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.
Religion is the root of all evil. As long as church and state are not separate, America will become it's own worst enemy.
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!
What are you goober's obsession with Barack's middle name? Yeah its the same as Saddam Hussein's last name. So what?
Those who doubt his faith are pious hypocrites. How dare they?
As the religious right declares their Christianity, remember that Jesus was for helping the poor and sick, treated women fairly, and tossed the rich out of the temple. Maybe they should look at their policies and see what Christianity actually is before using it as their theme... Jesus said "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and "judge not lest you be judged", not hate and kill in my name...
All life is governed by one spirit, that is the Spirit of God. Man does not take predominance at any point, so this is a misleading, satanic article, to suggest mans version of understanding has any real power over the ultimate truth.
Where does this article make such a suggestion? All I see points to man's understanding affecting man's history.
A Christian that believes in STEALING-(Taking money from people that have worked for it to give to those that won't work) is the WRONG kind of Christian!
And Momonism is STILL a Cult.
The wrong kind of Christian??? Are you kidding me? Americans have fought for decades to keep religion out of the political agenda. What is going on here? Siks killings in Wis, Muslium haters, Jewish slighting as well as the blind backing of Isreal? These articles are all just propoganda from oposing parties and it is taking our great nation down the wrong path. Making a farce or our government as well as the American people.The irony of religion is that all this fighting between belief systems will eventually kill us all.
Who cares what Obama's religion is? It's not supposed to matter if you truly believe in what the Founders iintent was..
Just so u know.. The "story"of saint nick was told to give faith in times of need.. The guy was real..
So let me say this.. I look to the BIBLE & GOD to give faith..
U have a right to say what u want.. "GOD" gave u that right..
Santa Claus.. Lol
here's the truth. Obama is not a Christian at all. he's the devil
the devil. lol.
A Mormon is not anti-christ but Obama is. Give me a break.
And your a ass hole!!!!!! Remember Christ didn't start all these religions..People did,He said Go into the world and preach my word..He Didn't say,If your born agian,a catholic ,protostant ,jew or any other faith or religion,,,So all you do gooders out there also remember Do not judge lest you be judged,or any of you without sin,cast the first stone...In plain english,,SHUT UP CAUSE YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOUR TALKING ABOUT!!!!!!!...Follow the ten commandments and believe in God it is as simple as that ..Is that so hard to remember??????????
There is no such thing as the devil, lol.
Please quit looking for a boogieman under the bed. Worry about the ills of the world we can see, not evil caused by some being invented by humans to explain why bad thing happen. Obama is not a devil, anti-Christ or what have you. He's a politician...period. Just like Romney. Unless a candidate explicitly states that he/she support a theocracy of their own faith, don't worry about what they do or don't believe. Go by their record.
WOW, White people are sick....
I wonder what my cousin, Clarence Darrow would say on this subject
Am I the only one who acknowledges the fact that the word Christian is based upon the base word Christ. To be a Christian is to embrass Christ as the son of God and He died for our sins. There is this weird confusion between believeing in the one true God and the second major component is Christ is our savior, not anything else, not a prophet. Mormons do not believe in Christ in this way.Those who believe in God are not always Christians. Evangelicals know this and are selling their souls just to expell Obama. I find that extremely fascinating!
Why would CNN post an article about like this just before the election?
I dunno, timeliness, maybe? Would you have stopped by to read it in, say, 1997?
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! We at CNN are the chosen few who are enlighten.
The only kind of "trickle-down" that actually works:
"Theseeker" degenerates to:
Douglas degenerates to:
"pervert alert" degenerates to:
"Taskmaster" degenerates to:
"Ronald Regonzo" degenerates to:
"truth be told" degenerates to:
"Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
"tina" degenerates to:
"captain america" degenerates to:
"just sayin" degenerates to:
"nope" degenerates to:
"WOW" degenerates to:
"!" degenerates to:
and many other names, but of course I prefer to refer to this extreme homophobe as
the disgruntled Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. writer boot camp flunkie.
The bitter irony in all this is that while the so called Christian right is losing it's influence it has some still - and because they are losing influence they are willing to back a cultist rather than the "wrong" kind of Christian. the Christian churches of the world have always held that mormonism is a polytheistic cult, because it is. Bill Grahams own website said so until last week. But in their blind hatred of President Obama they would support a heathen over the actual Christian candidate.,
What about if you just don't believe the current unemployment rate and if you just think that the liberal approach to the economy has mired economic growth to less than 1 percent. What if the 16 trillion dollar deficit scares you and you'd rather have a president who wants to do something about it rather than add to it? What if you don't want your employer to cancel your healthcare insurance in lieu of a cheaper government imposed healtcare "fine"?
I like Obama. I just don't like his policies.
So stop calling me a racist.
It makes you look stupid.
I don't like the Republic policies during the Bush years that led us to such situation. Are we trying to get back to those policies? Who is stupider?
Atlas has shrugged.
Why don't you libertarians use all the vast wealth your superior economic philosophies have allowed you to accµmulate and run off and buy yourself a Pacific island that you can run according to the instructions of your prophet, Ayn Rand? Why do you insist on experimenting on the world's largest economy before you've shown us the results of test driving a scale model?
Gee, I had no idea that there is right kind of Christian and a wrong kind of Christian. Well John Blake, I think we should start a religious war, over right kind and wrong kind. The people who feel there is right kind and a wrong kind, are not very Christian to judge someone else.
There's no doubt in my mind that the President is a Christian. But, as the article said, he's not the kind of Christian that right-wing evangelicals are used to or like. He is the kidn of Christian that uses the Bible to tell people that Christ did mean it when He said that the poor would inherit the earth; that whatever you do to the least of His Brothers is that which you do unto Him. Or that act as the Good Samaritan, and help a stranger, or that the greatest command is "love one another". The right, on the other hand, uses the Bible to try and justify opposing the poor; opposing gays and lesbians; opposing women's rights; opposing equality; opposing other faiths.
The right uses the Bible as a political weapon. Obama doesn't do that. And I cannot speak for God or Christ, but in my soul, I feel that how Obama views Christianity is much closer to the way that Christ intended us to behave as Christians. He didn't want His word to be used as a weapon. He wanted it to be used to do right by people.
Very well said.
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!
Apparently, if you sample more than one item on the menu, you're damned!
Religion has no place in Government.....judge ye not...
A Christian that promotes "COVETING YOUR NEIGHBORS GOODS" is the WRONG type of Christian!
casting stones eh?
That's pretty much the death of capitalism, then.
See the recent CNN article. A "Christian" husband and wife on Disability S.S. getting food stamps, living in a 3 bedroom house, have a big TV a car and money to eat out. The women says: Why can't I have that? Meaning why is that not given to me?
Funny how the Right Wingers argue about "The Right Kind of Christian". I'm sure the Taliban are having the same sorts of arguments. While the rest of us just want someone with good sense who cares about the country as a whole (Not Just our Capitalist Lords).
Who makes them our lords if it is not greedy self centered us?
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.