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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. stan

    Obama is an atheist, he only claims to be a christian because an atheist could never get elected to the US presidency, which is so sad

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

      you have to wonder about the accusations of 20 years of attendance in reverend wright's church with your opinion.

      you don't make much sense.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • stan

      I've seen some of his sermons, they were a lot more political than religious

      October 21, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • jd

      Its a great thing – the Majority of people simply believe that there has to be something greater than us – and Especially you!
      Your right about one thing, I will never vote for an Atheist for any public office or court appointment.
      Stay out of Politics please

      October 21, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  2. Dave

    In September, the Obama campaign collected $2,199,204.38 in donations with non-existent or invalid ZIP codes. The Romney campaign’s September total: just $29,620.

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

      Yawn..... what's your point Dave???
      Think we buy that BS?

      October 21, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  3. billysunshine2011

    In this photo, the POTUS is not praying.....hes actually been caught again...asleep on the job.

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

      that reminds me of when i was in the army, we had a guy sitting in line wating for some nonsense or another and he had fallen asleep. he came awake just as the drill sergeant was about to lay into him and said "amen".

      funniest thing i ever saw.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  4. treblemaker

    Our country is fast returning to the spiritual ignorance of the Dark Ages. Any faith that calls themselves fundamentalist in their teachings should be rejected and feared by anyone who desires true salvation, which only comes from loving your neighbor as yourself, and helping the least of those. That is where we all, including this blogger, fall far short of God's intentions for us.

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

      Why would you EVER want to live according to someone ELSE'S intentions for you? Think for yourself! Act for yourself! Live for yourself! Take responsibility for yourself! It's YOUR life, YOU should be the one living ti.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • billysunshine2011

      reject the fundamentalists? I dont think you understand the meaning of the word as related to Christians. Fundamentalists believe in the fundamentals...the virgin birth, the atonement on the cross, the resurrection, infallability of scripture, His soon return. THOSE are the fundamentals. Thats it...nothing more anyone can add.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  5. Lisa

    President Obama is the RIGHT kind of Christian; one that demonstrates GRACE and EMPATHY for all people, a spirit of inclusiveness, a heart for the weak, and the strength to make the hard decisions. This verse sums up my impression of our President – Matthew 10:16 "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

    October 21, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  6. Old Squid

    The "WRONG" kind of Christian is the fellow who believes that Blacks were cursed by God, Jesus appeared to the Indians and He is going to get his own planet when he dies, (71 virgins sounds like more fun). Anyone that believes in "magic" underwear and a 15 year old prophet cannot be taken seriously as a "Christian".

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • snowboarder

      71 virgins? i'd take half a dozen sIuts any day.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  7. mlblogsyankeeblogspot

    So this is what happened, people passing out, crying, Obama saying the oceans were going to change, presented himself as the savior to all past problems in our country. saying America would fundamentally change because of him, waging class warefare and limiting free enterprise in our nation. This so called Christian is the first to openly accept gay marriage as a political stance, which if you want to not believe what the bible says about it then fine, but this wasn't his stance when running in Chicago against a conservative black candidate. Anyone who says the affordable care act is Christian isn't familiar with the bible. Did God come down to the earth take the wealth of Rome, or the Jews devide it up, and make equal outcomes. No he said to the rich man give your wealth to the poor, and come follow me. Jesus left the man with choice, and that friends is the distinction. Does anyone argue that God is the highest authority? If God is all powerfull then why hasnt he changed society to even the playing field? the answer is found in the beginning of the bible, man shal bring forth bread by the sweat of his brow, and it shal be for his good. Does God seem like a man that changes with the times ? The answer is obvious, times change by him. He is Alpha, and Omega, the beginning and the end. Hope and change is individualistic in nature, it's self betterment, and comes from God not man. Hope is for God, and the bible says cursed is he that puts his faith in the arm of flesh. Gods spirit tells us when man has done something right, and glory to God alone be given when he does. Pontus Pilot said to Jesus "don't you know I have the power to crucify you", and Jesus said "you would have no power over me were it not given you from above". God gives man liberty, should man take it away ?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  8. achepotlex

    Do you really think anyone with the brains to ach9ieve any sort of success in life believes the Santa Clause/Tooth Fairy/Jesus sith? They have to say they do to keep the mouth-breathers scared and obedient, but really, they aren't working at a gas station...they know better.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  9. Zwei Stein

    When I try to picture the devil, Billy Graham's image is the first thing that comes to mind.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Lisa

      What? You're leaving Pat Robertson quite disappointed!

      October 21, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  10. JC

    Oh, CNN, you so silly! What a bunch of Sunday morning trolls!

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  11. glades2

    Jesus said that a Chrisitian cannot love both the world and God (Matthew 6:24) – we will end up hating one and loving the other, and if we counter God's written Word and decide to live a life as a politically correct Christian, then we will be judged as a person who hated God's commandments – we have to decide for one or the other – as Jesus said, there is no middle ground...

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • jd

      We still have a choice remember – God doesn't make you worship him
      Read the book a little more please

      October 21, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  12. RichardSRussell

    Best "kind" of Christian? Non!

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  13. Elaine LaJoie

    In this America of our, there must be a division of Church and State. They are dangerous when mixed. It is the American way. Let's keep it that way.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  14. TRUTH BE TOLD

    HE IS MUSLIM – NOT CHRISTIAN. RESEARCH AND DO YOUR HOMEWORK; YOU SEE FOR YOURSELF. HE JUST KNOWS HE HAS TO HIDE THAT FROM US IN ORDER TO BE OUR PATHETIC ONE TERM PRESIDENT.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Lisa

      Yes, indeed someone needs to do some research and homework. Got a mirror?

      October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Check out the key just left of the "A" on your keyboard. Do you see a little green light? Try to make it go out. We'll wait — probably for a very long time — but I've heard that every child can learn, so there's still some hope for you.

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

      DID HE SUDDENLY LOSE THE ELECTION SIMPLETON?

      October 21, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Zanger

      sigh..... comments like this is why the majority of american culture is so stupid!!!

      October 21, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  15. noden

    He is seen as the wrong kind of Christian? Yet Gov Romney lies repeatedly and is still seen as an acceptable Christian? Christianity teaches that lying is not a virtue.

    Just 2 of many verses on lying

    Proverbs 12:22 Lying lips are abomination to the LORD: but they that deal truly are his delight.

    Proverbs 14:5 A faithful witness will not lie: but a false witness will utter lies

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • scout

      I always see the line " Romney Lies" but never any examples. Are you just parrotting a democratic tag line or do you have any examples???

      October 21, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  16. lily

    A "Christian" with a "KILL LIST" is the wrong kind of Christian!!!!!!

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  17. Shee

    An absolutely wonderful article. And kudos to Sojourner for its support of President Obama's faith. I, too, am a Progressive Christian, and I am dedicated to the Social Contract. Thank you for a nuanced, well-written article.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • scout

      It is interedting that you support surrogate charity. That is you support the democrats giving my money in the form of taxes to causes I dont approve of. If you want to support the social programs, you are free to give to the charity of your choice. You cannot smugly sit back and consider yourself charitable when you vote to give away someone elses money. Plus your not being very charitable to the unborn, who deserve the governments protection.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  18. NotFooledByDistractions

    Can anyone point out any semblance of true christianity in the he policies of the right? I am my brothers keeper must not resonate in their biblical teachings. What you do for the least of those... not an inkling. In fact, their policies are in direct contrast with christianity. Beware of those barking the loudest because behind the bark is a total fraud.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  19. Lisa

    There it is. In the comments of many here, I can feel the Christian hate.

    Cass, the judger, is some Christian, LOL.

    If you guys gotta hate, at least say the devil is making you do it.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. Joey

    Honestly, ones religious views should not be persecuted so intensely. We need to realize that this country supports a separation of church and state. Our political leaders should not be running things with the church in mind. If we're going to go back to the days when the church ruled, then we should just allow every religious orginization to take over. It obviously worked so well the first time.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:07 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.