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.
Lets check out Mormonism...shall we. cnn is nuts using anti-christ in its headline about the POTUS.
You are a real Moron all right!
I agree! Talk about Disrespectful to the POTUS. CNN has a lot of nerve using some lunatic phrase from the radical right.
What a stupid headline
So basically he just acts out the bible, caring for those that have the least....instead of just paying lip-service to it in vile, mean-spirited churches that blame people for their own poverty and support an every-man-for-himself-survival-of-the-fittest mentality. I'll stick with the guy whose actions speak louder than words.
I am no longer sure of the definition of "right kind of Christian". For example, look at the number of times the Nicene Creed was modified since first introduced in 325 AD. Changes between 325 and 381 later triggered a split between Eastern (Greek Orthodox) and Western (Latin Catholic). Everyone reading these words already knows the opposite of "orthodox" is "heretic" which makes every religion derived from Catholicism, including all Protestant sects, "heretic". So what's the big difference between east and west? The original creed states "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father" while the Latin creed states "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son". So what does this mean? Before Roman Catholics started changing things, Jesus was the son of god the way all people are the children of god. Nothing more. When pragmatic Christians accept this they will become less smug when dealing with Judaism and Islam.
The right kind of Christian is an atheist.
He's a good Christian man, real Christians know.
The LDS church is viewed by many Christians as a cult. When you stand in judgement before your Creator, he will judge you, solely on your actions. We as people do not know what another person feels within their soul. The Bible tells us to love one another. There are a lot of people in this country that wave Bible , maybe some of them should study it once.
LDS is a cult.
It's based on the beliefs of Joseph Smith Jr,, a Freemason, who said he found some gold plates and translated them into the Book of Mormon. This is a cult. Read up on it and then come back and post again.
true we are suppose to give....but the fact comes in that the lord gives us free will to give.....i dotn feel like the poor should still from the rich. just believe that its anyones right to give or keep whats theirs...
Time for you to read Voltaire, Diderot, Helvesius and d'Olbach.
So the Lord commanded us to care for the most unfortunate among us, but because He gave us free will that means you don't have to. Might want to examine the logic of that statement.
You sound just as contradictory as your bible.
Any kind of Christian or religious person is the wrong man for Office.
All hail Satan, save us from the dark lord known as god, for only a dark lord would demand the atrocities in the bible
Who cares what his religion is? The problem is that he's a disaster as a President. He's accomplished nothing other than work on his golf swing and blame others for his failings.
And he has a congress that has blocked everything and made a public comment ( McConnell) that their main goal is for Obama to be a one term president. Screw America right now they gotta get the black man out the White House. Did you see the man at the Ohio rally who had a shirt that read " but the white back in the White House?
I'll take the MORMAN over the Muslim anyday.
Obama was baptized a Christian, married in a Christian Church and baptized his two daughters there. Gee, the Muslims must be asking, why doesn't he pray to Allah 5 times a day? Why doesn't Michelle and girls wear the Hijab?
Please get over your hatred and predjudices that make it impossible for you to think clearly.
I've got 4 words for you all:
SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE.
Learn to run this country under that premise again, please. It's getting old.
So is the seperation of church and state mantra
Umm, while I might tend to agree with you. That's 5 words.
He was born as a Muslim, raised as a Muslim boy in Indonesia then converted to a Christian later in life. So why should we be surprised that he's the wrong kind on Christian???
Let me guess. Your particular brand of Christianity is the ONLY righteous, perfect one that will get you to heaven. Well, did you know Mormon's believe there religion is the ONLY righteous, perfect one that will get you to heaven and that the U.S. and eventually the world will be taken over by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? The name refers to the righteous Mormons, after Armageddon, will rule the world for 1000 years with Jesus himself at the helm. Are you ready to convert to the Romney's true religion?
Don't fu-ck men but women, or are you mad?
"..., 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-se-x marriage, ... " Mr. Blake said.
Simply the fact that Obama supports same-se-x marriage, and blasphemously appeals to Jesus in this context, is a clear indicator or evidence that he is no Christian at all.
A gay man is simply a maniac concerning his s-exuality. He has completely forsaken the trust in the Lord that he may give him a wife in due course, and know he fuc-ks with men. Such a disbelief should not be supported by the society or the state.
We should not support gay marriage but help single men and women to find appropriate partners of the opposite gender.
We have too little people in our society which bring about healthy community, this is our problem. Community is nothing which is there for no reasen but must always be promoted and supported by highly spiritual people.
Such an unselfish love which wants to bring about community is typical for real Christians. As we become more and more lonely this is a clear sign that the true Christian faith is about to disappear from the earth.
reposting this... I have told several people and still believe that Obama is a historical figure. He has to be. Anyone who can stir up as much emotion, hatred and love from Americans has to be important. I believe that he will be as big as Kennedy when all the dust settles. He has opened americans eyes and angered many as well. He has questioned our beliefs and radically changed america. I do not know what would be worse, him not getting reelected or the nightmare the GOP will unleash on us if they take the White House.
"If you're not the exact same kind of Christian as I am, then you're not a Christian. Your thoughts and beliefs are false and contaminate the political arena. You are dangerous." Pretty much sums up the religious right, and is a complete insult to Christians who don't embrace fundamentalist doctrines, let alone the beliefs of people of other faiths or no faith at all. Sorry, but no. In case you haven't heard, we have religious freedom in this country, and that includes the freedom to be a progressive Christian.
I would rather have this brand of Christianity than the Mormon brand. At least celestial heaven is not restricted to good male Mormons only.
This is the 1st time in my life that I've ever commented on an article that I've never read.... & that's because the entire idea of it is just STUPID at this point.
You're telling me that for the 1st time we have a mormon running for President but we're still here wondering whether OBAMA is the right type of Christian?? All the enmity that has existed between the mormons and the rest of the Christian community, thats being swept under the carpet just to form a politically advantageous alliance to eradicate their mutual liberal enemy? The mormon church, that pays no taxes as we go bankrupt, yet pumps millions and millions of dollars into affecting the secular government of this nation to achieve its own political agenda.... tax free.... And then I see all the comments crucifying Obama for tampering with our Freedom of Religion?? But, yea, lets analyze Obama's Christian convictions AGAIN. Absolutely F'n ridiculous.
Freedom of religion does not imply that organized religion is free to establish theological laws for everyone else to bow down to.
and I also think that the media, which has turned a blind eye to the political maneuvering of the mormon church, while playing soft ball with topics such as these, that have been well exhausted, borders on the criminal.
I think the media printing anything that has to do with "Christianity" is like having Satan show up to preach in church. Unless you are willing to read, and study the Bible, with a heart to be taught by the Holy Spirit, your many articles regarding Christianity, are heresay, and ignorant. There is a verse in the Bible where God declares, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." It is because of the dark ages again settling in on speaking and teaching the Word of God, that church and religious leaders have turned from the truths of Jesus to the desires of man.
I don't think I've ever read anything I agree with more on these boards. I get so tired of people who have rarely, if ever, cracked open a bible spout off about its contents. The bible does not CONDONE many of the things people think it does...it CHRONICLES them. However, the casual Christianity that prevails in the west today does nothing to recommend us.
“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
This says it all. God has given ten commandments to live by and Obama thinks becasue he is president that he can change the very word of God. Obama was a member of Jeremiha Wrights church for 25 years. So baically, he was taught to be racist for 25 years! Only when Obama threw his hat in the ring did he break ties with his home church of 25 years. In the last 4 years Obama has undone what took many years to correct. He has divided a nation by deceit, racisim and liberal immoral folly. He is not the Christian God would have him be. He divides he doesn't bring together.
No, you and people like you removed yourself. That's how things get divided. Obama's Christianity is inclusive, yours is divisive and exclusive. Take a good hard look at yourself, your beliefs, and your own thoughts about race before you condemn.
Got Pat Robertson?
1) There are actually 613 commandments...not just ten! Check it out. If you purport to be THE ONE who can tell anyone about your religion you should know this.
2) The only reason we as a country are divided is tgat people like you and the evangelucal right don't like a black man with a strange arab sounding name as President. The hate starts with you. The division starts with you. Your religious and gop political leaders have used you to further their purposes, not God's. WWJD? PRay for you sinners who have perverted his teachings and gospel.
Great posts Rinsewind and floridres. These are the same people who have bullied us for years with their, in your face beliefs, and then they turn around and cry about how their rights are being taken away because some of us have had enough and are now pushing back.
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.