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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. Concerned American

    Well here's Truth!! Do you care?? I do!! He knew & they died!! Where's tat accountability? Mitt will keep us safe! Obama caught negotiating with Russia off mic... Whale could go on... Please everyone Vote for Mitt & quit believing the spin! You know in your hearts who we can trust and who is for US!! <3

    October 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  2. GetMeOutAlive42

    Ive never gotten how people "Know" he is a "different" kind of christian when he isnt christian at all,
    Hes Muslim, just do A LITTLE bit of research people outside of watching that So truthful tv everyones glued to nowadays
    Look up his gold ring on his marital finger and see what it represents, ha it has the phrase " There is no God but Allah" actually inscribed in Aribic on it.
    Dont take my word for it! look it up! (if you just take someones wordfor what it is no matter how "important" they are then i have to seriously call your intelligence into question)
    Ive always wondered why the heck people just take what they hear (or see reported) as the truth
    HA What could be more possibly insane?
    Good Luck out there, Youll need It

    October 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • zapper

      You're the kind of nut that America could do without.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  3. j0eschm0e

    obama is sub-ordinate to the saudi king as he bows to him. obama is not christain, obama is muslim. in the kuran as I have heard, that once you are muslim, you do not switch religions, or you will be punished, stoned or killed.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  4. dee

    I will label him a lukewarm Christian as in Left Behind. Figure it out for yourself. Christ was NOT LUKEWARM.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Lyle

      lukewarm christians do not work very hard to make abortions happen around the globe – sorry. He is not a christian and should not even be in a lukewarm catagory

      October 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Joel

      Abortion is a relatively recent boogeyman among evangelicals. Until the early 1980s there was still considerable difference of opinion among Southern Baptists, for example.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • zapper

      Lyle: If Jesus was against abortions how come he is never reported to speak about them in the four gospels? Ever? Historically we know that abortions existed in the middle east 2,000 years ago, so why didn't the Savior consider it worth mentioning?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  5. Steve

    No one would having this stupid conversation if Obama was clear about his beliefs....but he is not and so he deserves all of these comments on this blog to be mailed to him at the White House – where he can read and see what he has projected....and there is nothing Christian in it!!!!!!

    October 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  6. ZeBling

    USA is NOT a Christian country either and Christians are just latent Muslims. Muslims have a lower boiling point compared to Christians – but they are all the same rabidions.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  7. alayna jones

    Why are soooo many mean things being said about this POTUS? Where does any one have the right to question his faith? Have you not read the scriptures? Judge not and ye shall not be judged. He who is w/o sin shall cast the first stone. Why must you continue to write such vicious commentary.,

    October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • dee

      He brings it on himself!

      October 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Sadie

      Because he wouldn't know Jesus if he stood in front of him and if he did know him, he wouldn't be smart enough to show him any respect.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Why is the left (CNN) questioning Obama's faith? Are the Catholics becoming Aware that something is wrong with socialism? Socialism was the first failure of Christianity in Jerusalem.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • ObjectiveGuy

      Because Obama pretends to be something he's not, just for political gain. How dumb does he think we are?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  8. Redbengal

    This discussion about obama's religion is all part of the process during this election campaign to discuss other issues not related to his performance these past 4 years. As long as voters are filling their heads with something that has nothing to do with the candidates' qualifications, or discussing the failure to move the country forward after 4 years, then we are probably doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. barack obama thought he inherited a mess 4 years ago, I wonder what he will be saying if he is re-elected about the mess (which now includes a > $16,000,000,000,000 debt) he will inherit this term?

    October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • zapper

      Given that employment is now up, home sales are up, home building is up, at least 15 million more people will have health insurance by next year and al qaeda is gutted, we're in much LESS of a mess than four years ago. The deficit isn't everything. Adjusted for inflation, Ronald Regan ran up a huge deficit, too. Did America fall? No.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Redbengal

      Zapper, if I remember correctly, barack obama promised the country that he would be a "1-term president" if he failed to turn the country around. Guess what – most Americans think they are worse off now then what they were 4 years ago. I guess this would make bho a LIAR!

      October 22, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Pam

      You know why we aren't moving forward "Red"bengal? yep, you. So get out of the way so we can fix what you broke.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Paul

      hey Zapper, employment isn't upp, unemployment is down. Theres a difference, and it's equal to the millions that gave up looking for a job during BO's first term.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  9. Andy

    "Easy on the zeal Churchos… I've got something to say. Don't you get it? It's all Christianity, people! The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!"

    Bart, The Simpsons

    October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  10. palintwit

    Real Christians believe that the movie Deliverance is an accurate portrayal of conservative life in America.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • dee

      LOL, that is definitely a Liberal society you are referring to, not Conservative.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  11. Zohar

    'Clashes'

    http://www.thedailyzohar.com

    Witnessed by Zohar

    October 22, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Lillith worship is not Christianity. That old screech owl will get you.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  12. j0eschm0e

    thats because obama is not a christian at all, he is a f r a c k i n g muslim. christians do not bow to the saudi king.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • ....

      BULLSHIT ALERT

      October 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • palintwit

      Didn't you ever see that photo of George W. Bush holding hands and kissing The Saudi prince? Google it. It should be easy to find.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • cristopher hitchens

      Or walk along holding his hand?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • jon

      Who cares if the President of the United States believes in some superdooper power in the sky? Get religion OUT of politics.
      There are many, many, many different religions and religious beliefs in the World. They can't all be correct, and probably none of them are. So keep ALL of this stuff out of our government and everybody will be happier. I don't know if Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower, Clinton, etc. even went to church, and I could care less. Bush 2 is the guy who let these crazy "religious right" people into the realm of the White House. That is another thing we can blame him for.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  13. theozarker

    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.”

    Acts 4:33-35:"And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus:and great grace was upon them all.
    "Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of those things that were sold,
    "And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

    Perhaps Mr. Cass and other like Christians should read their bibles a little more carefully. Sounds like "Marxist" redistribution to me.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  14. Odumbo

    He and you liberal media nuts can keep saying this but won't fall for this guy.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  15. The Veteran

    The Gospel is not religion. It is freedom from religion. You shall hear this again...

    October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  16. Luis Wu

    Obama doesn't try to force his beliefs on everyone else like the evangelical and conservative Christian crowd.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Kate

      Every religion believes it's the ONLY correct one. Nobody on the face of this earth knows who's right.....or if any of them are. It's all speculation.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • j0eschm0e

      MUahahhaa Luis Wu, but you keep drinking the obama kool aid which leaves you totally blind to every dirty thing obama does.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Kate, not all religions believe that there is only one way.

      Most Pagan faiths don't, for example.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  17. Geeeez

    It's scary when religions feel the optimum outcome is Armageddon.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • j0eschm0e

      you are absolutely right. it truely is scarey, and is ultimately the majority reason of war

      October 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  18. ArthurP

    The Christian Bible in use today is a government publication from the Roman Empire and should be treated the same was as one would treat any other government publication ancient or modern.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  19. shelly

    Anyone gullible enough to fall for this whole god myth, should not be President. It shows a lack of intelligence.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Paul

      You know what, god may not exist, but I think it's pretty arrogant, as a human, to be absolutely certain either way. At least there's a nicer word than arrogant, for a believer (faithful). Regardless, what are you doing for Christmas this year?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  20. Steve Wilkinson

    Obama is a Christian in the sense that he knows to use the term when it is politically beneficial. That's about it.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • shelly

      That's because he knows the religious idiots will fall for anything. They fell for the bible, didn't they?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Steve Wilkinson

      What's wrong with the Bible? (You didn't fall for Bart Ehrman's conclusions, did you?... IF you've even looked into it that far, which would be rare.)

      October 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
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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.