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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. J. Davis in Knoxville, TN

    Obama's views on religion are much more in line with Jesus's teachings than those obnoxious holy rollers known as the Christian right. I'm proud to support our great President!
    I wonder if Mitt Romney knows that one of the Ten Commandments is "do not bear false witness." I wish the press would talk more about the inconsistencies in Romney's campaign–he says one thing one day and then the opposite another day. As an example, early in the campaign he said he would get rid of Pell Grants but in the last debate he indicated support for them. He is the classic flipflopper and I don't see why America doesn't see straight through him and Ryan.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Gosseyn

      Obama's views on religion are much more in line with "liberation theology," a thoroughly Marxist theology that originated in Latin America and was preached by Reverend Wright as "black liberation theology" in the church that Obama attended for 20 years in Chicago. The congregation is so radical it gave a "trumpeteer" award to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  2. Ohyeah

    Oh please. Just come out and admit it. He is a BLACK Christian and thats where the real problem is. Right? Time to put on 2 holes in my pillow case and wear it over your head. Halloween is round the corner and you can pretend its a costume.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • BF

      I am not white and I don't like his socialist thinking and the distance with Israel.

      October 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  3. lee

    it is comic reading some of these posts bashing on Obama. let me ask you, what makes you think your opinion has any weight especially against a man who has accomplished more than you will ever in your life time?

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  4. Phil

    Agreed, he is a different kind of Christian. He is the kind that wears a ring inscribed "There is no God but Allah". Google it. The guy's been wearing it since well before his wedding. No biggie, I'm sure Billy Graham wears one as well.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • visitor

      yeah google it. it's a lie. read snopes for a clear picture of the ring, not the fuzzy pictures shown on Glenn Beck's site.

      Gullible gullible people you are.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • cedar rapids

      "He is the kind that wears a ring inscribed "There is no God but Allah".
      of for christs sake.
      i swear, i wonder what people would moan about if you removed all the nonsense and lies about obama that people believe.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  5. karllinen

    Regarding the statement no Christian believes in Jesus Christ and rejects the Bible. Wrong. A famous historian, Will Durant wrote extensively about Jesus Christ, the man, who lived way back when.
    Unless I sat down with President Obama to learn what he believes, I could make no judgment. Accepting media reports is foolish and unethical in making sound judgments.
    All religion is theoretical, as are the hypothesis regarding the Universe. Too many people wave the Bible as if it is God. Using their own Commandments: Though shall not worship false idols (the Bible). Wait for God to talk to you. If he does, you have proof.
    Evolution, referring to mutations of characteristics that were once possessed, but no longer exist, has some proof to support the theory.
    My Parents had wisdom teeth. My siblings and I do not, and a nurse said she could not find tonsils in me when she inquired if I had them removed. I never had a tonsillectomy, because there was nothing there.
    Always exercise extreme care when separating fact from theory. The Big Bang and that particle they're looking for are theories, and it does not matter the probabilities that the theories are true. A FACT IS ABSOLUTE WITH NO CHANCE OF ERROR. IT IS NOT A FACT THE SUN WILL RISE TOMORROW...correction: that the Earth will rotate so the sun will appear to rise.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  6. 2020

    This election is not decided by what Romney or Obama's faith. it is decided who has the character to stand up for ordinary people, the middle class, and vision to invest in people.

    Romney is the loser.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  7. Ned Flanders

    I really need to move to Canada.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  8. tc4012

    Nice fiction piece. Obama is a Christian in NAME ONLY. His core values go back to Islam as he was raised under in Indonesia and his family. NONE of what he does follows Christian values, but the avg uneducated voter will believe anything written.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Ned Flanders

      The old he's-a-muslim-spy line. Classic. Grow up, you're not 10 years old and in a treehouse.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • cedar rapids

      you know he also went to a catholic school in indonesia right?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  9. sally

    I find this article to very offensive .., why the need to question someoneS christianity. Only on CNN the home of the TEA PARTY.SMDH

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  10. jarhead4life

    Whatever happened to separation of Church and State. What religion you believe in or don't believe shouldn't be part of the politics of this country.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  11. sam stone

    "What a great pick!"

    I think you missed an "r", Prissy

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  12. Linda Johnson

    If Obama is the "wrong" kind of Christian, then I am too. I believe wholeheartedly in Jesus and what He said—and did. Like him, I have a radical preference for the poor. This isn't "warmed–over Marxism" but red–hot faith.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • J. Davis in Knoxville, TN

      Amen.

      October 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  13. honestuck

    I am not sure why CNN is publishing this report. This is most likely going to help Obama get reelected and we all know that is not what CNN wants. I think CNN should retract this report immediately before too many people read it and get swayed to vote for Obama which is seemingly a contradiction of CNN's goal.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Sarah

      CNN used to be a news organization. Now, it's just a propaganda outlet. The soviets would have loved this. What do you expect?

      October 22, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  14. dontbehating

    what the heck. this guy is so bashing on obama. as far as violence and war its all over the old testament. funny how he think obama as violent with his drone attacks.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  15. Arch Stanton

    The right-wing version of Christianity only works for people who haven't actually read the Bible. I run into lots of Republican "Christians" who are huge fans of Ayn Rand... and you cannot serve both Ayn Rand and Jesus at the same time. They're dimetrically opposed. Ayn Rand says the chief virtue is selfishness, while Jesus was clear that selflessness was the way people should live.

    Republicans have blended their political party with their religious beliefs, and, frankly, it's killing both the religion and the party. Christians aren't seen as the good guys anymore, because their dogma comes more from Rand than Jesus. At the rate this is gong, in a hundred years or so, Jesus will be on the scrap-heap with Zeus, Odin, Osiris, and all the other gods no one believes in anymore. And Christians will have the Republican party to thank for that.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Gosseyn

      History has shown that people in high governmental positions in socialist countries can be as dictatorial and selfish as anyone. There is selflessness, and then there is the guise of selflessness. Steve Jobs was a very selfish person in some ways but he helped raise the standard of living for millions of people. The selflessness/selfish debate is not the only paradigm on which to evaluate what is good for people and a country. There are also things like creativity (which Jobs had in abundance), for example.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  16. pc

    Obama is a good atheist, not a vile christian.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  17. mmaclaurin

    shame on you, CNN. looks like you've quickly changed out the headline, but not quickly enough to protect your reputation

    October 22, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. Welch

    All religions are cults.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • pc

      Thats what Obama believes too!

      October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • gmenfan54

      Actually, religion has become a business enterprise.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • geckopelli

      That's right.
      And truly religious people are all victims.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  19. 2020

    The only path to salvation is accepting the blood of Jesus Christ, let Holy Spirit led the life thereafter.

    Salvation does not made by donation, good work. Those are the results of faith, not because of.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • @2020

      The only salvation is to abandon that relic of a book and live life in a decent manor without having to have magical fairy beings make your decisions for you. As an atheist, I am probably the most moral person I know and don't need to live in fear of burning for eternity or having a jerk of a god judge me if I decide I don't want to eat some phoney flesh or drink some phoney wine-blood....religions are cults.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  20. Tony

    I don’t think anyone who has posted on this topic or will be posting on this topic has the right to say what President Obama is or isn’t based on his faith. That’s something he will have to answer for with GOD. If you’re too simple though, and easily influenced by things, then regardless of what the President Obama beliefs are you’re not going to get it.

    I am surprise by CNN decision to clear this topic, but I guess all is fair in love and war!

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 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.