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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. anti-troll

    He is not a christian, he is a muslim acting like a christian to fool the American public until he can topple our nation from within. An illegal immigrant posing as our president undermining the very fabric of our nation.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • midwest rail

      Idiocy.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • JB

      I agree that is the religious right spin, but don't you think we should keep in mind that both sides are spinning. The truth is most likely someplace in the middle.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  2. JB

    Well now; this is a revealing article. I admit to thinking of OB as a Muslim myself. Not because it is fact, only because that is the spin I have been fed. Personally I lean left on social issues and right on economic issues, as I believe most Americans do. Those on the religious right have hurt the republican Brand and our country.

    As Maslow explained, we can't address social issues until we have food our the table. Therefore I plan to vote Romney.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  3. Geff

    "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

    October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  4. observer1776

    Jesus taught that you can not worship both money and God. You will love one and hate the other.
    That is the problem on both the Left and the Right.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  5. BlackDynamiteNYC

    If you mean he's not a condescending, know-it-all, tollbag kind of Christian, then I'm right with you!
    BD

    October 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • BlackDynamiteNYC

      *toolbag
      BD

      October 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Blasphemy

      I think I will use the term "tollbag" to describe the windbag leaders of massive religious organizations from now on. The term is quite appropriate.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  6. nsvt

    I think the headline of this article is offensive. When it comes to matters of faith, I don't think its productive for us to be labeling anyone the "wrong" kind of christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Blasphemy

      The article does not label Obama as being the wrong kind of Christian. It merely observes that the radicals do.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  7. Smoothshocker

    I think Satan got a bum deal. He and god were boys, and what did Satan want? Maybe a little powersharing, stock options, a decent healthplan and 401k? And god kicks him out for eternity!?? God is definitely a woman, nobody holds a grudge longer

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  8. Willy

    Please, now BHO is new new messiah bringing the true meaning of Christianity back to us? Please!! He's no more than a gifted community organizer who hasn't got a clue how to truly lead people & govern. It's a toss-up who has done more long-term damage to our country - Jimmy Carter or him...

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • works4me

      He can now add President of the United States to his resume.
      Just what have you done for "your" Country?

      October 21, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  9. allan fraser

    yup,,you guys have hit an all time low making accusations ,because Obama does not fit into your description of what a Christian is,,its his faith,so why do you put him down for it,other then make a story and headlines,

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  10. Matt

    Using religion as a theatrical prop to a political career is nothing mew. The only "pioneering" act by Obama is picking a church that a majority of Americans would consider abhorrent, and then throwing his pastor under the bus. He picked that church, like he picked his friends, because it would help him get votes in Chicago, and them cast it aside when iit was going to cost him votes nationally. There's no faith involved here, only ambition.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Geff

      We could definitely say the same of Romney. His recent meeting with Billy Graham was a cynical manipulation of a decent man.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  11. rasko41

    The antichrist thang is wishful thinking, but I undertand; there is a lot of emotion at stake here.

    October 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      "Antichrist" ha!

      That's like saying Obama is secretly the Joker or Darth Vader. That's how silly these beliefs are.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  12. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    If Obama said he would add the religion industry to the role of taxpayer he would have my vote .. I'd even vote early for that!!

    October 21, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • works4me

      Absolutely... Even with all of the doubts in moral standards, the Catholic Church still remains the worlds second richest organization... behind the Mafia.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. Blasphemy

    I have known a couple of Christians. I found out by accident that they were Christians.

    I have known a great many con=artists. Every one of them told me what great Christians they were right away.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  14. ed

    * ...but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian...*

    Please remember, no human...president, priest or citizen defines Christianity. The word Christian means Christ follower. The only one who can define Christ's Kiingdom of followers is the one being followed. The ONLY one who will determine if someone is a Christian is the one being followed. The ONLY one who who will supply the reward freely to those true followers will be the one being followed. The one who does these things is Jesus. Humans can pass along the Truth of the one being followed, but we are far from defining Christianity. Again, only Christ defines who He is and what His followers should look and act and sound like.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  15. wardtom

    You don't have a wedding ring that is inscribed with the words there is only one god and that is allah and be a christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Sane Person

      People that make crap up are certainly not christian. His ring "inscription" states no such thing. Arent you people supposed to not lie as part of being a "good christian" ?

      http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/weddingring.asp

      October 21, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • HB

      I totally agre......wait. What?

      October 21, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  16. observer1776

    Obama has worn the same ring on his ring finger for over thirty years.
    It has an inscription which translates "Allah is the only God".
    That is the first pillar of Islam.
    Obama is a closet Wahhabi-Sunni Muslim who has taken away from the press vacations during previous periods of Ramadan.
    That is why he supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Sane Person

      Except for the fact that you are absolutely incorrect. Stop making things up.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • midwest rail

      False, but you already knew that. You right-wing fundies will buy into ANY internet conspiracy theory, won't you ?

      October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Read it

      Lying sack of horse manure. Do the world a favor and expedite your trip to see the Bronze Age male lover of yours. But I get it, you're totally not ghey

      October 21, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • works4me

      rectal cavity... stop being such a bigot. Read, listen, and educate yourself BEFORE posting!

      October 21, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  17. darrenhankins

    Obama is a christian and his support of the average American support this....stupid story by CNN....what about Romney Mormon Church cult.......that believe Jesus and Satin are brothers........

    October 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  18. Chedar

    Hey there are repubs that got converted from Hindu to Christianity. Ask Bobby Jindal and Nickey Haley. They even change their name to sounds like American

    October 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  19. In Reason I Trust

    After Obama's speech pointing out the silliness of some bible rules like eating shellfish, I suspect he's truly an atheist that realizes his only shot at the White House meant pandering to believers.

    Unfortunately, an open atheist would never get elected, folks just can't get past their childish beliefs.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  20. smc

    Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are that 1) there is only one God, you shall have no other, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself.

    Today, right wing Republicans worship the almighty $$$$, corporate greed, unprovoked war, everything Rush Limbaugh and his ilk says, etc.

    They preach hatred of the poor and homeless, minorities, and anyone else who is unlike them. They pick and choose which "sins" and sinners are worse than their own sins.

    If Obama is the "wrong" kind of Christian, then these right wing extremists lost all things Christian a long time ago.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • darrenhankins

      you are spot on

      October 21, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Lilith

      Spot on except for that whole "religion is real" thing.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • works4me

      Obama truly has American interests in his heart...
      Romney truly has American dollars in his, so he can invest more offshore.

      October 21, 2012 at 9:11 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.