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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. Ricardo Quintanar

    Religion has two parts the person and the belief. No one person practices any religion correctly and especially not Christianity. Jesus Christ came to this earth not to worship him himself as a god but to worship his religion as a way of life style. Be as it may, the Bible does give the human race great insight in what could have been true possible stories of our past, but does not mean they are accurate. This is a collection of stories written over hundreds of years and interpreted into a single book. When Jesus was walking around teaching people a certain lifestyle he never intended to create a separation of people who considered them "Correct Christians and Wrong Christians". What he wanted was numerous people to fallow and believe that the correct way of living is through harmony, peace, love, caring for each other, and always having faith in the better. Jesus teachings never focused on why we should worship him as a great god but to worship the fact that we are all humans on the same floating piece of iron in vast ocean of unknown darkness that may be to great to ever understand in all our lifetimes. He wanted us to fallow simple rules like, Do not steal, Do not commit adultery, Honor your father and mother, lover your neighbor. He also never said that Christianity is exclusive and should be practiced in a specific way.
    The Person has the say on how he wants to go about his own "BELIEF AND FAITH" a very good reason why its called belief and faith is because its personal. The way you see god and Jesus is up to you and no one person can tell you that you are wrong. Now there is standards of moral that I believe are very clear in societal standards that should no be ignored but that fact people want to say that one Christian is wrong compared to another is just contradicting the Christian faith in general. Christianity is the religion that tolerates all ways of believing and a big reason it is the most practice religion world wide.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Actually, being a bunch of warmongering bigots is probably more responsible for the spread of Christianity than anything else.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  2. ColoradoB

    And someone tell me how Mormonism is the "right" kind of Christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • CJM2

      And can you, Colorado B, tell everyone that YOURS is the "right kind of religion?" Get over yourself, Mormons ARE Christian, whether or not you like it. You cannot deny that Romney uses his wealth as prescribed by Christ–but I'll bet you don't.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  3. cindy mann

    is john blake the right kind of christian/

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  4. throwingupinmymouth

    Who gives one crap about what that Cass i-d-i-o-t thinks. Religion=hypocrites (especially Christianity)

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  5. Kathy

    This is a disturbing story. Who are we, as individuals, to judge another's spiritual beliefs? We see a married man with a family he seems devoted to...how can we know his heart? This conversation would have seemed crazy 25 years ago. The idea that there is a right kind of Christianity is just wrong. Only God will be my judge. I have faith in President Obama to do the right thing, God will be his judge too.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  6. MontanaTrace

    He's a christian?

    October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  7. Randy

    During His time in the public spotlight, Obama has shown no evidence that He is a Bible-believing Christian. He's dropped a deuce on Christians at almost every opportunity while showing favoritism toward Islam.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  8. fly2

    This is why CNN ratings are doing downhill. Instead of covering real news, they're off spinning more Obama propaganda. Where's this morning's news about the drone flying around above watching while our ambassador was killed in Libya? Ah, that's right, the left doesn't want to hear about the failed Obama policies. Gee, did you also see the latest polls? Probably not, Obama's not doing so well. People are waking up and beginning to realize that this man is good a talking the talk but can't perform. Totally pathetic.....

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      It's not an either-or proposition, you know. If "real" news, instead of analysis, is what you seek, their home page is loaded with it. Get thee hither and stop wasting your time — and ours — over here with irrelevancies.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  9. Jay

    I was raised a Catholic but converted to a Protestant Church when I got married. Catholics believe they are the one true church and you will not go to heaven if you are not a Catholic. Protestants do not think Catholics are saved and will not go to heaven.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Crimson Wife

      I'm sorry that your Catholic religious ed was so poor- Catholics do NOT believe that only Catholics go to Heaven. The Catholic Church holds that it is the one true church, but that Jesus may save others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this: "1281 [A]ll those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, can be saved even if they have not been baptized."

      October 21, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • apostate

      That position changed with Vatican II. Even copies of the Douay-Rheims still state in the back cover that the Catholic Church is the only way to salvation. Many Protestant and Evangelical Churches also make these claims. When you have 33,000 groups all claiming to be Christian with wildly differing interpretations that's what happens. Either that or none of it is true, I'm going with none of it is true.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  10. Dennis

    So this piece is released under freedom of speech? Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom of hate. This is the most tasteless and classless piece of journalism I have read in the past few months. The write and commentors here are not in a place to criticize anyone's personal beliefs and their relationship with God. If you think you do, well that is just discrimination and bigotry at best. You can only judge the man by his character and so far he shows that he is much better than the other choice. I urge CNN to start filtering this kind of garbage from their main page.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • SciGuy73

      Your freedom of speech has been revoked until you understand what freedom of speech actually means.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Crimson Wife

      The Bible says that we are supposed to love our Christian brothers and sisters but to gently correct them when they preach things that go against the Bible. The NT is full of verses about this: see Matthew 18:15-17, Galatians 6:1, 2 Timothy 4:2, 2 Thessalonians3:15, and so on.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  11. myado

    I wonder if they have taken into account the African American Church & the Latin American Church? Minorities who are becoming the majority.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Blood

      African Americans and Latinos worship together in many cases.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  12. jaggar

    Joining a church does not make you a Christian. Nowhere in the bible does it state that I should be paying for others bad choices.
    The new healthcare law forces me to contribute to someone else's birth control abortions, and breast pumps. Those of us who have made good decisions all our lives and work hard are forced to have our premiums increased by $100 per month, deductibles increased from $600 per year to $1300 per year, and no tax breaks for any of this charity to others. I don't want my money going to ward abortions which have become a form of birth control. If you can not afford birth control, don't have s*e*x. Obama is not a Christian but uses the word for political gain. He is ruining this country.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Nowhere in the Bible does it say you should be contributing to an on-line message board, either, so will you go away now?

      October 21, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  13. Chiniquy

    In answer to someone who wrote that former Mormon bishop Myth Romney had more 'godly values,' than President Obama.

    Adolph Hitler stood for "godly values." also. Hitler came into powers in the 1930s because he represented a moral movement that spoke against the promiscuity that had engulfed the German cities. All the members of the Nazi army had German crosses on their uniform. They saw themselves as the best examples among Christians. Just like the Mormons think they are the only 'true' Christians. Religious people (especially Christians) are so easily deceived.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  14. Brad R.

    Is Romney the right kind of Christian? My Bible doesn't say anything about the planet Kolab, God having thousands of wives there, and it especially doesn't mention anything about each Mormon someday becoming their own God of their own planet. No, that all came from the inventive mind of Joseph Smith, author of The Book of Mormon.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      The right KIND of Christian? That would be "non".

      October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  15. joemoe

    Is Romney the right kind of christian?? A Mormon who thinks the garden of Eden is in Missouri or that God lives on the planet Kolob?

    October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  16. R Collier

    Perhaps it is 'Conservative Christian" that is the contradiction. Christ's message is radical, it is against the status quo. It stirs people from their complacency. I would contend that President Obama has acted as more of a true Christian than these others, and certainly more than Mr Romney.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Mopery

      But, remember when Jesus said, "How blessed are the Corporations, they shall have tax shelters."

      October 21, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  17. Mopery

    To some, Romney is the 'wrong' kind of Christian.

    There's a headline that would have the bubble-headed beach blondes over at Faux News blow a gasket.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  18. keeth

    Those who say Obama is the wrong kind of Christian are themselves the wrong kind of Christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  19. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    The Catholic Church has murdered more human beings, in the name of God, than any other organization since the dawn of time.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Craig

      How's that first semester at college going for you, kid?

      October 21, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  20. Guest

    Obama believes Jesus was the Son of God and died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead by God the Father. He also believes his atheist/agnostic mother was the most spiritually awakened person he's ever encountered. That makes zero sense.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • John Sullivan

      Obama's spiritual and religious beliefs are inspiring and fit with the founding principles of our country.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Mack

      It makes zero sense to a Christian. Thankfully, there are a lot of other people out there with beliefs and opinions just as valid.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • tom

      Obama only says he believed Jesus was the son of God. He NEVER shows that he believes that- and he rarely attends church.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Guest2

      You assume that spirituality and religion are the same thing. The are quite often exclusive of each other.

      October 21, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Ed P

      My invisible man is better than yours!
      -George Carlin

      October 21, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Russell's Teapot

      That's alright, it's not everyone that can appreciate the nuance. Carry on

      October 21, 2012 at 10:52 am |
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About this blog

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.