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.
Wow where was this article 4 years ago? This is pure racism and simple. Where is the article on the Christianity of Romney? Christians have long said that Mormonism is a cult.Where is the article CNN? Even Billy Graham haS SAID IT. White American does not get to say who is a Christian and who is not.Certainly not those hypocrites in this article.CNN has gone so negative on Obama this time. When CNN can write an article about the truth about what Christians have said about Mormonism then I will consider this article. Wrong kind of Christian(meaning a black Christian). If you look at how dishonest white Christians portray everyone in the bible(white and blonde) They believe everything holy is white. That is why they would take a white non-christian like Romney over a Black Christian like Obama anytime. The white church is racist period,.
CNN need's to spend less time trying to influence the election.
The main thing overlooked in this article is the fact that Obama is black. The root of the majority of the backlash against him is purely racist because he is a threat to diminish white power. What region of the country dominates the conservative Christian right? The South. What region of the country is mostly associated with racist ideology today? The South.
Bottom line is this, racism is the root of all of these attacks on Obama. The conservative Christian right are the hypocrites and the anti-Christs.
Anyone can call themselves a Christian. It's become a social status symbol in our society and has lost many elements of truth. As conservatives continue to move further right to a new confederacy encouraging division, evangelicals are expected to hold their nose and vote Republican. Just examine the two conventions. One convention that claims to be Christian is filled with lies and hate and consisted of almost all white people. The other convention focused on hope and prosperity and showed a very diverse group. Let us all not forget when the republicans say the President did nothing to fix this economy that they were figuring out how to obstruct the progress of this President. The biggest lie in the republican convention " We wish the president would have succeeded." Not true! The right is heading to a dangerous place. This obstructionism must be stopped. Remember that God is love, not hate. If you are not voting for this President because of hatred in your heart ask yourself where did the hatred come from, then ask yourself if that is Christian. Church and state must be separated to avoid the perils that the far right are currently trying to impose on this nation.
Please don't mislead American public with regard to President Barack Hussain's Religion. His agenda is to help extinct Christians in the this country by the following actions:
1. Support Lesbians/Gays, so the population would go down.
2. His administration brings lot more Muslims from all terrorist countries
3. More Americans(soldiers/Ambassadors are getting killed in foreign countries.
Wake up people, An ambassador got killed like a street dog , it never happens in the past. Vote presidentHussain out or ready to be extinct your way of life.t, Bring back the American Pride and Mighty.
You know who got a lot of Americans killed, Bush. Not only did he fail to stop 9/11, he invade the wrong country and got thousands of our troops killed.
And gay Americans have every right to happiness as you do, too bad you but an ancient fairy tale before your fellow American .
I am so dumbfounded by this pointless article I hardly know what to say.
It is poorly written with its sole purpose to bait and inflame.
We do not need religion. What we need is compassion for those who need it in any form.
Religion only increases intolerance for others and says if you believe like I believe than that's good. If you don't than that's bad.
It's like saying that I like yellow and if you don't like yellow than I dont like you.
Religion is a waste of time and intellect.
It has never done good and never will. It is time for the human race to move on to a higher level.
The right-wingers hijacked religion. Sure, religion can be used for very nasty things (the right-wing has showed this). However, if you read many religious scriptures – including the Bible – within a historical and political context, the story becomes about providing for the poor, sick, elderly, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed. The Early Church knew this and acted upon it. Yet, Christians today are so far removed from the context of Jesus that they could never understand what he is saying due to their wealth and power. Jesus hung out with those on the margins. Now, do I think Obama fulfills this? No. But, he's much closer than Romney.
MORMONISM SAYS GOD THE FATHER WAS ONCE A MAN, BUT PROGRESSED TO GODHOOD. HE HAS A PHYSICAL BODY, AS DOES HIS WIFE (HEAVENLY MOTHER). NO TRINITY. FATHER , SON, AND HOLY GHOST ARE THREE SEPARATE GODS. WORTHY MEN MAY ONE DAY BECOME GODS THEMSELVES! FOR SOME OF THE BLACK PASTORS WHO SAY I WILL VOTE AGAINST THE PRESIDENT THIS IS WHAT YOU WILL VOTE FOR, MATTHEW 10:33 BUT WHOEVER DISOWNS ME BEFORE MEN, I WILL ALSO DENY BEFORE MY FATHER IN HEAVEN! I BELIEVE IN THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT! WHAT ABOUT YOU!
So president Obama is the wrong kinda of Christian. I find it interesting that most conservatives will point out why president Obama does not fit the criteria of a true christian and overlook the dangers and herrectic teachings of mormonism. There is conclusive is evidence that mormons do not hold to irrency of scripture deny the virgin birth and do no support the teaching in regards to the deity of Christ, however this get overlooked simply because Mr. Romney is a moral and ethical indiviual. if it comes down to the lesser of two evils I will choose president Obama. I find the teachings of joseph smith offesnive, dangerous and not biblically centered.
Totally agree. Don't know about Mormons but it is the conservatives who don;t follow the teachings of Christ.
www. louisvillecardinal. com/ 2012/ 09/ christ-taxes-conservative-christians-dont-follow-christs-teachings-wealth-finance/
If Obama is the wrong kind of Christian, then someone will have to explain what the right kind is... From what I've seen being President sometimes means choosing between the lesser of two evils. The bible says that is wrong to kill, yet some people join the army/navy/marines and do just that in good conscience. Without a doubt, some wars have been necessary. In my mind though some combatants who believe to kill is wrong have had to also make a choice between two actions that are unsavory. So why is any President any different? It all comes down to partisanship.
Obama knows of religion and feels there is a higher being but he is not a Christian. To be Christian is to follow the Bible at which he does not. If correct he began attending a church in Chicago so that he can relate to the black community. As he ran for Senator and later President, he knew that he must be associated with some branch of Christianity in order to be a top candidate. This is nothing more than trying to appease his voters.
Yes, right. It is the conservatives who don't follow the teachings of Christ:
How many clergy in America today are in a position where they cannot or will not preach the most important parts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because their very livelihood and their church buildings are entirely dependent on the whims of today's equivalent of "the Rich Young Man", who – if anyone dared put them to the test – would reject the challenge of Jesus to turn their backs on their wealth?
This web page shows what Christian preachers would be preaching, if they were being the true spokesmen for Jesus that they claim to be.
www. liberalslikechrist. org/ about/ challenge.html
Obama and Biden are true Christians b/c they actually care about ALL human beings – those of all races, the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the disadvantaged, those of all religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds. Republicans are bigots and God does not approve of hatred and ill-will toward fellow other human beings. In God's eyes, we are all equal and worthy of respect. That is why I support Obama/Biden. I despise hate and bigotry. It is ugly & wrong and UN-christian!!!!!!
Exactly correct. The greedy riich conservatives forgot the teachings of Christ:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,"
Religion has NO place in national politics. You should not have to be a Christian (or pseudo-christian) to be elected president. I hope I live to see the day when we elect an atheist president who can focus on solving real problems instead of catering to stone age beliefs.
You got that right!
Christian fundamentalists need to get over themselves. They are not the only kind of Christian, and millions of us think THEY are not the "right" kind of Christian.
It is the conservativs who are the wrong kind of Christians by not following the teachings of Christ:
Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,"
"Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" incident is one of the most well-known lessons of the Bible.
This article is pure hogwash and another attempt by CNN to obfuscate the important issues of jobs and our economy.
The notion that there are different Christians is a figment of the leftist imagination. All of Christendom speaks with one voice (unlike the current admin.) and the entire faith supports caring for the poor and infirmed. The methods of care are varied depending on current needs and the churches are so much better equipped to handle changing needs because they don’t have the enormous bureaucracies of the government. The result is far less in need and in increase of heaven.
...but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian...
The one being followed is the ONLY one who can define who is a follower. Christ, not Obama, nor any other human...president or priest or citizen, is the ONLY one who can do the defining.
Howver, it is the conservatives who do not follow the teachings of Christ:
"Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me."
"let he who is without sin, cast the first stone"
Ed is exactly right, I mean.
Ed, I meant that you are right.
My message to fundamentalists is this........... God is not your private property!
What BS. It is the conservatives who are wrong kind of Christians, following an ideology instead of the teachings of Christ:
Google "Of Christ and taxes: Why Conservative Christians don’t follow Christ’s teachings when it comes to wealth and finance"
My message to them is this;
Imaginary friends are not your property! You invent your god, and so does everyone else.
FYi ; voices in your head are not a good thing but actually a sign of a mental disorder.
Is Mormonism Christianity ask that question please.
Obama IS a different kind of Christian, at least compared to what appears to be the dominant form of Christianity in the U.S. He's different because he's an intelligent Christian, apparently having read and understood the Bible in an intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful way.
Let's look at our two presidential candidates. Who acts more Christian, or more importantly, more according to the model of Jesus' life? (I know Romney is Mormon, but Mormons do believe in Christ.) Who has shown, like Jesus, more compassion for the common people and the poor? While Obama is derided by conservatives for having worked as a community organizer, they praise Romney for his career as, in effect, a money-changer, acting always in his own self-interest to maximize his own profit. A community organizer helping the poor, or a profiteer who improved some lives while devastating others, all the while oblivious to whatever suffering he caused because he was focused on his own bottom line - which is the more Christ-like path?
And of the two candidates – which has given of his wealth to others? which has served in church and public office without any wage? Notice also the emerging stories of the quiet acts being taken to help others in need.
Romney, not Obama has lived his live like this.
Obama is clearly a flowery orator whole eloquence can certainly tickle the ears... but Romney appears to the one that actually lives his life by Christian principles. I would rather witness someone living a sermon than listening to a sermon.
I am now convinced that Romney is the better person for the WH.
i honestly don't care what his religious convictions are so long as he doesn't attempt to foist it onto the population at large. a candidate or presidents religion is for them, not everyone.
we live in a pluralistic society with no h0m0geneous religion.
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.