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The Gospel according to Obama
President Obama is not just a racial trailblazer, but some say a religious pioneer as well. No president has ever shared his type of Christianity, historians say. Some say he may revive a form of Christianity that once dominated America.
October 21st, 2012
06:59 AM ET

The Gospel according to Obama

By John Blake, CNN

President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals.

When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”

The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:

“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.

When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say.

“Barack Obama has referred to his faith more times than most presidents ever have, but for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,” says Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, an evangelical activist group based in Washington that focuses on poverty and social justice issues.

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“It is not the faith of the religious right. It’s about things that they don’t talk about. It’s about how the Bible is full of God’s clear instruction to care for the poor.”

Some see a 'different' kind of Christian

Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.

No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”

“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”

Some Christians, however, still see Obama as the “other.” He doesn’t act or talk like other Christians, says the Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian president of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission.

“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.

Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto.

Obama talks about his faith and attends church, but Cass says that doesn’t mean he’s a Christian.

“Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. “You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”

The origins of Obama’s faith

The suspicion about Obama’s faith may seem odd at first because he’s written and spoken so much about his spiritual evolution in his two autobiographies, “Dreams of my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” Other books, like “The Faith of Obama” by Stephen Mansfield, also explore Obama’s beliefs.

The 1925 “Monkey” trial of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher who taught evolution, drove fundamentalists underground, some say.

Mansfield says Obama is the first president who wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Obama’s mother was an atheist and his grandparents were religious skeptics (Obama’s family has challenged the description of his mother as an atheist. Obama called her “the most spiritually awakened” person he’d ever known, and his sister called their mother an agnostic).

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Mansfield called Obama’s boyhood a “religious swirl.  He was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, and strains of Hinduism and Buddhism while growing up in Indonesia during the 1960s.

“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”

Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominantly black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.

Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.

In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:

“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”

When many people think of Obama’s religious experience in Chicago, though, they cite his exposure to the angry sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and “black liberation theology,” a movement that emerged in the late 1960s and blended the Social Gospel with the black power movement.

Bass, the church historian, says another black pastor shaped Obama’s theology more: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He attended liberal Protestant seminaries where he learned about the Social Gospel’s concern for the entire person, soul and body.

Obama has reached out to evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, seen here praying at Obama’s inauguration, but many still doubt his faith.

King once wrote that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them …is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

But King and the black church also fused the Social Gospel with an emotional fervor missing from white Protestant churches, Bass says. Other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by the Social Gospel, but they weren’t shaped by the black church.

“This is the first time we’re hearing the Social Gospel from the perspective of the black church from the Oval Office. It makes it warmer, more emotive, more communal," Bass says. "There is less fear of linking the Social Gospel with the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Exodus and Jesus’ healings.”

The emphasis on community uplift - not individual attainment - may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.

King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”

“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”

Obama is not a Christian, some think

For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity.

Jesus was nonviolent. Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Afghanistan that have not only removed terrorists, but killed civilians.

The Bible talks about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Obama invoked Jesus when he came out in support of same-sex marriage. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule," Obama told ABC News during his announcement.

Jesus talked about helping the poor. But he never said anything about creating a massive health care law that taxed the rich to help the poor, some Christians argue.

But Wallis of Sojourners says Obama’s push for health care was a supreme example of Christian faith.

A situation where 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance is “a fundamental Christian problem,” Wallis says.

“Health is such a Gospel issue. Jesus was involved in healing all the time, and to have some people excluded from health care because they lack wealth is a fundamental Christian contradiction.”

Wallis has been one of the most persistent defenders of Obama’s faith. But no matter how much Scripture he and others cite, doubts about Obama’s faith have followed him throughout his political career.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson once said that Obama distorted the traditional understanding of the Bible “to fit his own world, his own confused theology.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, publicly questioned Obama’s faith, then later apologized.

Conservative Christian books and websites are filled with stories of Obama allegedly trying to suppress the nation’s Christian heritage.

The Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” says Obama is trying to change the national motto from “In God we Trust” to “Out of Many, One,” and he’s ordered the Pentagon to remove biblical verses from its daily report.

“That’s the most serious thing someone can do to a nation, trying to separate a nation from God,” he says. “He seems to be trying to change the Christian laws our Founding Fathers made.”

Andrew says Obama is actually an enemy of Christianity. In his book, Andrew argues that the Founding Fathers were Christians who created a “covenant Christian nation” and calls for a “national repentance.”

“I think he’s an anti-Christ,” Andrew says.  Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity.

Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says.

“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”

Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights also disqualifies him from being a Christian, Cass says.

“It’s the most pro-abortion administration in the history of America.  On every social issue – the sanctity of life and of marriage between men and women – Obama is on the wrong side of every moral issue,” he says.

He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.

“No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible,” Cass says. “These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.”

Cass says he doesn’t know what Obama believes.

“He’s conflicted,” Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."

How progressive Christianity lost the public square

There was a time when Obama’s brand of Christianity would have been understood by millions of Americans, historians say.

Obama along with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha leave church after attending a Sunday prayer service.

The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.

The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.

Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.

“The notion that religious people should be about feeding the poor and helping the homeless is a carryover of the Social Gospel,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio. The Social Gospel was adopted by many Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, says Bass, the church historian. Some of the Social Gospel churches grew popular because they provided the poor with everything from English classes to sewing instructions and basketball leagues.

“The first American megachurches were liberal, Social Gospel urban churches,” Bass says.

The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.

But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.

Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”

The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.

That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.

“They have millions of adherents who believe in a literal six day creation and a literal Adam and Eve – so it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felten says.

Progressive Christians eventually lost the messaging wars to this fundamentalist subculture, Bass says. Their nuanced view of faith couldn’t compete with the “spiritual triumphalism” of conservatives.

“If you get up and say we’re right and we have the truth, then you have a powerful public message,” she says. “They have a theological advantage in the public discourse. It’s comforting to have things clear, to have things black and white.”

The result today is that the Protestant tradition that shapes much of Obama’s Christianity is fading from public view.

The share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

White mainline Protestants make up only 15% of the nation’s population, the survey revealed. The study also found that the fastest growing "religious group" in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.

Another generation of Christians, though, may bring a new version of progressive Christianity back.

The lines between younger conservative Christians and progressives are blurring, says Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”

Pally spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She says her research revealed that more than 60% of young evangelicals support more governmental programs to aid the needy, as well as more emphasis on economic justice and environmental protection issues.

“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” she says.

Her perspective suggests that Obama’s faith may be treated by history in two ways:

He could be seen as the last embodiment of a progressive version of Christianity that went obsolete.

Or he could be seen as a leader who helped resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church • Courts • Creationism • Culture & Science • Culture wars • Evangelical • Evolution • evolvution • Faith • Fundamentalism • Gay marriage • Gay rights • God • History • Homosexuality • Interfaith issues • Obama • Protestant • Religious liberty • Same-sex marriage • Schools • Science

soundoff (8,626 Responses)
  1. jrod

    translation....he's not stupid or white enough

    October 21, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  2. Noneya

    Obama not the right kind of christian?

    Hmmmm, if you mean Obama isn't a hate filled right-wing zealot... then yes he is not one of 'their' types of Christians.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  3. PJ

    Mitt's Religion is hardly Christian given the fact that Jesus Christ is not God, but the son of God and Brother of Satan. Google Mormonism and be surprised at the results written by objective writers.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Liam

      Satan and Jesus, brothers? What kind of christian are YOU?

      October 21, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  4. Chris33

    President Obama is a real Christian, unlike Robme.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  5. third culture kid

    Obama is a third-culture kid. Of course he does not hold the same values as a clean-cut american christian church. You discover much more about yourself and your faith when you spend a good majority of your childhood traveling. Of course no other president has such unique religious views. Every other president spent basically their entire life in america!

    -a fellow third culture kid.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  6. shari

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/bam_blind_eye_to_illegal_donors_8SWotytr1RvbhyDCRyyrEL

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  7. Hugo

    But is it Christian to resist Obama as he's 1/3rd of the governing authority? Romans 13:1-7.

    I want to make it clear that I don't mean it's wrong to vote for Romney. During the vote, we are the government authority. (We can't be wrong.)

    However, once someone is elected to be President, then he's 1/3rd of the government authority and we (Christians) are to submit to him if Romans 13:1-7 is to have any teeth at all. (It's hard to be a Christian and "do it right.")

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  8. Eric Montbleau

    I dont care if our president is christian or muslim...... As long as they govern like they are neither.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  9. Guest

    Here's the bottom line. No Christian has ever referred to an atheist/agnostic as the most spiritually enlightened person they've encountered. That is precisely NOT Christianity.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Hugo

      How so? To be Christian all you have to do is accept that Jesus is the Christ. Where do you get this other test from?

      October 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  10. lovethedifferentcommentsystemsCNN

    stupid

    October 21, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  11. Sagebrush Shorty

    Obama's religious reference book is "The Collected Wisdom of Jeremiah Wright."

    October 21, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  12. Dave

    Wow. I mean.. just wow. It is clear that the 'Christians' that are commenting are a lost group. When one speaks of the 'lost church' nothing seems clearer to me than Evangelical Christianity. They covet wealth, and encourage violence... and are the most hateful group of people.... Love thy neighbor... thou shalt not kill... these passages seemed to get buried over old testament passages.... burying themselves in Leviticus. Obama is right... it is his house too. It's God's house... and on and on. Obama consistently displays gentlemanly and American moral values and is panned for it. THAT is why America is in trouble, and it has nothing to do with who is president.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Jeff

      Well said.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Debe

      Dave, Well said! Being exposed and learning about the many different faiths is an enlightenment to all the people within the world. It increases a person's ability to better understand where people "are coming from". We all have the SAME GOD....
      the various faiths just follow different prophets. An open mind does improve peaceful communication!

      October 21, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  13. Jeff

    I'm grateful Pres. Obama is not a member of the religious right–a group that fails to realize that they must interpret the Bible inconsistently to maintain their world view. Regardless, any one who believes that have some insight into how the world may end (which most folks in the Christian right do, and a "true" Mormons also does) should rightfully step away from the political stage where they may influence foreign policy. The consequences of self fulfilling prophecy are severe. For example, as much as I support the right of Israel to exist, the unabashed support of Israel by the religious right draws from their perceived interpretations of prophecy given in the Bible (and a blatant misuse of appropriate context for that material, I might add).

    October 21, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  14. Notvoting

    Obama is a 'christian' but he ain't a 'real christian' . Real christians don't stand-up for gay marriage or abortion. all you who believe he's christian are brain washed, and Romney's just out of the picture!

    October 21, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • No Faith

      Real x-tians accept people for who they are. I'm not a religious person, but I'm pretty sure Jesus said to love one another.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Peteyroo

      NotThinking, I am very happy to see that you are not votong. Please encourage your fellow morons to do the same.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Liam

      This is exactly the problem with fundamentalist religions. If there are divisions, it can't be truth. Christ was an enlightened being. Christianity is not an enlightened religion. Christ spread the truth. You're too blind to accept the truth. If you're concerned with who is "right" and who is "wrong", you're not spreading the truth.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • prilyam

      Why don't you let your god sort out who is a real Christian and who isn't? Don't forget that the measure you judge others by is the measure by which you will be judged.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  15. lhb

    judge ye not for ye are to be judge

    and who ever wrote this what is your religion or do you know what it mean
    and why must this be the story of the day

    October 21, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  16. flickerman

    The Taliban spirit is alive and well in the so called "United " States in the form of the religious right.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  17. alejandro

    What's a "Right" Christian? Someone who follows the Old Testament, where Christ was never even contemplated, or someone who follows the teachings of Christ, in my opinion it should be the latter.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  18. GardenGrl

    Beware the leaven of the Pharisees!

    October 21, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  19. freetobelieve

    I think everyone should be free to believe what they want to, these kind of religious attacks are the things that create wars. For centuries people have been at odds about who is right. In this article, they are using reigion for political reasons and it is wrong. Never once in the past have I seen religion used to dismantel a person of power like I have now. Ok, so I guess metaphorically speaking, maybe he is not a car in the garage, but a toolbox, so he shouldn't be in the garage with the car? I have to say that I got a taste of "Christians" on time when I went to a wedding, and boy was I treated like dirt, looked down upon because I was an outsider, all because I did not go to that church.. I left there thinkiing, if that is what Christianity is really all about I would never want to be one. I treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect. I don't judge people, I let God do that. I don't thnk anyone should have to justify what their beliefs are, and no one has the right to make someone explain. We are who we are, and I am sure we all share the same goal in life, that we want to live in a safe world and prosper.No one is perfect, not me, not you not The President and not Governor Romney. I am pretty sure that President Obama has seen some things in his time in office that he didn't understand, And there is a higher power out there somewhere, So let him figure it out in his own heart.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • independent jim

      where do the evangelical right wing find in the bible that it is ok tobear false witness and preach from the pulpit .. fear mongering ..hate for thy fellow man... intolerance for other faiths ..etc etc ..Religion means nothing to the far right exrtremists that call them selves Evangelicals...if Obama were a white republican the Evangelical right wing would be worshiping him .. but since Obama is neither fully white and a democrat his religious beliefs mean nothing ..the Evangelical right wing would rather worship a non christian (Mormon ) man like Romney because he is white and Republican

      October 21, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  20. Maurice

    Another article should be written about whether Mitt's Religion can be considered Christianity.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:01 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.