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.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
“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).
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
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.
If you want to see the "wrong" kind of Christian, look to Tim Tebow. He's trademarking bowing/praying so he can merchandise it. Glad he can name a prayer after himself and have it copyrighted.
Other people are using his image to make money. He wants the copyright so the money will go to him and in turn to his causes.
None of us is the "Right type of Christian.
So why can we not seek to help each other instead of condemn each other?
Idol worship is way of hindu's, denires of truth absolute GOD, and hindu, pagan Christian's ir hindu fiat, are no different. To learn more about hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism, please visit limitisthetruth.com
Wasn't there a little "thing" about Reverend Wright being the POTUS' spiritual adviser for OH so many years? Wasn't Obama filmed listening to one of Reverend Wright's anti-white, anti-Semitic, anti-American rants, I mean, sermons? Only when Wright was exposed for the charlatan he is, did Obama distance himself.
A teaser headline does a disservice to all Progressive Christians. Progressive Christians are on the right track to following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Don't play gotcha. Call Obama what he is, a Christian who interprets his politics in a progressive manner. Let the fundigelicals and talibangelicals speak for themselves. They can try to justify a theology of hate, but there is no biblical basis for their teachings against so many things. I believe that Obama practices a progressive agenda completely in line with the teachings of Christ. For Christians, this should be a core agenda.
Obama's problem is that he is divergent from reality, like many academians. This divergence from reality has caused him to believe that he can fundementally change the way the economy works, but that notion has failed to produce results. Even that chimp George, who inherited an economy in recession and Markets in freefall, was able to turn it around in 6 months.
George Bush? He didn't inherit a recession what are you talking about?
Hmmm... You can Mock Pres. Obama's religion all you want, the other choice is a man who believes that Adam and Eve lived in the US, that you must wear magic underwear to keep away evil spirits, that you must perform baptism for the dead, that women can't hold the priest hood and must be married to a priesthood holder to enter heaven. As a former LDS member I can testify to you that the readers here will all go to Heck in the eyes of ol Mitt. That he could care less about you or your family. He will do nothing good for the country and if anything turn everything back over to the NY Bankers and Wall Street. Don't be fooled by Mitt who will and has proven will say ANYTHING, promise ANYTHING and in fact do nothing.
More importantly, Romney isn't a Christian at all. He's a mormon.
Beautiful sentiments but the whole foundation of the article is predicated on Obama being a Christian – he's a muslim. If he's elected to a second term, he'll do everything in his power to reduce this country's greatness to nothing more than another place where people live in common misery!
He's not a Muslim. You have ZERO proof that he's attended any Muslim religious services in 30 years.
Get an education.
Your a nut case! He is a Chrsitian and more so than YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU
I love this world you live in, where your baseless lies about another person's beliefs carry more weight than what the person himself says about them.
You are what's wrong with Christianity right now. You know that, don't you? You and your judgmental, holier-than-thou selective interpretation of the Word of God are why people hate us.
Well, we'll see in 20 days or so. Somehow I doubt you'll be here apologizing when he doesnt auction California off to a middle east country. Do you really think your brand of making stuff up and chicken little screaming does your side any good? I mean, are you envisioning Avg Citizen A sitting at home, undecided, reading your comment and going "OH MY! Obama's intent is to ruin the country!" then rushing out to vote for Romney. I mean seriously, your tactic is pretty hopeless and desperate.
When you say Obama is Muslim, you admit your ignorance .. and likely your relationship to conservative media.
Please stop lying in public.
MOM, you are as much a muslim as the president is...but you are much less aware of reality.
Why would you say he's a Muslim? Because for a couple of semesters he went to a Muslim elementary school? Well, he attended a Catholic school too, so he must be Catholic, right?
He shook hands with some Israeli guys – so he must be a Jew?
He visited with the Dalai Lama – so he must be a Buddhist?
His daughters dressed up for Halloween - so he must be Pagan?
Odds are that he has visited with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon boys on his doorstep - so he must be JW or Mormom?
Why does it really matter anyway? Yes, his "brand" of Christianity is close to my own, and I do like that, but when it comes to electing a president, it shouldn't matter.
The president cannot make legal decisions for this nation based on nothing more than, "God said so." He can't. It's illegal.
That's what Bush did and what Romney/Ryan have promised to do
CNN...what kind of headline is that? Are you and Billy Graham working together to get Mitt Romney elected? You've put out this article with all these crazy ultra conservative opinions, many of which aren't true. Ridiculous. There are all kinds of Christians. Not everyone who calls himself a Christian is a fundamentalist. And look at Romney....he says he's a Christian, yet he thinks he can be equal to God, one day, and rule his own planet! He thinks he and Ann will be raising spirit children there. Yet, I don't see you asking if Mitt is the "wrong kind of Christian". I, personally, think that Jesus would approve of Mr. Obama and his ideas. Jesus taught love and compassion....he didn't teach hate and oppression.
If Obama were Muslim, it would be no different than Romney being Mormon.. Christians believe in Christ thus the name CHRISTians. Muslims believe all that Christians do with the exception of the messiah.. They believe in Mohammed and think of Christ of a great prophet but not the messiah. Mormons go a completely wrong way and think of Joseph Smith from 1805 to be their prophet. Joseph was in no light a descendant from Abraham. Which Christ and Mohammed came from the lineage of ISaac and Ishmael. All that to say this.. You hate muslim more than Mormonism when The muslim prophet is actually closer to the truth than that of Mormonism which is NOT related to Abraham in the lineage of Christ. So don't hate too much on Muslims, you are headed the wrong direction and don't even know in what to believe choosing the unrelated and hate the ones that are related to the holy lineage. Just a thought for all the haters....
Plus, Mormons actually did declare war on the U.S.
Tim you are so right. people need to Read the Bible. and Gods words. Joseph Smith was not in the bible. Mormon was something made up.
It's rather sad to see a group (the Religious Right) of Christians identify themselves not by their religious faith, but by political ideals. I had a debate with a coworker (staunch republican, white, upper-middle-class, very Christian), and showed him a picture and description of a Coptic Christian (without a label). He said the person couldn't possibly be Christian and was probably Jewish. I had him read the description of his religious, and he said it doesn't sound anything like his own. So yes, I can see where people that have only been exposed to one facet of a faith tunnel-vision in on what it means to "be" in that group and faith.
Kudos for Obama. I'm glad we have a president that isn't narrow-minded.
All the Christians who trash President Obama about abortion need to read the Bible and get real.
The Bible NEVER mentions the word "abortion".
Skip the hypocrisy.
The Bible does frown upon murdering innocent people. If you beleive in the Bible and that abortion kills an unborn baby, then you will be severely opposed to abortion.
Googling "sect of one" provides insight into one of our Founding Fathers.
The mere mention of religion in what is supposed to be civil secular law continues to turn my stomach. LEave it to the churches. I want my government myth- free.
Wow, that was a lot of rationalizing by conservatives!
Obama is the wrong kind of Muslim.
"Wrong" type of Christian? CNN is stooping rather low here. The writer didn't seem to me to handle this issue very well on the way down through the column either. What is the point of contributing to an already nflammatory and sensational situation? Really worse than not helpful.
Obviously the pastors who say Obama can't be a Christian because he doesn't say the kinds of things they are used to hearing are not listening to those outside of Fundamentalism. Not everyone who is deeply committed to orthodox Christianity uses the language of being "born again," for instance. This is a fine article, but it saddens me to think of how small and limited a viewpoint many have. And not only fundamentalists: I'm always amazed at how many people don't know that many Christians are in favor of gender equality and marriage rights.
So-called fundamentalists are not orthodox. The Eastern Orthodox church (Greek, Ukrainian, Coptic, etc.) are the closest to the original Christians.In both rituals and teachings, the fundamentalists have strayed very far from their origins. If anyone is not a real Christian, I would think it would be those on the far right.
Obama's view is my view.
Mine to...could care less if that is right or wrong. Refuse to be dragged into any religious view. I don't need a church and I don't need a congregation and I REALLY don't need to be preached to.
Why does being a great " Christian" come into play. Our country has so many different religions and beliefs. Why go with the fundamentalist, or any other? Why don't they do an article about Mormons, who are way out there! We need a President who is deeply spiritual and cares for our country. That would be our President, Obama
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.