only have one religion?"
It's not a religion issue. It is God's word belief. Before Chrisitianity salvation came through Judaism. Period. Do not add to that thought. The backbone of Judaism is God's word. If you stick with God's word then you'll be fine. By "progressing" then you are adding to it which is a no-no.
Another nonsensical article from an increasingly irrelevant media outlet. You wanna know what kind of Christian he is? A soon to be unemployed one!!!! Get over it CNN, there is just NOTHING you can do to save this. Man you people are truly PATHETIC. Get over it already and move on. You picked a guy who had no experience whatsoever and he turned out to be one of the worst Presidents ever. That's life. Move on, CNN!!!
I am so sick and tired of CNN and the rest of the idiots saying ridiculous things in reference to the President. The idiots have nothing positive to say about the change he is attempting to make in these yet to be United States, but instead of talking positive, you idiots have to find any little thing to build a story on. You people claim it isnt a race issue, so you try to throw in Christianity just to promote negativity. This county is a hot mess and has been since the last 2 sorry presidents were in office.
Please actually read the article. It is not an attack of the President, but an explanation of the attack against him, as well as an explanation of the core of his faith, which is important to him. IIt is actually a rather good article, defending his approach to his faith, as well as noting where and why there are differences between him and the right wing. The only problem I have with it is that it says that liberal Protestantism is dying. I doubt that is true, although the most strident voices today are the voices from the far right fundamentalists. But, as the author notes, that is changing a bit. What he doesn't say is that those strident voices of the far right are concerned, because their following is dying off – angry old white men – they are being rejected by younger Evangelicals, who are more likely to follow Jim Wallis than Jerry Falwell or James Dobson.
A lot of people don't know the differnce between religion and god, most people will go to hell, after all most christians in america hate others, think about it white christians hated black people for centuries even today, good luck getting to heaven
Amen to that
The United States of America would be an even greater country if it practised what it preached- - and that doesn't mean whacked out fundamentalist "Christianity". Lots of love in the old USA, but it doesn't just reside in the heart of the right.
What a cheap attempt to lesson PRESIDENT Obama's appeal right before the election.
You need a lesson in how to use lessen.
I'd like to see an article about Romney's Mormon faith. Their focus is more on Joseph Smith than Jesus Christ...
Mormons are NOT Christians. American church folks are so ignorant. The Mornons believe that Jesus Christ didn't finish His work and Joseph Smith was the second coming of Christ who was sent to finish the work. That is a PERVERSION of CHRISTIANITY. A perversion of Christianity is NOT Christianity folks.
It would do us all good to read, or re-read, Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1 through 29, and listen with our heart. Not all who claim to be Christians, will enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Those who judge, will themselves be judged, with the same measure they used to judge others. Best to leave all judgement to God. No man has the right, or wisdom to judge another. That again from a 76 year old Baptist. One reason I no longer attend church services. Pulpit judgement of political figures, instead of preaching God's word, and let each of us decide for ourselves.
@ Don: re-read Mt.7:2-5. By your understanding, we'd never actually take the wood out of our own eyes, much less help one another.
Christians are called to judge one another (1 Cor.5:12), but not the world.
Politics in the church and trying to determine whose heart is right with God is not something one should be doing. That is why I no longer fellowship with a church. They feel that they can determine who is worthy by their standard to be a Christian.
God knows the heart of Barack Obama and NO ONE ELSE.
@ Linda: then why did Jesus say we would "know my disciples by their fruit"?
when i saw this headline, i thought i had accidentally been routed to the fox "news" website. kudos to CNN for trying to imitate them. [/snark]
Now, when can we expect the hit piece on Mormonism?
So, he is lacking in faith. Why is this a problem exactly?
This article says absolutely nothing about Obama lacking in faith. Quite the opposite. His personal Christian faith is one of the things that motivates his policy.
Why is this back on the front page AGAIN?
Just so much crappola.
Stop believing in fairy tales.
What a cheap attempt to lessen PRESIDENT Obama appeal right before the election.
I was thinking the EXACT same thing. This is CNN's Romney moment. CNN tries to pretend they are not biased and that they get complaints from the left and right and that is how they know but this is a phucked up question and article days before the election. It has been revealed that CNN's polls are 10 -12 points Republican leaning and now this. This is an asinine article aimed at hurting President Obama.
Separation of church and state much? Why religion continues to be intertwined into politics baffles me.
Jeff, Seperation between church and state is an idea that I had during an "OpEd" letter that I had written over 200 years ago and since has been interpreted as being part of United States Code (USC). In fact it is not, and officially there is no speration.
Although I am still for it.
Say for a moment that Obama is the wrong kind of Christian. Does this article intend to say that Romney is the right kind of Christian? Absurd and insulting. As usual when you mix politics and religion.
Actually, the article ties Obama's brand of faith to that of most Americans up until fundamentalism became popular in the 1960s. Our generations who fought through both world wars would have been very comfortable with Obama's faith. Unfortunately, many of them have sense converted to fundamentalism in their old age and have forgotten what people believed in back when they were younger. So much for "traditional" values, eh?
people who have to need to "boast" about being a good Christian are probably not a Christian at all.
all religion is bad - christianity has caused more harm to this world than the plague
Your statement is false and inflammatory. You cannot prove this because it simply is not factual. Were Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini Christians? Did they kill tens of millions of people because of their faith or their lack of faith ?
WOO WOO WOO. Hold on here. "There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.” Did obama just declare himself God? Anyways you all remember that yes we can speech on youtube where played backwards and slowed it sounds like "hail satan?"
No he didn't declare himself God... it's a saying amongst Christians... that "this is the house of my father... (I.E. CHURCH and the CONSISTENT CHRISTIAN THOUGHT of God as a parent; "We ALL are the children of God." etc.) Don't most think of their parents' home as also theirs?
Try me on for size...I even have a little flap that opens for when you stick your winkie in the stinkie
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.