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.
Hell is going to be full of evangelicals and so called Christians because after reading some of these post on here, they claim to love God but hate Obama and say all kinds of evil things about him...If you go to hell, it's not going to be because you believe in abortion or gay rights, it's going to be because you don't have a personal relatioship with Jesus Christ...There are a bunch of people in hell right now who never had an abortion or who was never gay....Jesus said, "How can you say you love me whom you've never seen but hate your brother whom you see daily?..If you say that you are a murderer...so it's looks like we've got a bunch of so called "Evangelical Christian" murderers on this post today..
Apparently Cass has never really read the teachings of Jesus. If he did, he would realize that Jesus was a Socialist.
The first lesson of Christianity in Jerusalem is that Christian Socialism leads to poverty. Christ quoted Proverbs on feeding the People, not social darwinism.
This week he's a Disciple. Next week he'll be Jesus Christ reincarnated. You go CNN, you go.
I think it is pitiful that CNN runs this article the night of a crucial debate and days before the election. Gee, the timing is so obvious in it's effort to highlight Obama and put him in such a glowing light. Anything to do with the polls? With the debate? With the election so near? So clear what the purpose is. CNN.. you should be ashamed of yourself!
Keep religion (OF ALL KINDS) OUT of politics; I don't want other people's religion being forced into MY LIFE. They gripe about gays wanting rights, well, hells bells, keep your bible away from MY BODY HYPOCRITES
Religion has no place in politics.
EXACTLY, the bible does NOT DICTATE what I DO. so keep it at YOUR CHURCH or YOUR HOME, talk about Big Gov't; they are all in our faces...politically, which is WRONG
The "Christian Right" has made me embarassed to admit to being Christian for at least a decade.
The version they project is one I wish nothing to do with. I doubt Jesus would either.
that's exactly how many Republicans (current RINO's) feel about their party... I'm gonna have to wear a bag over my head on election day
Lord please protect me from your followers.
Do not impose your faith on others but rather show your heart by your actions.
Point me in a direction that shows which religion is not responsible for blood shed, murder or a WAR?
You've got that right. Violence is an equal-opportunity facet of almost all religions, certainly all of the major ones. My take:
Religion is rightly separated from the secular life of a country. But when if ever will it be?
Hello CNN, Sorry to inform you but OBAMA ADMITS HE IS A MUSLIM!! Check out this YouTube video of him actually saying it!!
oh grow up
Hard to fathom where you left reality.
The old testament consists of the creation and God chosing Israel as His own people. Most of what you read are real happenings of those generations. Not everything was right in the eyes of God, but many decisions of the prophets of God – according to the bible – were backed by God because prophets invoked His name. One example can be found in 2Kings 1:9-10. Jesus Christ who is the Head of the church showed all christians, by His own example on earth, what to do to inherit His kingdom and how to treat each other. No one can affirm whether a person is a true christian or not. Only God who is able to look into a man's heart, knows that.
"And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, [thou] Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and bowed at his fee, saying, Lord, help me! He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour." Matthew 15:22-28
Do you think that was kind? Do you think it was godlike? What would you think of a doctor, if a woman came to him distressed and said, "Doctor, help my daughter, she is very ill." What would you think of the doctor who would NOT reply at all at first, and then, when she fell at his feet begging him, answered that he did not spend his time doctoring dogs? Would you hire him as a family physician? Do you think that even if he were to cure your child that he'd have done a noble thing? Is it evidence of a perfect character to accompany a service with an insult? Do you think that a man who could offer such an indignity to a sorrowing mother has a perfect character?" ~ Helen H. Gardener"
kinda goes against that "do unto others thing..." damned dirty other tribes.
You really don't get the passage do you? Jesus is seeing how faithful, repentful she is. Once there is understanding that she is faithful, her child is healed.
God chose the Jews (Abraham) as his covenant people in the first place because they were a humble and unimportant tribe. The lesson Jesus is teaching is not about tribalism, its about humility. He was testing the woman to see what was the foundation of her request for help. Was it a proud demand, or a humble request based on need and humility before God. Her answer clearly showed that she had come before Jesus in a humble way. There is a big difference, isn't there, between "Please help me sir", and "Help me and make my status in life equal to yours, or else!". Even today Jesus only helps those who come before him admitting that they are spiritually poor, wretched, and hungry. That's what he meant in the sermon on the mount when he said "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven".
So this week he's a Disciple. Next week he will be Jesus Christ himself. You go CNN, you go.
An Opportunistic Christian. It's different than most – but not new.
Sure, it's shameful for a news agency to be on the tank for a candidate, but at least you can be proud of your unflinching dedication to that cause.
I only drop by once in a while to see if you are still at it. You never let me down, but today – out of the park. Nice...
Obama's religion is only what he thinks he needs to be to get elected. Just another hypocritical politician..
So you're admitting Republicans play the religion card to get elected?
romney is a morman that believes Lucifier is the spiritual brother of Jesus. God the father is a Man. doesn't believe in the Trinity. so make sure to mention the other GUY MITT ROMNEY. I dont agree with obama on some religous issues but i kntrust him more to do a better job as president.
believe in god not religion religion destroys and thruogh that destruction a few gain wealth
From what I read hear and some of these posts, it seemed that 75% of Americans are confused of what the truth about Christianity is. Twisted the true Word of the true Bible the living Word of the True GOD Lord Jesus. USA is doom to fall of that cliff and should start reading the real Bible so that their eyes can be open again. Even their leader is missing the point and misread the true Word of GOD.
What they are all failed to know is the Word of the Lord is not to be mis-interpret and take slightly, these so called prophets, rev., should know that if they are reading the real Bible because they will be judge more strickly then the students who follow their non-sense.
Sorry to tell you that people, the Bible and the Word of the Lord is alive and well consider what you might think. The entire world will be destroy and the Bible will still be alive. The Bible doesn't lie and the true Word of the Lord is inside of it. Read the Bible and interpret it correctly the right way as Jesus meant it to be.
Jesus is coming, He is right around the corner. Those who claim to be teachers and leading the world to nowhere should start paying attention to details because the King is on His way. AKA I am black.
"Read the Bible and interpret it correctly the right way as Jesus meant it to be. "
oh goody, ok then, the big question......which one of the thousands of christian factions has it right? which is the one true faith? do tell us.
The only "truth" involved where christianity is involved is that it is an invented religion as and such is no more valid than worship of the easter bunny/ancestors/etc...
That's the problem with being HUMAN, understanding what you are reading! Now, exactly which corner did you see god coming around and where? Ask the Humans that read and follow the Kuran and how they understand that book.....Point me in a direction where a religion is NOT responsible for blood shed, murder or War!
"read the bible and interpret it correctly".
Now, that is at the heart of the issue, isn't it? Who decides what is "Correct"? Some person? How can anyone know that their interpretation is "correct"?
The fact is, you can't.
Since he is coming so quickly sell your possesions, and transfer the funds to my bank account.
Are you serious, CNN?
Americans do not need a news agency pandering to them about Barack Obama's faith. He did himself in – with his 20 year allegiance with an avowed hate mongering racist – who he only dissassociated with – in order to nail down the 2008 election.
Who is Barack Obama – spiritually? I could care less. He has his own conscience to guide him about the past 20 years of sitting at the knee of Jeremiah Wright and worshiping racism and hate. I could care less about how CNN is trying to spin Barack Obama now – in 2012.
"I could care less...etc..."
Well, if you could care less, why the hell are you wasting your time, and the space on this blog writing about it ?
Yup, Obambam religion... now our fearless leader is writiing a new bible "according to freaky obambam".... BTW... a Muslim will never make a good christian, a community organizer will never make a good president, and a Kenyan w/o a birth certificate never makes a good american!
You simply sound ridiculous, please put some thought into your rhetoric at least then you might be taken seriously.
" Yup, Obambam religion... now our fearless leader is writiing a new bible "according to freaky obambam".... BTW... a Muslim will never make a good christian, a community organizer will never make a good president, and a Kenyan w/o a birth certificate never makes a good american! "
A salient post from yet another 'fundiot' on the right. Bravo... for the bull-sh!t!
wow you sure spout a lot of nonsense in such a short space.
Oh, for god's sake, when will you birthers quit about the birth certificate? Do you have nothing else to do? The man is a US citizen. Always has been, always will be.
What planet did you get beamed down from...?? You lost me at "Obambam" Grow up. will ya?
Obama is NOT a Christian. He can talk all he wants but the proof is in his actions. He is the great deceiver!
The majority of Americans are NOT Christian. They can talk all they want but the proof is in their actions. They are all examples of the great deceiver!
His actions???? He has responded to people in need. The true gospel. The Christian "right" is so far off as to what true Christianity is...that it is pathetic. Our right equates Christianity with money, and power...so far off of what Jesus taught.
Maybe you like better the Republican view of what it is to be a Christian: tax relieve for the rich; taking health care away form the poor; preemptive strike your enemies; keep foreigners out by building a wall between Mexico and the US.
I forgive you for being ignorant.
So is Romney! What a great pick!
Country of hundreds of millions of people, but we have two washed out parties to represent us, and two fake Christians to lead us! Way to go, USA
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.