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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. Believer

    Obama is an atheist who makes a show of being Christian just to secure votes ... this point was proven in DNC where they had to re-insert God into their platform based on a dubious voice vote. Classic example of using God conveniently when you need votes and dumping Him when it comes to making policies ....

    October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • skarphace

      Who was it that pushed for God to be included in the platform? The answer: Obama. 'Nuff said.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Believer

      I love justin Bieber too!!! naked

      October 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • NoTheism

      @Believer, and I can't wait until all US politics are completely secular and free from religious bigotry

      October 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Believer

      @skar

      based on what? principles? no ... polls that showed that God is still important. Obama is not a leader .. he is a poll-follower ... who flip-flopped his position gay marriage based on polls. We need a leader in WH ... not a pollster.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Believer

      give me kok or give me death!

      October 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Believer

      @NoTheism

      SECULAR IS NOT ATHEIST ... GET EDUCATED ON THE TERMS.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Jeb

      Obama believes in secular government which is totally different than being an Atheist. The founding fathers wanted a separation between Church and State.

      Romney is a Mormon (cultist) who panders to Christian bigots.

      October 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  2. skarphace

    The true irony, and one I secretly savor, is that white evangelicals now face a horrible choice. They can vote for the black Christian or the white Mormon. Either way is a step further towards the progression of the concept of America as a melting pot, and a step away from bigotry.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  3. Fatima

    Today is Sunday. The Bible states that anyone working on Sunday must be killed. Let's get busy then!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • allah sh1t

      LOL

      October 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. mom

    Obama is FAR from being Christian. At least Romney behaves like one in many ways. Obama never has.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • mom

      I love strange kok too

      October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Schmoogalicious

      Romney "behaves like a Christian"? You can't be serious. Jesus said to give away your riches and help the poor if you want to get to heaven. Romney couldn't be further from a Christian.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • JM

      You mean constantly lying? Um, according to the Bible, Satan's the father of lies.

      You mean like hording up wealth? Um, Jesus told HIS followers to sell ALL their possessions and give the money to the poor.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Sara

      Jesus and Satan are brothers according to Mormonism. You agree that is what a true Christian believes? The savior and Satan are brothers. Oh boy...you got some explainen to do.

      October 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  5. JudgeNot

    The "wrong" kind of Christian in whose eyes? What an absolutely ignorant and elitist comment. It's the whole concept that all fundamentalists must be Republicans and all athiests Democrats.

    As a Christian and Republican, niether I nor the GOP holds the litmus test on what a Christian should be. And, the problem today is that so many political snobs cite their party for why they are "more" Christian or the "right" kind of Christian.

    I am a Christian FIRST and FOREMOST. The party doesn't define me. It is simply how I lean politically. But, I will judge my actions on my Christian beliefs not my political ones. My own party is always citing biblical superiority and yet it's political actions are often not very Christ like. The Democrats often ignore the millions of Christians within their own party, due to their blinding superiority complex..."I know what's best for you."

    I may not agree with most of President Obamas political policies and as a voter I will judge him on it. But, I will not judge him on what kind of Christian he is. Is a Catholic Christian better than a Protestant Christian? How absurd. Get over yourself.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  6. Polly Patterson

    Is Obama the wrong kind of Christian? As opposed to what? Being a Mormon? Hey, I thought Mormonism was a cult.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  7. Charlie

    One only has to learn of the hate filled venom Obama's rev. Wright vomited out during his sermons to know what kind of Christian Obama is. Wright filled his anti American rants more than many Islamist fundamentalists do.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Cedar rapids

      those sermons were about how america has not been behaving in a christian manner, and people like you claim that the US is moving further away from christianity so really you agree with Wright dont you?

      October 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  8. carroll poovey

    The fact that this question is asked is positive proof that the only good christian is one who AGREES WITH ME! There are by accurate counts, more than 30,000 different Christian sects, each with their own interpretation of the gospel; most preaching that other sects are apostate and damned. Compare that to mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, climatology, etc where there is virtual unanimity among practioners on core tenets and outcomes, then decide what makes sense.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  9. coderjones

    Considering that religion is a fairy tail meant to control humans by other humans
    I think it is absolutely necessary to challenge religion's grip on society
    If americans will remember – you committed genocide to be here

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  10. jay

    Obama could worship a tea kettle for all i care, all I want is for him to be the next Ex-president of the United States. Democrats & Republicans are equally guilty of destroying the economic & social health of this country.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  11. Schmoogalicious

    The Christian right-wing fundamentalist have no clue that it's actually THEIR version of "Christianity" that is beyond the pale and betrays the core values of this 2000-year-old religion. All the "born again" hooey is an extremely recent phenomenon. And the whole "God, Guns, and Gays" and "Prosperity Theology" business is a complete and utter perversion of Jesus' message.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Jo

      Jesus would weep at Right winged Christians!!! Thank God the fastest growing group is the one who does not believe in religion!!! Thank God!!! A new humanity can emerge!!!!

      October 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  12. UnCalledfor

    As much as I welcome any criticism of Obama, this style of CNN is foul. Having said that, He isn't a Christian it's a rouse designed to get him and keep him elected- look how he was raised, by that american hating maniac hypocrit Reverend Wright- that's wherer Obama came from and that is what he is- period.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Schmoogalicious

      Actually it's "Christian" fundamentalism that bears absolutely no resemblance to the religion nd teachings aof Christ.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  13. cindy

    what a way to spend sunday morning.....................
    reading hate filled comments from people that claim to be chrisitian
    and placing judgement on another mans faith....
    all on a sunday morning
    this is not the christianity I know

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  14. Jo

    Obama is Not only my kink of Christian!! He is my kind of POTUS!!! He practices what he believes!!! I believe he s more like Jesus than Billy Graham!!! I know he is more like Jesus than Graham's hate filled son Franklin, who takes millions from what fools send to their corrupt Foundations!!! They are the Bain of religion!!!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  15. Joe Smith's #4 Wife

    i don't think people understand what goes on in the Mormon church. They are not Christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Sloppy J

      If "what goes on" inside a Mormon church or temple were nearly as salacious and subversive as you dumb-as-rocks "true" *COUGH* Christians *COUGH* want to believe it is. You know what it is? Boring. B-O-R-I-N-G. Mormon temple ceremonies would seem odd and goofy to the non-believer, but only the most shrill, borderline insane observer would freak out and start shrieking (metaphoircally) "BLASPHEMY!!" You'd likely get sleepy and decide to go back to your snake-handling, tongue-speaking, "normal" churches. Good Lord, but you types are hilarious.

      October 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  16. JM

    Romney represents the exact opposite of what Christ preached, does that make him anti-Christ?

    October 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Jeb

      Yep

      October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  17. me

    Obama is not a Christian. It is impossible to be a Christian and support the Democratic party that violates God in so many ways, abortion being just one.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Joe Smith's #4 Wife

      Jesus was a liberal. Read The Bible.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Jeb

      Read the Bible Skippy.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • JM

      Then this is definitely not a Christian nation since it was based on coveting/stealing the land from the natives, murdering them, stealing/raping/murdering Africans, abusing them.

      Just look at how many lives we aborted in Iraq. Bush is definitely not a Christian then.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Henry

      Sort of hard to be a GOP member and be a christian. Jesus did think helping the poor was one of the cornerstones of the religion.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  18. Jeb

    Romney gives millions of dollars every year to the Mormon cult to help them convert Christians to Mormonism.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • cwhite8406

      I was raised in a Christian household and even I think your comment is the stupidest and unChristian thing I have heard in a while. What the hell do you think Mission trips to Africa and around the world do? They are trying to introduce/"convert" people to their religion.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  19. Luterinho

    Obama might be the wrong kind of Christian, but Romney is ABSOLUTELY UNEQUIVOCALLY the wrong kind of Christian for Mormonism is no Christianity.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aF2Cnhr5jQ&w=640&h=390]

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84oUoI3pePA&w=640&h=390]

    October 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  20. jeremy

    Well just to simplify this incredibly long article... if you want a Christian in office don't vote for Romney. Mormonism is not Christianity at all.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
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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.