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.
If people would embrace the Christ consciousness and walk away from the dogma of organized religion we would be better off. For those of you so enamored of your particualr brand of Christianity, what makes your church right and the one on the next block not right? How can there be so many different Christian brands, even in the Catholic church, if there is only one right way? If you practice what your church teaches you, you probably don't practice what Jesus taught you.
You are well-intentioned but incorrect. There is no god..no Jesus. Get rid of one religion, 10 more pop up.
You don't need religion or the borrowed and alleged "teachings" of a megalomaniac Essene priest to be a good person.
"The so call "religious right" are all anti-Christ. They follow pagan traditions (Christmas, Easter, etc.), and also incorporate Greek mythology into their teachings (eternal torment, Idol worship, etc.). They are no different than the religious leaders from Jesus' day that had him killed. Jesus said to pray for his Fathers kingdom, not the United States as the hope for mankind. The religious right are hypocrites and are far removed from anything the Bible teaches. They too have killed Jesus in the sense that, because of their hypocrisy, many have turned away from religion."
Perhaps if one is going to post an article about Obama's faith, identifying him as the "Wrong kind of Christian" then an article should be written about Mitt Romney being a Mormon, which is absolutely the opposite of Christianity. Therefore, a Republican who stands behingd thier "religion", better think twice before voting for Romney.
It is not the opposite of Chritianity. Go to their official website instead of listening to rumors.
I would take any "official" website with a huge grain of salt, sort of like going to a Vatican site to get a view of the Crusades.
Romney is a cultist that believes his Mormon Magical Underwear protects him from evil,and only the most devout shall never take them off even to bath..................what a sicko......
How refreshing to read about a Christianity that actually follows Christ's teachings instead of the rants and raves of the self-righteous, gun-totin' religious "right"! I've already voted for Obama but I'd do it again if I could.
I'm quite certain one would not vote for abortion and infanticide if one were following Christ's teachings . Now look again at Obama's voting record.
You and acorn would vote for obama numerous times if you could, can you say voter fraud
Yes I can say voter fraud. Can you actually FIND voter fraud?
Can YOU Say Election Fraud? Ever heard of Katherine Harris and the scrubbing of Florida voter rolls? Look it up. I warn you, it takes knowledge of math and computer logic.
I THINK SOME OF YOU PEOPLE SHOULD GO BACK AND REREAD THE PRESIDENTS WORDS. YOUR READING WHAT YOU WANT TO READ, AND WHAT YOU WANT HIM TO HAVE SAID, YOUR NOT READING WHAT HE REALLY SAID. AND SOME SHOULD GO BACK AND READ THE BIBLE AGAIN AND CONCENTRATE ON WHAT YOUR READING. MAYBE YOU WILL GET THE STORY.
I THINK TYPING IN ALL CAPS MAKES MY IGNORANT REDNECK A SS MORE INTELLIGENT SO PEOPLE THINK I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY EVEN THOUGH ALL I REALLY CARE ABOUT ARE THE FERAL CATS THAT LIVE UNDER MY TRAILOR HOME.
And he story is...the bible is a fairy tale! Grown up!
Obama had an interesting up-bringing. It is clear his religious journey has taken a path that is different from those raised in a traditional Christian church. Sounds like his Grandmother exposed him to all religions and let him make up his own mind. I am a Christian, I believe God speaks to all of us in His own way. The issue isn't a religious one, it is spiritual. Like many have pointed out, it is not for anyone to judge. My best friend is an Agnostic, we've had awesome discussions over the years. He doesn't believe as I do, but we are still best friends. This article was meant to foster discussion and readership. It really should have nothing to do with politics unless President Obama was leading people away from Biblical teachings. He hasn't and therefore this is a mute point, just like Romney's religious beliefs. The greatest freedom we have in America is our freedom to believe as we choose and in our own way. This article is, well, written for CNN to insight a response, I don't think it has much of a foundation in reality.
But Obama HAS led away from biblical teachings. For starters: abortion, infanticide, gay marriage.
Sorry- muslim Liar Communists anti Bible anti Jewish anti American -Freedom people can not be Christians.
Neither can a person who lies and hates as much as you do.
This is a worthwhile article and worth the read. However, the writer's historical account of "Social Gospel" churches is a bit convoluted. He failed to mention the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition which historians Don Dayton (Discovering Our Evangelical Heritage) and Timothy Smith (Revivalism and Social Reform) n credits for many of the social reform movements such as Abolitionism, Feminism, Labor reform movements, and Urban Missions, concern for the poor. The Wesleyan-Holiness Movement was not Fundamentalist. Neither was did it attend exclusively to outward displays of social activism. The split between "the social gospel" and "personal salvation" was a reaction to modernity that impacted both liberal Protestant Churches and Fundamental conservative churches. The Black Churches never went through this unfortunate split. Many of the conservative, Fundamentalists got caught up in the upswing of the political upswing of the Chrisitan right. This left Christian Progrssives out of the discussion. Because Aftrican American Churches avoided the fragmentation experienced in White Churches across America, they produced some of the most creative, prophetic leaders who were able to wed inner fatih to outward works of justice. Obama is squarely in line with this tradition.
All Christian are wrong. All religion is wrong. There is no god. Your faith is based on ancient myths. Anyone with the slightest bit of logic can show you its all a huge fvcking sham.
"I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction." This is from page 261 of the "Audacity of Hope." This is our leader speaking. He has obviously acted on that too in last 4 years. Anybody is still confused why this craziness is happening???
Excellent point! Obama is about as christian as Amadinejad.
1.) I see no fruits of him being a Chistian
2.) He acts more like a Muslim, as he fully supports THEM
3.) He seems to be more against the USA than for it
4.) His past is shrouded in secrecy. What does he have to hide?
5.) For these and many more reasons, Obama has not earned my trust.
6.) He is a socialist, liber democrat without the wisdom necessary to put he USA on a good course
7.) For these and many more reasons, he should not be president
8.) Where is his undeniable, irrefutable, unaltered birth certificate? He has never shown the real one.
AMERICA NEEDS MITT ROMNEY.
Top Ten Reasons to like Mitt Romney:
1. He is a plastic cliché of what makes white Americans feel comfortable.
2. He is a good husband, just like Obama.
3. Robs from the poor and gives to the rich. Can't be concerned about the poor and elderly if it gets in the way of profits.
4. He can really talk.
5. Highly intelligent. Believes in sky fairies, space aliens and magic underwear.
6. Has no experience beyond his silver spo.on. Cannot relate to average Americans but he knows the rich quite well.
7. Lives in the past and is completely out of touch with the 21st century. Just like the evangelical Right likes it.
8. Has five sons who are not high. Obama has two daughters who do not do drugs too, however they are black.
9. Oh yes.....he's a MORMON. No need to be afraid of a hom.ophobic, racist, delusional cult that hopes to become Gods.
10. And one more point.....pundits say because of his wealth, he can't relate to ordinary Americans.
His dad didn’t help at all except for his privileged lifestyle, personal loans, college education and connections at the highest possible levels to guarantee success via nepotism. Obama only had to do everything on his own.
The Republican Party. The party that would stop teaching science in schools and hope to return American to the Iron Age.
Republicans care about…Republicans. Let's keep it that way.
Obama is a radical liberal and that is the ONLY reason he isn't liked by much of America. QUIT PLAYING THE RACE CARD. IT IS OLD!!!!!!!
He caused a fatal accident in France, and blamed a drunk priest.
As for "race card" post, Obama is not a socialist nor is radical. He is way moderate. In fact, in the first debate, I couldn't figure out if there were differences in policy between Romney and Obama. Romney flew right into the middle.
By the way, Romney is PRO CHOICE, this week. He was Pro Choice his entire career, became PRO LIFE to get the nomination, and is now all wishy washy because women dont want old white men sticking their noses between their legs. Economy my *&&^, Romney is doing better with women because he reassured them that he is not Pro Life. He says everything at once.
You are frightenly stupid! Get a life.
George W. Bush inherited a strong economy, a budget surplus, and a nation at peace.
Eight years later, he left Obama with a shattered economy, a trillion dollar deficit, and two useless wars.
Obama saved the country from another Great Depression, rebuilt GM, reformed healthcare, reformed Wall Street, doubled the stock market, created 12 straight quarters of GDP growth, created 32 straight months of private sector job growth, got Bin Laden, got Gaddafi, and got us out of Iraq.
And now with the automatic spending cuts and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2012, Obama has solved the deficit problem as well.
Obama has done a very good job.
Thank you Chris33.
What drives me crazy is why isn't Obama out there telling the truth and spreading that message??
Obama can't bring it up because he would have to admit that the last two years of Bush's term and the first two of Obama's was Dem controlled and that is when we started going downhill
Funny, I have wondered if Ryan is the anti-Christ.
obama being a "Christian" would come as a surprise to some of his anti-religious bigoted supporters.
Seriously, anybody who can picture obama praying about anything and believing it is a fool.
Anyone who believes prayer works is a fool.
He would't have been so successful without prayers, which I'm believe he does himself and by others including me. I am a Christian, believe with all my heart that with all the obstacles against him he became the President of the United States of America. There is a reason why he was appointed, God made sure of it, not you or me. A real Christian does not judge others, especially when they know nothing about that person.
His ACTIONS does'nt portray christian anything. But as a Christian myself we need to Pray for this man.
There is now only one religion that is growing and Obama is part of it, athiesm.
Obama is more of a Oprah Christian than a New Testament Christian.
But then again Mitt Romney is not a Christian at all.
Lets vote on policies not on personal faith. The best presidents in the past 50 years have been Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Neither one of them would be considered strong men of faith.
But they had the right policies for the right time.
I am undecided on who to vote for. If given the chance I would vote for John McCain who is not a Christian. Maybe I will pencil his name in on my mail in ballot.
What is the correct "Christian?" I must say the more I watch CNN the more I think that you guys have a chip on your shoulder because you got caught and condemned for stealing Ambassador Stevens journals. Who would even research and write this crap. I'm a Christian and what I can say is that MAN is not decider of what makes a good Christian, God is. This is the type of rhetoric that has caused wars among religions and within themselves. Help us all, maybe we' are going out this world backwards.
Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them.
The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom.... I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are?... I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism."
– Barry Goldwater
I remember when they said the same thing about John F. Kennedy being a catholic. don't be scared it will be ok. vote Romney let's get our economy back on track
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.