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.
I don't know. Sometimes I think CNN tries to egg us on. I hope and presume Obama is actually an atheist. It is simply not possible that there is only one member of Congress who is an atheist or agnostic. And there is a direct correlation with amount of education and non-belief. Gotta be a lot of closet atheists. The problem is that so many people have a bad opinion of atheists because of their ignorance of who we are. We need to allow atheists to come out. We need more people to come out. The young are losing their beliefs in supernatural things by the droves. They always lead but things wont change until they are in power.
Not surre how you arrive at that statement-Mitt is a pseudo christian as all rich people are. They covet money more than they care about fellow man. Christ didn't covet money.
The wrong kind of Christian?? A Christian is simply a follower of Christ. So perhaps, since there seems to be a silly need to ask the question, it can be queried, "Is President Obama following the example set by Christ?" In my opinion, the answer is, "Yes".
It's not the color of his skin nor his religion. It is the content of his character – dishonest, unqualifies, nutjob, fruitcake, megalomaniac...etc
A Christian knows and puts into action the teachings of Jesus. Nothing more and nothing less. And it's all there, very clear,in the four Gospels. mostly in Matthew. The rest is church dogma. And note that Jesus said to judge a Christian by what he or she does, not by what they say.
PS_ Matthew 25:
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Funny though that the gospels were written long after this Jesus man allegedly died and they do not agree with one another.
so Blue do your support Israel?
HORRIBLE headline!!! Really CNN? God is bigger than one view of Christianity. The pompousness of the one minister to make claims about Obama's Christianity clearly calls into question his judgement. We MUST be focused on helping those who need help instead of focused on helping only ourselves and being about me, me, me. The assumption that one party has a claim on Christianity is bullpucky. The assumption that one party has a claim on family values is bullpucky. We are in this together. We many not agree on each little item, but the health, well-being, and betterment of each person is all of our responsibility – for ourselves and others.
We are not in this together–the true religion of America is MONEY and the worship of it. True Christians are not rich–true christians don't covet money–look and see who covets money–Mitt–why has he not given up his money to accept christ–Eye of Needle ?
Including quotation marks around the word "wrong" in the headline should have tipped you off as to the author's feeling on the subject. Clearly he is criticizing those who are questioning his beliefs, not to mention the whole notion of there even being a right or wrong kind of Christianity.
We see Christian Leaders are no longer teaching the word of God their in business for themselves as they get paid to tell the faithful what to do. Much like the Judas as the US now has Christian Leaders who even protect rapist and steal. Mitt is a Mormon Bishop from the Mormon Cult. History has shown as many Christian countries fell by worshipping false idols and Greed. Mitt worships the Golden Plate Bible a nut case name Joesph Smith Jr. told so weak people about. The Mormon history is clearly Smith's greatest lie that worked. Smith didn't like religion taught so he went in the woods as an angle gave him this Golden Plate Bible that only he could read. Wow God and Jesus came and told him to teach. Smith was told to bury the bible and his memory was wiped so he didn't know where it was. This so call self fake Prophet Smith was sleeping with every women and had many so called wives and was told to leave the USA. In Mexico Smith slept around. Smith was back in the US arrested and still lying he was about to go to trial and a fellow member Brigham Young killed Smith. Mormon is a Cult and reading the history says it all but like any sick group its all about the Money.
he may invoke the name of Jesus Christ but we are to stand for Jesus and the teachings in Gods Word. Not to encourage sin, not to be of the world, and to teach others of Jesus and of His love for us. to Share of His love not hammer it into one, but by the same do not deny ones to share, pray or gather in His name. We are to see Jesus in ones, I nor many have not seen Jesus in either of the candidates. and I will pray before voting and write in as our Lord places on me.
Teach a man to fish and he will feed himself.
Teach a man to pray for fish and he will starve
Great example of an MSM misleading headline!
To the person that said: what about the 3 Year old that died of cancer. The child was curable outside the health care system which is not designed to heal any one.
I am not a faith healer but if you do not believe faith heals you do not believe Jesus. "Your faith has healed you" It works. The problem is; no one has faith or even knows what it is. What you think you believe has nothing to do with what you believe. We, the whole world have been brain washed with so many lies and misunderstandings, consciously and subliminally we are lost in a sea of untruth. We think what we think we are supposed to think. It is not us thinking it is Satin controlling our minds and we are doomed by the egoistical academic pride that we crave. The same academic pride that Satin used to convince Eve in the Garden and it's now in every ones genes. "Shall the son of man find faith on earth when he returns" l
Really, it's just not as clever as you think: Faith. It's silly to say that "faith always works, it's just that nobody knows how to have faith properly." That'd be like somebody saying, "Meditation always works, it's just that nobody knows how to meditate properly." Think what you'd say to somebody who told you that as answer to how to fix some problem in your life. You can change your eye color if you just meditate on it properly.
Before you go off on the "lousy" headline, look at it again, there are quotation marks around the word "wrong." The writer of this article is being critical of those who would say that President Obama has the wrong beliefs. Further, as the last sentence makes clear, the author is pointing out that President Obama, and others whose Christian beliefs are more akin to his might "resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation." For my part, I hope so. The rise of the self-aggrandizing, mega-churches has done nothing to help heal the frayed social fabric of our society.
One thing Mitt ahd Ryan have done is get the Southern Baptist, Church of Christ and Evangelicals to do is accept Catholism and Mormonism. The are no longer considered cults or "Corruptors" or Pope worshipers. They are all in the Christian Brother hood together. No longer is being a Mormon or Catholic the worst thing–its being black again.
I disagree. Our Lords word says not to worship idol, that one only needs to go to Father through Jesus Christ, His word lays the moral rules to live by. One cannot pray another into the Kingdom, only that individual through Jesus. One is not excluded from any church because they have been sinful. so yes Mormonism is a cult created by a man who was a wheeler and dealer, a pirate. did he turn his live around who knows but unlike the Word of God, Joseph Smiths rendition cannot be backed up. As for following a pope yes that is what they do, how many truely have read and studied the Word of God. oh and no one is named a saint. His word says that all who have accepted Jesus Christ is a saint. no special tests or ceremonies. I am a follower of Jesus Christ who happens to go to a Baptist church. Do I agree with all that pastors teach?, I will let scripture back up scripture and have a meaningful discussion. I find it interesting that after a short time with Romney, the Revs.Graham can say opposite of what their and other studies(years of) have proven. Wolves in sheeps clothing. God bless and prayers for you all
"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.”"
Great article, but horrible headline. Appears to be derogatory – another "is Obama really a Christian?" kind of thing. Please change the headline ASAP!
My Muslim faith
Funny. You seem to think that what you are viewing proves something. All it proves is that Obama stumbled in his response and immediately corrected his mistake.
You must be really desperate if this is the best you can do, Air-head.
I'm guessing you've never thought one thing and said another, and aren't taking into consideration that he was being accused of being a Muslim every day at the time, thus probably had that subject on his mind? Romney definitely had some slips during the debates that we can shine a magnifying glass on if you want to get this petty...
Complete context before and after please. Depending on the initial topic and discussion by both, this means zilch. I notice when people try to assign Obama as being Muslim, we only see a video bit of a few seconds or something that is assembled from tiny bits – that's not trustworthy.
How irresponsible are you folks at CNN?
The "wrong" kind of Christian? Really?
As opposed to the "Right" kind? What is that?
I have yet to meet the "right" kind of "christian here in the US.
obama is a liar and a thies he get people killdhim and joe biden that all they know how to do.
I appears you're typing in tongues.
The "Christianity" of conservatives:
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
"Fry the ****er, even if there's a good chance he might be innocent! We must set an example."
"You can not serve both God and money."
"Then I will serve money while giving lip service to God."
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
"Sounds like a technicality. I'll just have a giant needle constructed and have the eye placed over the camel route. Now it's easy for rich people to get into heaven, right?"
"And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
"Get thee behind me, socialist!"
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
"This guy is such a bleeding heart libtard. I'm going the 'hate your enemy' route because it's the one that actually make sense!"
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
"Not only will I shout my prayers from the rooftops to be seen and heard by EVERYBODY, but I will demand that forced prayer be reinstated in the schools, and that any child, regardless of their religion, who doesn't say Christian prayers will be severely punished! Private prayer is for those who are ASHAMED! To hell with humility!"
"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
"I will give to Caesar if he is a republican and the taxes go to republican causes... otherwise, forget it. And the more you talk about what God wants, the more I think I won't be giving him ANYTHING. He sounds like liberalism personified!"
"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him."
"So you sit around and wash the feet of other men. Why am I not surprised? Disgusting! And yes, I AM better than the hired help, that's why they're the help and I'm the one paying them pocket change. I've heard enough from you, looney, I'm outta here."
Michael I love this...well written.
Many Protestant groups in America are actively trying to recapture the message as Christ delivered it and to live that simple, clear message out as the early Church lived it. Social service for our fellow travelers is a key part. Fundamentalists are not fighting for a return to Jesus' original message. They are rather fighting for their peculiar spinning of the Christian script, which actually occurred in the late 1800's. President Obama is certainly reflecting the thinking and actions of a large fraction of serious Christians.
I'm listening to Bob Marley so I don't care about religion. We all came from the same place we end up. Make the most of it and show the world your love.
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.