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.
Obama has listened to Jeremiah Wright for 20 years and no one can listen to this kind of religion and not think this way.Jeremiah wright has said over and over and over again to hate Americans,this person has divided this country more than any President in office ,if he was such a religious person he would have brought this country together. I have studied many religions ,read numerous books attended many services to learn ,but I have always been a Catholic ...and this person is not of religion that I know of,he attended the muslims day of prayer and not any other ..so what do you think is his faith?
What kind of religion allows one to constantly lie and deceive?
Perhaps he is the kind of Christian an apostate nation creates, though he has the option to live life in contrast to what he sees in this political system.
According to Madonna he's muslim
What a damn irresponsible article. This has no place being printed anywhere, let alone on the front page. "Anti-christ"? "Wrong kind of christian"?? Please stoke the flames of ignorance a litle more. THIS ISN'T EVEN NEWS!! I pray I never see any more of this sensationalist garbage, but that's a prayer that's bound to go unanswered. Maybe I'm the wrong kind of christian too.
First off, let's cut the crap, BOzo isn't a Christian. Mutt isn't a Christian. W isn't a Christian. Clinton. . .lol. And on and on it goes. You have to say you're a Christian to be a President. At least so far anyway. I wonder who was the last legit Christian President? BOzo has openly mocked Christians and the Bible. BOzo has been wearing a "There is no God but Allah" for 30 years. BOzo is helping Muzzies form a new caliphate. BOzo wanted Israel to return to pre '67 borders which would be suicide. BOzo is for abortion. BOzo is for partial birth abortion. Etc., etc., etc..
If anyone is fake or fake religion it's Romney... Mormonism is a crazy cult.
Read up on Joseph Smith Jr., planet Kolob.
...another veiled attack on Romney's Mormon faith......
Let Satan into you heart!
why don't we see more articles about the Mormons and what their beliefs are regarding women and blacks.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
23, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.
24, For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.
25, See, I have told you beforehand.
26, “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.
But if a doughy American driving a big fat Cadillac and adorning himself with jewelry and false hair says, "Go forth to the megachurch and find the Lord there," believe it with all your might.
Nice cnn obama PR piece trying to get a last grasp at another group of voters. Hussein – you can't support abortion and be a good christian at the same time.....sorry, it just doesn't compute.
Yep. He's my kinda gawd!!!!
A few questions should help shed light on the relationship between religion and rational thought.
The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:
(c) Economics; or
You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:
(c) NASA astronomer; or
I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am
(a) A gifted psychologist
(b) A well respected geneticist
(c) A highly educated sociologist
(d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.
I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am
(a) a delusional schizophrenic;
(b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly
(c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or
(d) your average Christian
Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:
(a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;
(b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;
(c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or
(d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.
I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am
(a) A victim of child molestation
(b) A r.ape victim trying to recover
(c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions
(d) A Christian
The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:
(c) Archeology; or
What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:
(a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they are morally obliged to believe on pain of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;
(b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is a composite god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;
(c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or
(d) All of the above.
If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:
(a) a deep psychiatric issue;
(b) an irrational fear or phobia;
(c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or
(d) my religious belief.
Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am
(a) A sleazy Wall Street banker
(b) A mafia boss
(c) A drug pusher; or
(d) A Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister or Jewish Rabbi.
What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:
(a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;
(b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;
(c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or
(d) All of the above.
The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:
(a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;
(b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;
(c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions to distribute condoms; or
(d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.
I was going to comment, but this about sums it up. Thank you.
Okay, so a lot of what you just said is true, however, please don't insult Catholicism. It is the oldest living Christian religion and it was Catholics who wrote the Bible, after all. Moreover, just because you consider yourself a Catholic – like I do – doesn't mean that you belive all of that religious b.s.
This article assumes
That you know very little about being a Christian. If you have read every word in the Bible you will know that there are
That God lays out for us that set the framework of our relationship with Him. Like repentance from sin and surrender to him. To
Say that Obama is expanding what it means to be a Christian would be similar to saying: OBAMA redefines the game I football. He
Has shown how you can have extra men on the field, run outside if the out of bounds lines, facemask, interfere with passes and still score lots of touchdowns and not get penalized. This would only happen if people did not understand the game, the refs were off the field, and no one was watching. I assure you THE REF is not off the field and his eyes are trained on all of us.
They are eyes of love and of judgement.
There are unbreakeble God-made, man-unbreakeble principles that mere man cannot expand or redefine. Obama
Is not changing Christianity, he is simply misrepresenting it.
Jesus' principles change for no
Man, and similarly, his live for us is in changing and real. Just Look
At the cross. To you who read this.
May your day be filled
And the knowledge of Jesus love and commitment to
Obama is as Christian as my Poodle. What kind of a story is this? What are you trying to sell??
A Christian has one definition not ten or twenty different ones. If you do not believe the Apostles Creed you are not a Christian. There has been no change in what being a believer means in 2000 yrs and Obama has changed nothing. What liberals and Obama believe in is an Apostate form of false Christianity.
John Blake, I do not care for your article, To be fair, please tell us in your own words, what is the right Jew, the right Mormon, the right Christian. Why CNN would let you write about any religion, is beyond me. Religion is IMO a personal thing, and does not belong on your sleeve and for you to judge others is just wrong. Makes me wonder if there was not money exchanged for this article. Shame, shame on you and CNN.
He's a cherry-picking Christian.
Agrees with some tenets of Christianity and throws out the rules he disagrees with.
Like nearly every other Christian I've ever met? Please.
Sounds like every christian out there!
That's the description of ALL Christians.
Wow! Then that makes just like every other Christian out there. Earth-shattering.
The saddest thing is that it's an issue in the first place! Most people would never vote for a Muslim, many still believe Obama is a Muslim because they are bigots and it's easier to say they are against Muslims than blacks. Why it's an issue is they would still vote for a Muslim which they hate and fear quicker than an Atheist. So being part of a radical religion is seen as super to having no religious convictions. The claim is always made that religious people are morally superior. My life experience has been the opposite. I've never known atheist to lie or cheat while I've had devote Christians cheat me in business and lie to my face often proclaiming they are Christians while they do it! Just look at the church leaders in this country for proof. Most have been found to have stolen money from their churches, cheated on their wives or for all the gay hatred preached turned out to be in fact gay. Ted Haggard is the obvious example but there are many others. Thousands of priests have molested tens of thousands of child in this country alone! The Boy Scouts are a Christian organization and it's come out that a lot of their adult members are child molesters. It's always sad if you want to find child molesters look for people that work with kids. They are drawn to those jobs so they can be close to kids. I'm not saying all are but a disturbing percentage are molesters. My point is if Christians are morally superior where is the evidence? Ultimately religious belief is a poor quality to look for in a leader.
What would Jesus do?
I'm guessing help the needy and the poor.
Sooo... the Same the BO is doing then?
Yeah, pretty much
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.