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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 • 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. Paul

    I am sick and tired of "religion" discussions in every facet of politics these days. How was it, that just 20 years ago, we managed to discuss matters like budget planning, national defense and social programs without alluding to someone's religious beliefs every step of the way? I don't CARE about anyone's religion, I don't CARE which God they worship, I just want some good common sense solutions to the immense problems we face. As long as we continue to pit one religion against another, we will never make progress to improve our situation...we will become just like the Middle East...one sect battling another to the death just to make a point about "who has the true faith". Everyone has the right to believe whatever they want...but nobody has the right to force it into the political system as a mandate for everyone else to follow.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  2. Roman

    He's not a Christian, he's a muslim. Period.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • ChuckB

      God, thanks for clearing that up, oh you that knows the innermost thoughts of all men.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  3. Jake

    I don't understand how people claim there is a liberal media when CNN makes "Is Obama the Wrong Kind of Christian" a headline several days ago, then moves that article into features, and then remakes it a headline. The only news function of this headline is that CNN apparently finds it urgent that voters question Obama's Christianity. This is rather noteworthy considering Romney's sect of Christianity..

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  4. John

    “There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

    Enough said.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  5. superlogi

    Whatever the guy is, he's no Christian. He just a guy who joined a Congregation to rub elbows with other political hacks for his own personal gain.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  6. Helene

    "Conflict"

        "I thought we were fighting for God.
        Then I realized we were fighting for wealth and land."
        –from the motion picture "Kingdom of Heaven" (quoted in _The New Yorker_, May 9, 2005)

    Slumped,
    I mimic your hate.
    I am capable of this.

    I am a fish
    eating fish.
    No regrets.

    I am a flying fish,
    hitting and slapping,
    breaking you down and

    breaking myself into pieces.
    These are my bloodiest days.
    They say forgiveness cleanses the soul.

    I cannot cleanse myself.
    I will not cleanse myself.
    You are my launching platform of revenge.

    Where is God? You say He is with you.
    They say He is with them. I know He is with me.
    Well, who is He with? Who does He love?

    What color of animal does He favor?
    What texture of hair is He partial to?
    How does He measure our cultures?

    Does He love Islam more than Judaism
    and Sikhism more than Animism?
    Does He love Hinduism more than Christianity?

    I am only a flying fish,
    hitting and slapping,
    breaking you down and

    breaking myself into pieces.
    In the name of God,
    we have the right to torture with skin-bullets

    and to decapitate with our blood-battalions
    and to instill the act of taking one’s own life.
    I mimic your hate.

    I am capable of this.
    I am a fish
    eating fish.

    Maybe God wears a buffalo robe
    and sadly watches us from a horse
    as we demolish one another.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  7. Bob

    Those extremists have a very poor grasp of American history. The founding fathers they attempt to diefy weren't particularly religious as a whole, and knew to fear the insertion of a particular religious persuasion into the governing of the country. These looney-tunes prove that point.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  8. buzz

    Mttten Romney is not a Christian=mormans. So what's your point CNN, Brownbeck?

    October 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  9. ChuckB

    Another distortion of the truth is suggesting that "in God We Trust," would be replaced by "Out of Many, One,” the implication being that "In God We Trust" was established as the nation's motto by the founders. Sorry, but another big lie. "In God We Trust" was proposed as an alternative to "Out of Many, One" in 1956. The founders established "E pluribus Unum," i.e., "Out of Many, One" as the nation's motto. This phrase is found on the great seal of the United States, for one. Again, the Christian Right is pushing for the wrong thing. The truth is that conservative Christians are out of step with the founding of our nation. And very un-Christian like, they lie through their teeth. They push a revisionist agenda and routinely make claims for past American leaders that are clearly untrue.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  10. Dino

    How about we stop focusing on religion and how likeable the candidates are and focus on something more tangible that matters that's not getting attention.

    Obama is the right candidate for responsible energy and the environment. We've heard a little about energy but not enough about responsible energy. That brings us to the environment which, under Romney, we can only imagine pipelines through our backyards and drilling on protected lands and national parks.

    The environment has obviously taken a back seat to the economy and foreign policy but it doesn't make it 'right' to be irresponsible about it.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Steph Brusig

      And Obama signing the largest energy plan to increase the mpg on new cars is 'not doing anything for the environment'? I doubt Romney would do anything.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  11. John

    In today's environment, Thomas Jefferson wouldn't be "christian" enough.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • ChuckB

      None of our past presidents would be conservative enough or Christain enough for today's right. The have become purveyors of untruths and double speak; if you tell your lies often enough and vociferously enough they begin to take on the aura of truth.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  12. Ned Flanders

    The only reason CNN posts these dumb Belief Blog articles on the front page is to draw site traffic fr religious dingbats and those looking to entertain themselves by teasing the aforementioned. As one of the former, keep these articles coming CNN. The religious are a funny bunch!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  13. NYOMD

    “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.

    Obama's stepfather was right, these books are all 'mythology'.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  14. BlackDynamiteNYC

    The Religious Right is out of control, and the President knows that. That's why he gets so many votes.....
    BD

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  15. logic7

    If you didn't have Christian Laws you wouldn't have America that everyone loves. The whole idea of helping the poor comes from the Bible and Christ's teachings. Adultry is another good example. How about incest...a Biblical teaching (later to be found out by science to be a bad idea). The majority of our way of life in America is Biblically driven. You people are so spoiled. Move to a country that doesn't have these views and see how it is. It's usually complete poverty, sickness, death, murder, and forced ideologies.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  16. JCMars

    Obama is an atheist. It's very clear in his books. Those on the right who accuse him of being Islamic are wrong. Those the the left who accuse him of be Christian are wrong. He pays lip-service to religion.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Ned Flanders

      You know what? You're probably right. It's sad that to be president you have to do this, but it's absolutely necessary to quiet the religious voters.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  17. Zach Y

    "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.”"

    That's nice Reverend. Tell me, when did the motto of the United States become "In God We Trust" again? Oh yeah. 1956. Before that we didn't have an official motto but unofficially it was E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for "From many, one". We only changed it to In God We Trust in response to the Red Scare, because Americans were too afraid of those godless commies. It's funny that he'd invoke the Founding Fathers, considering how much trouble they went to in order to specifically separate church and state...

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. al

    Good try Mr. Blake. However you will never convince intelligent Americans that Obama can sit in Rev. Wrights chruch for 20+ years and hear the hate-filled speech he spewed. Not Christ like in any way, shape, or form.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  19. donn reile

    Well, the atheists are on a roll here. They will jump on anything religious. Disgusting

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • ChuckB

      No more of a roll than that of the Christian right stridently repeating their distortions of the Gospel's message and the history of the nation; disgusting.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  20. BC

    LOL, CNN is again trying to paint Obama as a Christian when in fact he has no real religion. He uses religion as a political tool to be used are needed to gain voter support. He through his church and pastor under the bus when it bacame a political liability. CNN as usual is trying to prop up obama for the election. How pathetic. CNN should be ashamed.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • GauisCaesar

      CNN? No? I thought the fact that every other "analyst" to talk on CNN is gay would give it away. Per representation, CNN has like a 60% gay guest showing everyday. The trick is to make America think every other person in the US is gay!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:29 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.