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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. John Diomitron

    Elijah is back and will restore all things.

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

    October 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  2. Evolve

    I don't know if you guys had noticed, but mitt romney is a mormon. the fact that obama hasn't yet tried to blow that all out of proportion is proof that he actually respects the beliefs of others. Unilke all of the low-level fundies who are always going on about how "obama is a muslin! [sic]"

    October 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  3. Michael Chapel Hill

    I do not think what Obama is. Is he a Christian? I do not think so. He is/was a Muslim by his name and step father's religion,
    He went to a Black Church where BLT (Black Liberation theology is preached). Now that he has dis-vowed it. Anyway his left wing ideology is very close to Marxism than Christianity.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      Huh, my husband will be fascinated to know that he's Jewish in spite of having been raised Catholic because his name is Jewish and so is his dad. He was raised Christian, but that apparently doesn't count.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  4. Glynnis

    Good article. Bad headline. There are too many people who have a prejudice against President Obama as "no kind of Christian." Those people will not be inspired by the headline to read the article. They'll just say, "Uh huh!" and skim on...

    October 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  5. HS

    OK. Now that you have written such a detailed discription about Obama's faith. Shouldn't a detailed discription of Romney's mormon faith be written too? The last time I check..mornism is not of the christian faith..it is a cult.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Romneycares

    If you belong to a cult, does that make you a Christian?

    October 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Only in America can one find many so many life-freedoms. And still yet the Godly ones show mercies upon the ungodly. Only in America can an atheist stand alongside a Christian in equality. What a nation of nationalists Americans are!

      October 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  7. JoAnn

    Good to see an article about reasonable, Jesus-following Christians like our president. Nice article. Needed a better headline.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  8. mrmojo

    He's a Muslim plain and simple, or at the very least a Black Liberation Theology believer. In other words a Racist!!

    October 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • keeth

      Prove it.

      October 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • mrmojo

      Rev Wright's church for 20 years. Need I say more get your head out out of your ideological butt!!!

      October 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Fran E.

      By all means ... please prove it.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Saythetruth

      Obama has stated that he is a muslim on numerous occasions before he became the president. He quotes the Koran, and ridicules the Bible and Christians. Go to youtube.com to view these clips. Face the truth, people. See the movies "2016" and "Agenda". Read obama's books. Then say the truth.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Guest

      mrmojo and Saythetruth stop saying things that are NOT true.

      October 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  9. Webegood

    Yes, continue to fight amongst yourselves. Whos the right christian? Who needs to be removed so your version is the only one? Then when the dust clears you have eliminated the religion entirely from the US and a new reason to hate others will need to be found.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Jessa1221

      They fight because Christians have a "holy than thou" superiority complex that stems from the belief that only one belief can be right and all others are going ot hell.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  10. unblvble

    the question should be is he wrong president???

    October 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  11. God's Oldest Dreamer

    The faith of individualism away from Godliness cannot explain away the morals of the Godly. Nor can the anti-religious take away anyone's Godly ideals. Even the ungodly ones know of God and His Son(s) and yet they rebuke Godliness and fend with others to cluster their breeds and make a mockery in plain view all for showmanship's sakedness. Still the Godly of Christ will ever love those who deny God and Godliness. This is the nature of Christianity

    October 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Theseeker

    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! You fools you know not what you do...

    October 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • == o ==

      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.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  13. bob

    Mormonism is most certainly the 'wrong type' of Christian. They believe God is a physical being and lives on a planet called Kolob. I mean come on, that's just pure insanity.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  14. pastmorm

    President Obama is the right president. He's the right person for the job. If you're going to look at religion (oddly enough there is that separation of church and state that most people keep forgetting) then look at the cult that Romney belongs too. They are communists. They believe in something called "the law of consecration." Look it up and educate yourselves!

    October 21, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  15. tomcat1346

    As a progressive Christian, I disagree with your headline. Does that mean that the "christian right" is the right kind of christian?
    I think not!

    October 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • aroomadazda

      In the headline, there are quotation marks around the word "wrong." That means they are not trying to say he is the wrong type of Christian, rather, they are being critical of the whole notion of there being a "right" or "wrong" type of Christian in the first place.

      October 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • John K. Canada

      Some see a 'different' kind of Christian.... Mr Blake there is only Christianity and it does not come in different kind or flavors!
      Why do I think that CNN somehow is bios ?
      And it is true if Politics sometime require a person to be some kind of Christian then there you have it... A new definition!

      October 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  16. jean

    So, President Obama doesn't say the right things? Tell me, how many times did the founding fathers mention being "born again," or having a "personal relationship with Jesus"? They didn't, so apparently they weren't the "right" kind of Christians either, even though some people keep declaring that this country was founded as a Christian nation. I have a hunch that the founding fathers wouldn't recognize the Christianity of today. I'm really surprised that Pastor Cass and the Reverend Andrews don't have a better understanding of the history of Christianity in the U.S. and how it has changed over time.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  17. cobracruising

    Excellent article..I guess if you aren't an evangelical Christian, you aren't a Christian...reminds me of the Pharisees who didn't believe the words of Jesus, who wanted to have him crucified...what do you think HIS take would be on this issue of who is a Christian and who isn't??
    I equate narrow minded evanglical Christians with the Pharisees with all their rules and regulations! They also think they have all the answers...in my mind ONLY GOD has the answers!

    October 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  18. Alex

    The "wrong" kind of Christian is one who insists on a simplistic, one dimensional narrative at the expense of fact, logic, or common sense. The "wrong" kind of Christian is one who believe we should throw up our hands at addressing complex issues because Armageddon is coming anyway. The "wrong" kind of Christian is one who fails to translate Biblical teaching into every day issues of justice. The "wrong" kind of Christian is one who jumps to the conclusion that Obama is the antichrist. Your headline insinuating that Obama's christianity is "wrong" is in every way offensive.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • aroomadazda

      In the headline, there are quotation marks around the word "wrong." Clearly the editors are questioning the whole notion of whether or not there is a "wrong" or "right" of Christianity, and are being critical of those who are doubting the president's beliefs.

      October 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  19. Carol

    Now I see why you wouldn't take my comment this a.m. there is another Carol on here.

    October 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  20. Heather Hunt

    The WRONG kind of Christian?! Really!?! Right... last time I checked, Obama and the Dems have more of the helping values than some of the 'real' Christians that are out there. I am offended. Christians are Christians...not the "WRONG" or "RIGHT" kinds!

    October 21, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Scott

      You bought the headline hook line and sinker. Tell me, is a self labeled Vegan who grills and eats dead animals every weekend the right vegan or the wrong vegan?

      October 21, 2012 at 4:45 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.