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.
Not that you should judge anyone by their religion ever ...but nothing wrong about learning about things. I talked this weekend to some missionaries from the Mormon Faith...and they told me they believe that entrance into heaven is obtained by works. This is very different from Christian faith as we believe that grace alone saves us. I am a bit troubled though as this is the exact same thing the Muslim's believe in their Islamic faith. They too believe you achieve heaven by works. IF you are voting for Romney because he is Christian you need to do some more research..he too might be in your eyes the wrong kind of Christian
I am not voting for a pastor. I am voting for a president.
This article overemphasizes the influence of conservative traditional Christians in America. I can't remember a single president from the "Christian Right" since I've been alive (since Eisenhour). The "Christian Right" has as much right to be heard as the "Christian Left". Very bizarre article. Why didn't it read, "To some George W Bush was the 'wrong' kind of Christian?"
Obama is the best kind of Christian – the kind whose beliefs move him to help people, not the kind whose beliefs move him to JUDGE people (which is the majority of "Christians" these days). Reading people's comments here just reminds me how uncompromising and close-minded most "Christians" are. There IS more than one kind of Christian. You know how I know that? Because Baptists don't practice the same way that Evangelicals do, and they practice differently than Methodists do. So unless you're ready to say only one denomination is REAL Christianity, shut up about "real" Christians. Yes, you can go to church and not really practice, and that could make you not a real Christian. But religious people use that as a blanket to cover anyone who doesn't agree with them. It's SO obvious, but Christians just refuse to accept the fact that the reason there is a growing number of athiests in this country is because of how Christians treat people who don't believe what they do. Jesus didn't act that way in the Bible. He helped the sick and the poor and preached to the masses and helped them. He didn't just condemn them over and over again (I'm talking in general, so don't give me any smug Sodam and Gomorra posts). So maybe, just maybe, Obama is ACTUALLY following the phrase WWJD instead using the new one, JWCY (Jesus Would Condemn You).
I've seen some seriously ridiculous articles about Obama on CNN before, but this one may take the cake. The interesting thing to watch is how the stories are crafted to give Obama additional appeal. It's hard to write something negative about someone you like and someone you're going to vote for. This reporter is no exception. Wish they would just admit the obvious.
If Obama is the Anti-Christ, then he's not doing a very good job. Surely the Anti-Christ would have had this election in the bad a long time ago.
oops, I meant "bag", not "bad."
Lol, very true.
You would think the antichrist would do better in the first debate lol.
Didn't read the article. This should not be on any media site concerning politics in the United States. Separation of church and state. 'Nuff said. There is no "wrong" kind of Christian unless you are Romney.
Religion is fear , science is courage .
(MAKES FUNNY LOOKING FACE)
Why the negative headline? Isn't Romney the one who has been labelled the "wrong kind" of religion? What about a headline/story like, "To Some, Romney is the Wrong Kind of Christian...?" Why not a headline like, "Obama Revives True Tenents of Faith," or "Obama has Sane/Balanced Approach to Faith..." CNN, you are shameless in your favoritism and lack of courage and pandering to the "Christian" right. It's obvious in your inflammatory headlines. And yes, I put quotes around "Christian" because I think that any kind of Christianity that does not view service to the poor as part of its basic tenants is not real Christianity. If they get to say Obama's kind of Christianity isn't the real Christianity, if they get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to subscribe while damning others for a rational interpretation of Scripture, then the rest of us with hearts and brains can question their QUOTE Christianity!
Romney didn't belong to a church that had a hateful racist minister for 20 years!
ehc,it lately appears that CNN is buying into and endorsing Romney for President and has been using a negative campaign against Obama.Perhaps we will see a change of heart on Fox News and see them endorse Obama?..Stranger things have happenend!,,,CNN return to supporting your President,and quit bashing him!
I know some of those folks...they are at my church!
Obama the baby killer and contraceptive giver=the devil in sheeps's clothing.
Romney,the job killer and outsourcer or offshorer..Ann,you detest abortion and contraceptives.Don't you realize one prevents another?..Besides,how many children have you adopted in your effort to save mankind?
“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 Gary Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.
Isn't this a very sad comment coming from someone who thinks he is honest and a Christian. Either Gary Cass is stupid, or just cannot accept the fact that this President is black.
Gary, Barrack Obama was born a Christian. He has been a devout Christian since the day he was born. Unlike you Gary, Barrack Obama most likely did not do anything terrible or evil like you did to be born again.
Before you put words into people's mouths or cast aspersions, you should look into your own soul for redemption. Unfortunately Gary, all I see from you is hatred and not Christianity.
He was a member of a hateful racist for 20 years. Sad? You bet. Ungrateful? You bet.
Just a few years ago, I was dating a Mormon. The pastor who served as a chaplain where I worked, counseled me on the reasons that I shouldn't be involved with someone who is not a Christian but a member of a CULT. He checked out a video from the largest fundamental Baptist Church here in Memphis.....and asked me to consider NOT being involved with this man. I watched the video and was amazed at the points it brought up but this opionion did not change how I felt.
NOW with Romeny in the race, these same fundamental Christians are "forgetting" their not so long ago beliefs about Mormonishm. Proof positive is how Momonishm mysteriously disappeared under "CULTS" from Billy Graham's website the day after he met with the religious leader last week. Personally, I don't csre what someone's religion is...we are all free to believe what we want to believe. But, what I have a problem with his how conservative Republicans continue to analyze and condemn Obama's Christianity (or the Muslim accusation) while conveniently forgetting that Romney is a Mormon.They are tossing away their own spiritual beliefs to get BO out of the White House. This is one of the many reasons that I can't be in the same sanctuary with so many hypocrites and why more people like me are turning away from organized religion.
They are not hiding it, they are suppresssing it. I think most of these white anglo saxon, supposedly pious people just will not accept a black person as a President.
The Headline should be, is OBAMA a Christian or he is a Muslim turned Communist? He does not like any. he most likely look like an atheist hiding like fox to be called a christian when he needs their votes. His religion is deceit.
You sound like the KKK. So sad
And how would you describe Mormonism?..Is that to be categorized as a "normal religion"?
Now look at Romney, elder in the Mormon church. Joe Smith, the founder, had 27 wives according to Wikipedia. The guy was a snake oil salesman. He was not a profit. He was a pervert. Mitt's grandparents fled to Mexico to practice polygemy. I guess in that religion it is OK for Romney to lie and say whatwver it takes to become elected. I guess it is OK to screw the middle class, as long as you send some of your ill-gotten gains back to the church. It wasn't until 1978 that the leaders of the Mormon church declared they had received a relevation instructing them to reverse their racial restriction policy. I wonder what election they were trying to influence back then. Now there is a good Christian religion for you.
LOL......and sooo true! Hahaha!
More proof that Jesus was a jerk:
What if Jesus tells stories that are completely untrue? For example, take Matthew 4:8 as an example:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
The problem with this story is that the earth must be flat for it to work. From a tall mountain it is impossible to see "all the kingdoms." Even standing on Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on earth, the farthest you could see is 250 miles to the horizon [ref]. Yet we know that at the time of Jesus, there were thriving kingdoms in China, India, South America, Europe, etc. So clearly this story could not have happened. People who are dishonest like this are jerks.
Another easy way to see that Jesus is a jerk is to recognize his bigotry. In Matthew 15:22-26 we find this telling conversation:
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
Jesus calls this woman a dog because she is not the right nationality. That is both ridiculous, and a clear indication that he is a jerk.
If you are a person who steals other people's stuff, you are a jerk. In Mark 11:1-3 we find this transaction:
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' "
How many times have you had some jerk say, "let me borrow this and I'll return it in a minute," never to see that person again? It is a common scam. And that's exactly what Jesus does. The disciples take the colt, but if you search the scriptures you find that they never bother to return it. Wow – what a jerk.
By the way, that is not the only place in the Bible where Jesus steals something. In Matthew 8:28-34 Jesus steals an entire herd of pigs and kills them all.
Obama is not the wrong kind of Christian, he is simply the wrong kind of color for many racist Americans. Many other adjectives will be utilized for him but in the end it boils down to the same thing.....race.
Pile of garbage.
I am an atheist. How that influences anyone of faith, I'll never know. This article is an illuminating perspective on what all so-called Christians purport to be their articles of faith. There is no core Christianity because Jesus didn't found such a religion. Why was Mormonism so pointedly left out, though? Don't Mormons (who believe the native American people are a lost tribe of Israel) hold themselves to be a sect of Christians, too? The Mormons have famously said that Jesus visited his lost tribe, and, that that was what contributed to the bounteous blessing of this land. Perhaps the writer found it too complicated to include LDS in the mix because it's on the fringe of Christianity and a cult?
wolf dressed as a lamb.
You are right Joshua,Romney is exactly that!
This is a lead story/opinion piece??!!! What ever happened to news and investigative reporting? Doesn't sell? Are we doomed to have every value that gave America great promise corrupted by the profit motive?
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.