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.
Sen Brownbag is an American Taliban.
Christian is the wrong type of Christian.
That says a lot about you. Enough to say, find yourself a place you can live out your life. Trying to live in a Christian Country must not be easy for you.
Considering less than 1/3rd of the planet considers themselves christian, its not so hard. You might try expanding your horizons.
The less religious he is, the better off we are. Religion was created by man, so was the idea of god. None of it is real, but it continues to rip the world apart. I wish humanity could wake up and realize this.
It isn't any religion tearing the Wold apart, it is mankind. By nature if you take away religion to fight about, there will be many other issues. Having Laws is what has to happen, and enforcing them is imperative.
Plus, CNN needs to put up an article on MItt Romney called, "Mitt Romney: Money and Power are his true religion". Maybe discuss how "Christian" Romney made millions destroying American workers' lives (Google Sensata Freeport,IL) by outsourcing American jobs. Or how Romney said, "I don't worry about the poor". Some Christian!
This baseless article is another attempt by the corporate controlled Romney supporting mainstream media to portray Obama as a Godless demon hellbent on destroying America. Another reason why CNN is a joke and nothing but a tool of th Romney
It does appear CNN is taking sides on this issue. As if they have the right to judge the POTUS because his only crime was being born black. Just amazing spew of ignorance coming down from a once reputable news agency to feed the hateful trolls on the right.
Yeah, he's a Christian like I'm a muslim.
Good to hear from a progressive Muslim.
I believe Obama is a Christian of sorts. He is his own kind of Christianity. Actually that's fine, but he is the leader of a Christian Country and he should stand up and defend that, allowing freedom of Religion in this Country, he is to cowardly to stand up and say that.
This article is too wishy-washy. It should get straight to the point. He's not the wrong kind of Christian. He's the wrong kind of President.
President Obama is your typical American Christian. He has no church affiliation, attends the golf course more than church services, and accepts any world religious viewpoint as being just as valid as Christianity. He is part of the majority viewpoint in the United States.
Some Americans cannot figure out if Obama is a muslim or a christian – a Kenyan or American. These republicans have little grasp on reality.
So all of the wrong thinking in this country are Republicans...LOL
the courage to question religion is a great virtue.
Hey CNN, please get it right, Obama is a Muslim but fronting as a Christian.
Your tinfoil hat is on crooked.
Does this mean Romney and his Mormon cult are fair game? Just search NewNameNoah on YouTube and watch as Mormons swear an oath to live the law of consecration, a socialist doctrine invented by Joseph Smith. Do you want a president who swears an oath to live a socialist doctrine that borders on communistic values?
Its hard to read comment from people who only know the negative side of the Mormons. All religions have plenty of that.
A politicians religion especially the President is one that does not offend the Public at large, and the reason Obama quit Wrights church after 20 years.Reverand Wright then also had some very insulting ideas to say concerning the President of which were held in private.George Bush held the Christian right as a very late in life reformed ,said to be ,Christian,yet in reality exhibited the murderous qualities of a madman and a dictator when attacking an innocent proven before the attack nation of Iraq destroying the nation and providing instability for the next hundred years. Truly this President is following a murderous conduct by killing innocent civilians in missile strikes said to be 40 innocent for every militant killed.The blood spray from the missile explosions is visible by the drone camera and politicians viewing this have labeled it mist because there is so much vaporized red blood it appears as a large concentrated red mist after the missile explodes.This is the new Chrisitianity.
Whatever! Obama is the best kind of Christian! After all, the world grave him the Nobel peace prize. Wink, wink.
He certainly has redefined what it neans to be a progressive Chirstian. It means to be Muslim in act and sypmpathy. CNN stop being such groupies. It's embarrassing . No wonder fox continues to be number 1. President Romney has a great ring to it don't you think? Get used to it folks. It's about to become reality, LOL.
So we have a man of color who is a Christian and a white man who is actually NOT a Christian, who is a member of a cult that believes God lives in space near a planet called Kolob... and the man of color has his religious views questioned? You certainly do sound like you waqtcxh Fox News.
To the Rev. Steven Andrew, and Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission: I challenge you to take a minute, look in the mirror. Put aside your "self" (if that's even possible). Put yourself in Obama's place, with all that he's gone through, and all of the good that he's done for this country and our people. Then ask yourself, "what right do I have to judge this man? Am I greater than he? Have I done more for my neighbor than he has? Have I done more for my country?" NO ONE has the right to judge others, other than our lord Jesus Christ and his father God. Especially not you.
Sounds like he's much more the "right" kind of the Christian the the "Christian Right".
Wow. So how does the Andrew character explain all the separation of church and state stuff?
I'd say Romney is the wrong type of Christian, but then Mormonism is a Christian religion, it's a cult.
A Christian somehow finds his or her way to church to give God the praise and worship He deserves. Obama's church of choice is the church of the 15th hole. Is President Obama the wrong kind of Christian? there is no such thing. He is NOT A Christian and neither is Mitt Romney
Over the past forty years or so it seems that the fundamentalist movement has hijacked Christianity. My father was an ordained mininster in the United Methodist Church. Toward the end of his career he also recieved ordination in the UCC, the same church to which the president belongs.
Throughout Christian history there have always been literalists, but mainline Christianity tended to avoid them, calling them "Bible-thumpers," "holy rollers" and "fire-and-brimstone folk." That this radical minority of Christianity is so hate-filled is abhorant to me. That they do not acknowledge the faith of Christians who don't follow their narrow brand of Christianity is the least Christ-like thing I can imagine.
Radical Christians are just as dangerous as radical Muslims. They do not have the right to define our national conversation about religion, morality or politics. By and large, these are the least moral people I know.
My family were Methodist back to the turn of the century. One of my father's saddest days was when he had to leave the Methodist church when it left it's Christian heritage. I hope you father had a wonderful career, but what is left of the Methodist church is nothing but a shell.
What kind of Christian is Mitt Romney...oh that's right, he is not a Christian. The main issue is really this: Our Commander is black. Billy Graham recently took down his description of "cults" from his website so he could endorse Romney. Any questions? We have not been as polarized as a nation since the 1950's. We have a black Christian in the Whitehouse, albeit most white "Christians" want to pretend he is a Muslim so they do not have to admit that they are racist.
Clearly expressed and rationally stated...thank you for your post.
Don't have intercourse with men but with women, or are you a fool? God has exterminated whole nations in the past when they legalized se-xual misbehaviour. God is gracious, of course, but sometimes he also judges. Don't challenge Him, Obama.
It is just satanic to mix good (care for the poor) and bad (support of gay marriage) behaviour. Seemingly, Obama wants to entrap the naive multi-tudes by his strategy of mixing good and bad. I guess his heart is not as beautiful as his face.
"..., 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-se-x marriage, ... " Mr. Blake said.
Simply the fact that Obama supports same-se-x marriage, and blasphemously appeals to Jesus in this context, is a clear indicator or evidence that he is no Christian at all.
A gay man is simply a maniac concerning his s-exuality. He has completely forsaken the trust in the Lord that he may give him a wife in due course, and know he fuc-ks with men. Such a disbelief should not be supported by the society or the state.
We should not support gay marriage but help single men and women to find appropriate partners of the opposite gender.
We have too little people in our society which bring about healthy community, this is our problem. Community is nothing which is there for no reasen but must always be promoted and supported by highly spiritual people.
Such an unselfish love which wants to bring about community is typical for real Christians. As we become more and more lonely this is a clear sign that the true Christian faith is about to disappear from the earth.
are you really going to pretend that h0m0s3xuals don't have committed unselfish love?
o "Abrahamics" including the Lutherans believe that their god created all of us and of course that includes the gay members of the human race. Also, those who have studied ho-mo-se-xuality have determined that there is no choice involved therefore gays are gay because god made them that way.
1. The Royal College of Psy-chiatrists stated in 2007:
“ Despite almost a century of psy-choanalytic and psy-chological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heteros-exual or hom-ose-xual orientation. It would appear that s-exual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of ge-netic factors and the early ut-erine environment. Se-xual orientation is therefore not a choice. "
2. "Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab state in the abstract of their 2010 study, "The fe-tal brain develops during the intraut-erine period in the male direction through a direct action of tes-tosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hor-mone surge. In this way, our gender identi-ty (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and s-exual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender ident–ity or s-exual orientation."[8
3. See also the Philadelphia Inquirer review “Gay Gene, Deconstructed”, 12/12/2011. Said review addresses the following “How do genes associated with ho-mose-xuality avoid being weeded out by Darwinian evolution?”
Of course, those gays who belong to Abrahamic religions supposedly abide by the rules of no adu-ltery or for-nication allowed.
"Good has exterminated whole nations" followed by "God is gracious, of course"? I'll willingly fight that God, no matter how powerful. And I strongly oppose anyone who attempts to impose beliefs in such a God and pray for their enlightenment.
You really believe what you posted? Do you ever challenge this belief and your selective reading of the Bible?
You're a racist and a fascist.
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.