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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 • 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. Chip

    There is no god.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Theseeker

      ll hail the lord our savoir Barack Hussein Obama, He will deliver us from the Evil capitalist empire that oppresses Those who believe in him. He is the Christ! Kneel and pry for his forgiveness!

      October 21, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  2. Simon

    IS ROMNEY THE RIGHT KIND OF CHRISTIAN???

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Kway

      By definition, he is not. Mormons do not believe that Christ is the Savior.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      By "right KIND of Christian", I hope you mean "non".

      October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  3. oneintheirhearts

    How Much is OBAMANATION paying you guys over there at CNN.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  4. MBW

    The difference between Obama's Christianity and Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity is simply a difference between applied Christianity as opposed to theoretical Christianity. Jesus has said,"This people honors me with their mouth, but their heart is far from me". This is the difference between theoretical and applied Christianity.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  5. xx4zu1

    Mitt is in a religion that "Christians" once considered a cult. They only accepted Mormons once their numbers grew too large to ignore. The religious right is quickly losing it's grasp on the throat of this country and they have to settle for a member of a cult for their choice for president. What's next a Scientologist as their choice. In acknowledging Romney as a Christian they prove the point that the bible is a book written by man and there is no such thing as one true word.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Mack

      But Billy Graham just removed Mormons from his list of cults, like, a week ago and then took out a full page ad in the US Today essentially backing Mitt. Everything's OK now, right? And as for a Scientologist running for Prez one day....we need to be tolerant of everyone's beliefs. I mean, their belief system isn't much more zany than the Mormons or Muslims is it? We'll be OK with this dizzying proliferation of diametrically opposed (and downright crazy) religions sneaking into the public political space. No worries.....right?

      October 21, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  6. gofalcons

    Obama supports what gets him votes. Obama and his stance are against the Bible. This mans arrogance will be his downfall. Its sad cause I was rooting for him. He could of done so much if he stayed in the middle like Clinton. As a black man to see a rainbow halo over my president and the statement that he was the first gay president was disrespectful to blacks and the office. It seems there are those out there to always tear down the strong black male figure. Unfortunately Obama brought this on himself. I suspect he may also be a DL Brother now. Obama has done far more for the gay community then he has for blacks. Black people see right thru this and its heartbreaking. So we are now forced to vote for the greater of two evils. Vote for Romney and we validate a cult that only a decade ago allowed Blacks. Vote for Obama and we will have a celebrity President again not doing crap for his country and supporting every popular fad to keep his image up. This sucks.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • NoTheism

      what a skewed understanding of reality...

      October 21, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. meridianalliance

    Absolutely a ridiculous article intended to sway wavering democrats leaning away from Obama...Barry calling his mother "the most spiritually-awakened" person he ever knew" but then refer to her as an atheist?.....Contending that Obama has been a greater influence spiritually or morally than Dr. King is baloney...Once again, liberal boneheads confuse doctrinal edicts to serve the poor as justification for government welfare...Christ never said it was government's responsibility to tend to the poor but each one of us as our personal responsibility...Through our individual means not by tax policy or government programs.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  8. msadr

    I'm uneasy with speculating about a person's faith. One can't ever know what is in another persons heart. My gut tells me that Obama is Christian, but no A Christian. That distinction is something only A Christian would understand. As for his stance that people should care for the poor, I absolutely agree. I just don't think it's the role of government to force people to care for the poor, or, to decide in what way we should care for the poor, or, to decide what percentage of an individual's resources ought to be devoted to the poor. We must not legislate charity.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Just like the distinction between monotheism and a religion that advocates a triune God is something only a Christian would understand, right?
       
      OK, if you want to promote the idea that religion necessarily entails belief in crazy ideas, practically by definition, then I'm with you 100%. If, OTOH, you're just promoting a particular BATCH of those crazy ideas yourself, I'm outta here.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • cep

      Perhaps we could stop trying to legislate morality first.

      January 22, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  9. Harry Martin

    Many fume about separation of church and state. The media is often leading the fuming. Yet it also is fueling the angst by articles such as this. So, CNN is now in the business of Obama faith apologetics.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  10. Rebel4Christ

    Being a Christian doesn't mean that you believe in Jesus and follow his teachings a lot of non Christians follow his teachings but being a Christian means that you know Jesus personally and love him with all your heart.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Do YOU know Jesus personally? What color are his eyes? Does he speak with a foreign accent? How tall is he? If you can't answer all of these questions instantly, then you're a lying SoS.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Maryanne

      I'm assuming that all your attempted brainwashing hasn't kicked in yet or you wouldn't be continuing the cause. Take a hint...nobody likes to be preached AT. Never worked, never will. You're just causing more walls to be erected. Why can't you bible thumpers see the light?

      October 21, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Emma Davis

      Uh, CHRISTian? That's ridiculous. If you don't believe in Christ, how are you a CHRISTian?
      Obama may believe in something, although I'm not sure what. He certainly believes in himself.
      But anyone who sat in 'Rev' Wright's church makes me wonder – where did all that hate come from?
      Christ was not about hate.

      October 21, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  11. Sagebrush Shorty

    Are you finished?

    October 21, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. Sbul

    I suppose George W. Biush is the right kind of Christian as he started a war against Islam. I believe if there is an anti christ then it has to be him and his ilk.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Theseeker

      ll hail the lord our savoir Barack Hussein Obama, He will deliver us from the Evil capitalist empire that oppresses Those who believe in him. He is the Christ! Kneel and pry for his forgiveness!

      October 21, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  13. Ta Eso

    It's called –>ESOteric Christianity<– and it is the foundation for the real christian, everything else is EXOteric. ESOtericism is only practiced by people who are awake and transforming into better human beings.

    Mo'RockObama 2012 and beyond.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  14. gofalcons

    I can't post my comment?

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Not if it contains any of the forbidden character strings, no. They're probably innocently embedded in other words, like "Const¡tution" or "skyscráper", where you don't even notice them.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  15. jamdfh

    The 'Wrong" Christian? I think they mean he's not a money grubbing jerk hell bent on using Religion to further himself like most of the "Right" Chrisitians.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  16. Theseeker

    All hail the lord our savoir Barack Hussein Obama, He will deliver us from the Evil capitalist empire that oppresses Those who believe in him. He is the Christ! Kneel and pry for his forgiveness!

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  17. Maryanne

    "For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity".......duh! Glorify the job of a president all you want, but if you're running the presidency like a business (which it is), the business of protecting an entire nation, requires making non-Christian decisions. The alternative would be disastrous. Dumbest statement ever made!

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Theseeker

      ll hail the lord our savoir Barack Hussein Obama, He will deliver us from the Evil capitalist empire that oppresses Those who believe in him. He is the Christ! Kneel and pry for his forgiveness!

      October 21, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Maryanne

      @Theseeker.................lol.......

      October 21, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  18. servantofTHEWORD

    We mortals judging who is a right or wrong Christian? God knows.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  19. Mormon Magical Underwear

    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...........

    October 21, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • TownC

      Go to Mormon.org to get more information on Mormon beliefs.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Maryanne

      Yup, do the Romney supporters actually believe that Romney, if president, would run his office without making aggressive decisions? How the H do they think he became so financially successful? Many had to have been sacrificed for the bottom line. Walk up!

      October 21, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  20. Rebel4Christ

    Your either a Christian or not a Christian at all. There is no wrong Christian!

    Revelation 3:14-22 ESV / 221 helpful votes

    “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. ...

    October 21, 2012 at 10:24 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.