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.
this is just another example of the Obama propaganda machine.
.. as opposed to the Romney/Rupert Murdoch FOX News propaganda machine.
If you have a problem with the president's religious believes, you should check out Governor Romney's before voting.
And YOU are a product of the Romney/Karl Rove propaganda machine...Obama 2012.
Let's not get off focus. This election is about the economy, the deficit, and war. Not religion.
Governor Romney believes in a religion founded by a fraud, Joseph Smith. You're saying that a man not smart enough to see through the lies in the Book of Mormon shouldn't affect our vote. I disagree, and I hope millions agree with me.
For millions of right wingers EVERY election is about religion. Every single one.
A differnt kind of Christian???
Black Liberation Theology??
When you have read all 66 books in the bible, try comment again.
Attacking Obama with this article, along with all the Christian-right nuts out there is equal to when Roosevelt was called a "cripple" during his campaign...it's just not right. No true Christian would attack Obama like this.
You mean Teddy with his birth defect, or FDR's polio? Which one is the lie? Obama, like FDR is not a Christian. FDR was America's first secular Jewish President and a heroine dealer to boot.
FDR was an Episcopalian. This decision was influenced by his past at an Episcopol boarding school. Romney is a Mormon cultist and a Bishop in said cult. Romney is in no way a Christian...
As far as I'm concerned, I would have prefer that our president be atheist. President Obama is a real Christian, and I respect him just like I respect Jesus as a good human being, not as a son of God. Yet the so-called American Christians, the anti-Christs hypocrites, who worship money and wealth and totally live their lives against the Jesus' teaching, don't accept him. How moronic is that?
There is recently alot of talk about Obama's religion. What about some equal time concerning the gospel according to Romney? Does he really beleive that as man is now God once was, and as God is now man may become? This is one of the central tenents of the Mormon faith. Man may become gods creating new worlds and fathering spiritual children. Is the talk of Obama's faith just another attempt to distract people away from examining Romney's religious views?
very good point.
Why do you even care about Obama's religion or Romney's religion? Will it be their religions who will fix the economy, balance the budget, reduce the deficit, end war, and keep us out of war? I don't think so.
Was it not so-called Christian-Conservatives who once claimed Martin Luther King Jr, wasn't a true Christian. Who truly want to talk scripture?
The end is near. Mahabone.
Really?? Mitt is a really Christian. Have you seen what mormons think of black people? Their religion started in an attic. They say God is man with flesh and bones who was a man that has exalted to godhood. God became god though learning the truth and aggressively pursuing godhood, and being obedient to the laws of the gospel...?? REALLY?? Mitt is a Christian. Huh! Whatever! Billy Graham ministries recently endores mormonism as a form of christianity which is completely crazy!! The Graham's have sold out to the Republican party which is very sad for true Christians... I read my bible. How about you do the same and let the president be the President of the United States of America
The black people of this nation are the ones who need to be called out right now......why?? For publicly platforming for votes for Obama based being black.....come on people!!!! Vote for who will give you the jobs!!!!!
Obama is a liar......and he has changed nothing. The greatest affection we have seen from him – was on his apology tour to the muslim nations.....America does not recieve this kindness from him. He learned much from his mentor Jeremiah Wright
lol. Stock market is UP over 60% since Bush left it plummeting.
Bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive. We aren't losing a HALF MILLION jobs each month.
tea bagger nonsense...Obama 2012.
observer (joke..) – you wake up!!! 47 million on food stamps......23 million out of work!!! Obama did not kill Bin Laden either!!
Our great United States is in a sad state of affairs when so many people care about the religion of the president. It's about the man, the party, views on the issues and ability to execute the duties of the office that matter.
We should be very concerned that so many citizens hold such a rigid theocratic view with the need to force evangelical Christianity down the throats of free Americans. Beware the religious right as they are wolves in sheeps clothing and are out to destroy the fabric of our free society and force all to become mindless Christian robots.
I don't fear the religious right near as much as I fear the media left. This cover story just another example that the media is no long simply biased – but completely complicit in supporting the left.
By the way – Obama only cares about religion to the extent it will get him elected. I'd be more concerned with his long affiliation with his old racist church then anything coming from the right (Roe v. Wade is not going to get overturned).
Another Headline Advertisement for the far left and Obama – brought to you by CNN.
Did you say Islam? I'm sorry, what did you say?
CNN is becoming the new "Fox News" with this article...too bad...they used to be my favorite news source.
Perhaps you'd be more comfortable with the taste of the Kool-Aide at P-MSNBC.
"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.”
Is it possible that Mr. Dobson was actually describing himself when he made the prededing statement??
It's all about power and money for churches and Christianity today. They want to have control over you so they can tell you how to think and act and remove any ability for you to see the world except as they want you to see it. They then do all they can to get as much money as they can from you. Yes, they do good with the money but that is not the primary reason they want it. They know when you are financially invested that they have you right where they want you, under their thumb.
Christianity has never been about anything else since the formation of the catholic church 2000 years ago. It continues to this day. They are as concerned about the poor, the homeless, the hungry the ill, or any of that, but simply want control over you and your money.
You cannot believe in a CREATOR and also say I'm PRO-ABORTION...they're not compatible, since what you really are saying is I believe in the destruction of LIFE!!!
The Bible never mentions abortion.
Um... No. Not even close. Until the 1980s, there was considerable difference of opinion on abortion among Southern Baptists. It wasn't until Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority decided that allying with the Catholics would be politically expedient that abortion became the big sin that it is now among evangelicals.
Actually, the bible actually condones abortion, and even god has commanded and commited abortions in the bible...
Exodus 21:22-23 does not push a man for killing an unborn child
Numbers 3:16 places no value on babies less than a month old.
Hosea 9:14-16 God kills unborn children
John does the Bible also tell you Joseph Smith is a prophet?? Does it tell you not to take care of the poor? Does your Jesus tell you he is not a humanitarian? You are a fool!
This article proves nothing, it demonstrates nothing about the president. If you wanted to attack him on his faith, then just do that instead of writing this contrite piece of dog crap. Why don't you tell people what the definition of a christian should be? or better yet why don't you tell people how many times GOD told people to be Christians in the bible. I think the president is as christian as many of the people that considers themselves christians. All of a sudden you have to attack a person because you think they are not christian enough.....really CNN????? this is what you people have stooped to???? A lot of you so called Christians are some of the most back-stabbing, lying, deceitful, hateful people on the face of the earth, and somehow showing up to a church once a week for one hour makes you somehow better than the president? Please.
President Obama is a Christian, Romney is a Mormon and not a Christian...why would any Christian object to voting for Obama when your alternative is not a Christian? Get a grip, people. The person Christians should be voting for is obvious...Obama 2012.
First off, Obama speaking about his faith feels like Limbaugh speaking about what it’s like to be black. I don’t care how much he says it, if he had any convictions towards the faith he proclaims it would be evident in what he says and what he does, period. The fact that he is a buffet “Christian”; total contradictions in some areas and lined up in others, just simply shows he has no real faith in the doctrine he professes. And I am comfortable with this; I understand in order to win an election you have to throw the ignorant religious right a bone. My frustration is CNN reporting their opinion once again, showing their equally ignorant as the right, trying to sway the idiots that read this as if its news and base their vote off of it. You can call me a progressive vegan because I eat bacon and eggs every morning. Dumb.
To be fair, cognitive dissonance and contradictions are necessary for one to practice Christianity.
Actually, Romney is the "different" Christian...not a Christian at all. Mormon's are not Christians...more like a cult or, in Romney's case, he's the Anti-Christ. Just Google his name with the words anti-christ...you'll see!
America and her Christian Values fail in the face of Mark 8:36 & Deuteronomy 15:7.
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.