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.
The gospel according to Obama is Marxism and Obama is its prophet.
I am sorry you call I am labelled a Christian with the likes off you and I'm sure if he could Obama won't call himself one. I now say I am a Messianic Jew.
Obama is the Messiah, just as the DNC sold him in 2008.
More ignorant talibangelical tea bagger bullshit.
If you are a Christian, your God is the God of Love; as Jesus said.
Ask any Muslim you meet what their God is the God of?
Both have a history of breaking the Law of their faiths.
Obama has sent thousands of our young men and women to kill and die; is he the "new" Christian?
Right so if you know you do not want war why don't you stop paying your taxes!
...Really? I have not read such an absurd article in years. Obama professes something very different than Christianity, and the guys is all about pandering to whatever the crowd is in front of him, speaking like a b-l-a-c-k man when he has to, and pretending to be a g-h-e-t-t-o, from the hood kinda guy.. Sorry, without his teleprompter the guys is lost. Go to youtube and type Obama's gaffes... not only does he believe we have more than 57 states, but his ideas are so incongruent that you feel sad for the guy.. Obama doesn't care about religion, and that's OK, just don't try to tell us he's the new Messiah, that's an insult.
Sort of like when Bush spoke all NorthEast when running for President, then all TEXAASSS when it suited him.
Obama–the KILL LIST-Christian!!!! Coveting (ENVY) required!
What you really need to ask yourself is which one of these candidates is REALLY going to keep THEIR religion out of our lives. We have a nice track record with Obama, but Romney and some of his far wing people want religion embedded in every aspect of America, and by the way how do we choose which one to use? You may actually even have the same exact faith as Romney, however I suggest if you don't want your grand children and great grand children forced to practice some religion that you don't even know about, then it's paramount that we (the United States of America) strive to keep ALL religions (period!) out of government!! Separate of Church and State is essential for our freedom.
Anyone want to tell me why he's wearing a ring which is inscribed, in Arabic, with "There is no God but Allah."
He isn't. More paranoid teatard nonsense.
he is not. Google Snopes for picture closeups.
WND is the site that kept a link to Hillary Clinton dissing the Gold Star Mothers up for a full year after the GSM's asked the site to take the link down because it was Horse Manure.
WND – the site that uses the heart break of the mothers of dead soldiers to get hits.
You're like the 20th ignorant nutter to post and repost this bullshit. You tea bagger cretins have no fucking morals.
because he has respect for other religions? I know this may be hard for you to believe, but in most circles, that isnt considered a bad thing.
Will you people STOP using the word "haters" for EVERYTHING and EVERYONE you don't agree with? It is NOT working...it is CHILDISH....it is not TRUE. I am so SICK of seeing that word continually used to divide this nation...or is that the intention of the writer. I cannot think of a better reason for denying the right of any American citizen their right to an opinion....whether you agree or not. That does not make them haters. Geesh!!
Callie, what should we call it when groups of fundiot nutters seek to pass laws and constîtutional amendments that serve no purpose other than to deprive a group of Us citizens from having the same civil rights that they have. I call it hate.
why don't you take a good long look at mormons? people will be shocked by what you will find. their beliefs are as far out as the scientologists. really, they are. some of the fundies would turn tail and run far away from Mittens if they knew what he believes, and being a temple mormon he believes it all.
But I guess fundamentalist Christians have perfectly rational beliefs, right?
[Hint – a universe that magically poofs into existence 6000 years ago. A woman made from the rib of a man. All humans descending from a single breeding pair. Talking snakes and donkeys. Man living in the belly of a fish for 3 days. 30 feet of rain an hour every hour, for 40 days.]
Yep. Those sure seem perfectly rational to me!
I have no problem with people disagreeing about particulars of reading the bible, as long as they actually have read it for themselves and not just ingested what was fed to them. I do have a problem with a Christian, especially a Christian leader, stating that another person isn't a person of faith. It is only God's place to judge our hearts. Besides, the Bible makes it cleat that we are not "saved" by what we say or do. But rather we are saved only by God's Grace. If we are saved by what we do, that would disqualify these judgmental leaders. Fortunately, our sins, even our sins of being judgmental, are covered by God's grace.
Religion mixed with politics is indeed a major problem on the right, the right wingers have infiltrated the American church and are highly influential on those who are easily coerced into "group think"....however, the biggest problem, on both the left and right wings of our sell out government, is the issue or cronyism. Rampant cronyism defines our entire political system, all of Washington D.C. is beholden to big corporations and the military industrial complex's bidding. The marriage of corporatism and government must be eliminated now, until it is, world peace will constantly be threatened, the gap between the rich and poor will only widen ever more, and corruption will continue to rule the day in America.
Pls. stop with the nonsensical rhetoric. The right (or the "religious right" as you like to call them) have no ulterior motives to "keep the poor in their place" etc. etc. Just crazy talk trying to scare people into voting for Obama. The record is getting and little old and, if you actually read our history, it is also not true.,,,,but I'm sure that wouldn't interest you. Most of these comments read like democrat talking/scaring points.
Just let the candidates do what they do and see who wins....Obama can run on his record and Romney can run on his experience.
quite frankly keep god out of politics. don't blame god for your mistakes. i'm getting tired of people constantly referring to god and politics. we are not a theocracy. so if an atheist were to run for president so be it. I'm a religious man and I sure hate it when people constantly bring god to every single thing they do. Supporting Gay Marriage in the political aspect is so different from supporting Gay Marriage in the religion aspect. Ron Paul is a relgious guy. he thinks marriage is between a man and women but he will support gay marriage you know why cause quite frankly Gov't should not even be involved in relgion what so ever. let the churches, synagogues, temples and other holy places decide if women and women or man and man can marry. I dont believe in gay marriage but I wont say lets put a law banning it. Grow up people its 2012.
great. its just another wacky media justification. you have a group of people who are constantly railing on Christians. Then one day they say "oops, we forgot our frontman says hes a Christian." so now they have to re-brand Obama with a kind of "cool" Christianity that looks "progressive" to match his celebrity status so that all of the mocking, and patronizing and belittling doesn't apply to him. And not only that, but this argument of taking care of the poor with Obamacare is somehow a Christian idea is ridiculous. Everyone loves Robin Hood, but who will say that theft is moral? I am not by any means a fundamentalist, and I generally try to promote moderation. But if you read the Bible, you will see Jesus accepting gifts and redistributing them, you will see people paying taxes and also giving to the poor, but you never see Jesus just take from one person to give to another.
CNN, you forgot to Photoshop in the halo!
CNN doesn't lie in their news programs like FAUX News does.
[Note: FAUX News, went to federal court and the FCC stating they have a constîtutional right to lie to the public during their newscasts.]
There are three things wrong with this story: (1) The fact that CNN would report on this at all is troubling given the fact that our political system was built on the premise of "separation of church and state" (2) Where is the balance in this article questioning Mormonism, a religion that baptizes peoples' relatives and allows for bigamy? (3) Evangelical Christianity has become an exclusive religion in which if you don't say the right words, you can't be a member of their club.
If CNN feels it necessary to question Obama's faith and make it front line news it must give equal time to Romney and question the Mormom faith. More importantly, when you criticize someone's religion – especially in a public forum such as this – you have hit below the belt. A new low for CNN. Shame on you.
America's obsession with the religious beliefs of its leaders is just one more thing that makes us a laughingstock around the world.
Along with our wealth, power, cultural domination, massive efficiency...man, those religious beliefs are really holding us back. Great comment!
Way to not understand the context of a sentence.
Mankind and their beliefs. I'll make the point that your all clueless. Sapien logic and reasoning were the progenators for all your religious guesswork. Now do any of you really think for a second that man has the ability to speak for or deligate any of the authority of God. If you do then please keep your religion. Its going to be the most unlaughed at joke in eternity. Not enough people are capable of understanding how and why all these thing came about. How could they ever know anything that is hidden. The truth is more likely to be rejected due to self serving and self bias than ever be accepted by bunch of posing wanna be special failures. After all isn't it all about you. LOL
I went to Catholic School for 12 years and learned abut Jesus at a very young age. Obama seems to get the kind of Jesus that I prayed to even as a child. Embracing everyone, taking care of the less fortunate and a contempt for those who put greed and profit before loving their neighbor. Today's Christians are all about money and hating the right people. It disgusts and repels me. I have no doubt in my heart that if Jesus were alive today that he would be a Democrat and cringe at what the Republicans and todays self-described "Christians" stand for.
Tell Obama to go over to Libya and challenge that religion...........
thats just dumb. Libya is not a religion.
It really is shameful that so many people take the bible so literally as if God or Jesus Christ wrote it. I belief in both God and Jesus Christ, but I do not believe in certain things the bible says to a literal sense. I understand that the bible was written by men, and changed by men through the course of history. When I say changed, I mean changed by men like the politicians of today. They preach and use their power to gain as much as possible, and they did this by changing some things in the bible and removing certain books and parts just so they may be able to say what the bible says.
I'm not saying all of the bible is so, but I am saying I look at and read the bible objectively.
There are two different source texts today and therefore two differeent bibles. These two versions are divergent from one another and therefore many reading one version will disagree with those reading the other. For instance, from an historical perspective John The Baptist was imprisoned for starting a riot that killed 120,000 Magis, but with the NIV it is taught that there were no riots and Ephesis was peaceful with Paul there.
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.