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.
Are you kidding me – Obama is not religious, other than the Shariah ring he wears. People who only go to church on Easter and Christmas are hypocrites, not progressive Christians. He goes to church when it is convenient for his image. Those who believe he really wants to help the poor are naive. He wants the poor dependant on government.
Outright, bald-faced lies. Shame on you.
That you have to lie, says EVERYTHING about YOU and your own personal (lack of) integrity..
Mitt Romney's whole religion is based on a rejection of Christ the Savior. He's a MORMON... Do you not know what that means?? It means Romney thinks Jesus Christ was "just a prophet" – NOT the Son of God.
During the last election, Republicans got angry at the pastor of President Obama's former church... a CHRISTIAN Church.
They DEMANDED that the candidates have a 'town hall' type meeting at Saddleback Church to discuss their faiths. Know why that didn't happen this time? Because the President is an actual Christian, and Mitt Romney is a MORMON.
You need to stop lying (might want to check the Bible on that point) about what the President has said about his faith, and learn a little about the non-Christian you're no doubt supporting.
Mormons do NOT believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and man's Redeemer.
THAT is a fact.
When you're willing to BETRAY God and lie to support your position, you need to take a step back.
First of all, the ring was debunked. Second of all, Jesus never said that weekly church attendance was a requirement for belief.
So the disabled, someone with no transportation, the sick, elderly or anyone else that for what ever reason that can't go to a church on Sunday is not a Christan. Jesus didn't have a big building on Sunday. He had a mound of dirt if I recall.
All religions are the wrong kind of religion. Religion is for lame people with no common sense. If YOU have a problem with my views, you can go and fawk yerself. Email me at mdavemmm at yahoo DOT com, so I can tell you how stupid you are for being an embarrassment to mankind.
Very few worship the Christ presened in Luke, as that Jesus is generally unavailble in the Western world. Imagine a Christ who was born the King of the Jews, with purchased Roman Citizenship.
ALL of John Tarver's comments ignore the fact that Romney is a MORMON.
By definition, NOT a Christian.
The whole religion rejects Christ as the Son of God and man's Redeemer.
Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was "just another prophet".
Nothing to say on that, huh John?
Obama is not a Christian or a Muslim (or whatever) he is essentially irreligious-he uses religious language to get votes.
Yeah, right. Because you know, right?
You know nothing about EITHER man's faith.
Romney is a MORMON.
The Mormon religion is by DEFINITION a REJECTION of Christ the Savior.
They do NOT believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is "just another prophet".
That is a FACT.
I'm willing to bet you won't have one word to say about THAT.
Obama is an elitist Nicolaitan.
Any kind of Christian is the wrong kind of Christian to most other Christians.
Since when has CNN become the arbiter of "right" and "wrong" types of people? "Some" people think so, huh? What are you now – FOX News?
There are millions and millions of people who call themselves Christians. I believe that there are most likely not even half a million human beings that actually follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.
This is about CNN's thousandth attempt to change the subject away from the economy.
CNN is in the business of selling advertising.
They publish the stories that maximize advertising revenue.
The economy is better off than it was the last time it was in the hands of a republican. I certainly don't want to go back to those times.
Anyone who wants to understand what's happening with the economy should read 'The Fiscal Legacy of George W Bush' by Republican Bruce Bartlett. He was the senior economic adviser to President Reagan, President Bush (1), and Congressman Ron Paul.
In the article, you wil find the REAL truth of the mess we're in, by the actual NUMBERS – not partisan spin.
At John P Tarver
Looks to me like CNN feels the need to redefine Christianity to fit Obama to gain him some votes.
Trashy journalism, regardless of who it is about. I am completely done with CNN.
Obama is a Christian.
Romney is not.
CNN this is the worst headline, you should be ashamed. There is no wrong or right kinda Christian. There is Christian, There is Jewish, There is Mormon, There is a list. This country is divided enough with you and Jack Blake trying to further divided religion. What is the matter with you. Then you insult the President of our county and his family. Mitt could be President and I would feel the same way. Shame on you CNN.
You didn't really read the whole article did you? Be sure to read it all, right down to the last paragraph.
thank you for stopping hitler, correct xtian god!
Hitler was an evolutionist, like Obama.
The majority of people in the civilized world are evolutionists for the same reason that the majority don't believe that the world is flat. Hitler also self-identified as a Catholic and a vegetarian... maybe you think they need to be demonized via association as well? And furthermore, more than 94% of Nazi Germany was Christian.
no, unfortunately ( and as evidenced by this article, to anyone with half a brain) , oby is an xtian. and believes in the myths that xtian for-profit preachers push: that gods might finger zapped everything into existence. even cancer and people like hitler (yeah, yeah, free-will- his victims' free will was obviously less important to god than hitler's). go back to fondling yourself.
Stretch much there mr John P. Tarver? Your idiocy is showing, by the way.
An extremely hypocritical question to ask anyone...only an arrogant individual could imagine themselves as having the right type of faith...and someone else "the wrong." It's a fundamental problem with Christianity...as they're the only ones knocking on my front door, trying to convert me and my money.
obama is the wrong type of person to be a President
yes, i guess idiots like bush are better, right?
as opposed to Mitt "screw 47% of the population and send our jobs overseas" Romney...
Better to vote for a robber baron that changes his positions every time he talks to a different crowd, right? Better the man that had to take a tax amnesty to avoid prison. Better the man whose "deeply held" convictions allows him to change his position on abortion every other year (today, he plans to outlaw it).
Romney does not believe that Christ is the Son of God, and he has NO real convictions.
He is the single most craven politician I've ever seen.
As is Romney.....so now what!?!?!
What "type" is hea? Judging what is in someone's heart is just WRONG!
If we're going to ask questions as to who is and who isn't a Christian, the primary figure who should be called into question here is Billy Graham, who has chosen political opportunism and monetary gain instead of the truth. Mormonism literally ceased to be a cult overnight in Graham's eyes simply because he's become a republican partisan, where he didn't used to take sides.
Billy Graham forgave Bill Clinton for having Monica eat his ass.
Only scientists should be elected to government offices! Really, though; and I'm Catholic sworn too.
CNN i am so disappointed in you!! How do you determine what is a righ type of Christian? It is so obvious you are Against President Obama! You need to ask the question about Mormons!! Do your history and research this cult! Then you need to send the same STUPID question asking can a Mormon be considered a Christian.
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 President Obama's beliefs, not to mention the whole notion of there even being a right or wrong kind of Christianity. If the headline had not included quotation marks around 'wrong' you might have had a beef, but those quotation marks should immediately get you thinking that the author is going to be critical about those who may say that. And in the end, the author seems to be hoping that the President, and others who believe as he does, can lead a revival of progressive Christianity.
Please don't call it a Cult....I really wanted to a God with a Planet of my own.
Do you have any idea how fundamentally wrongful is this headline? It is offensive at best, and demagogic as well. You call yourselves a news agency. Are you kidding? Who are you to suggest that anybody is a "right' or a "wrong" kind of Christian, and for what purpose?
Not a word to note that Christians often do not consider a Mitt Romney, a Mormon, to be a Christian at all, "right" or "wrong." Did you make note of that? Since you are broaching the ridiculous "Right kind of Christian" meme, why not? Don't answer. we already know.
Did you bother to read the whole article? The whole point of it was to demonstrate out how misguided it is to label anyone as being 'right' or 'wrong' in the Christian beliefs. In the end the author seems hopeful that a new generation of Christians will lead to a revival of a more tolerant, progressive Christianity.
II think this was a great article. If anyone claim to be a Christian, then you must ask yourself what will Jesus do in each of these landscape of problems that Obama find himself as President of the United states.
The healthcare issue-was it a Christian thing to do? After all, Jesus was a healer. he heal the blind and the sick. I think what is not Christian is to call a man who saw the moral dishonesty in denying about 50 million of our citizens healthcare a socialist or anti-Christ. What will Jesus do- live these many people to die when they are sick. Romney suggested that they can go to Emergency room. Unfortunately, getting healthcare services through emergency room is the most expensive way to provide healthcare. The republicans had 8 years to provide healthcare during the last administration, however, healthcare was not their priority. The GOP was more interested in starting wars than providing healthcare for the citizens. The status of having millions uninsured, why the insurance companies could charge as much in premium as they choose was more beneficial for their base. Certainly, the GOP saw war as a better way to enrich their base than insuring the least among us.
I know that a lot of these so call conservative Christians and the tea party are driven by hatred and bigotry for Obama. They have turned their back against God's most important commandment-love thy neighbor as thy self. If America turn their back against these kind man of a President who have worked hard for us all the last four years, we are going to wake up and realized that we just turn our country over to some of the greediest people that have every walked God's earth. Think about it? Do you wants Obama kind of Government that says I am my brother's keeper or Romney's and the Republican kind of Government that says you are on your own? I pray and hope that before each and every one of us cast our vote, we will let God's love guide us, and not the devils hatred and bigotry.
I am convince that they are more Americans led by God's love than those whose motivation is fueled by greed and bigotry and hatred. What is socialism about going back to Bill clinton tax rate that created 23 million jobs? look at where the country was when Obama took office, and look at where we are today. We have made great progress inspite of the republican sabotage. If there is one president in the last fifty years that have earn a second term, Obama is that president. We know where is heart is. We know where he stand on issues. Why replace him with a man who you cannot tell where he stand on anything. We need a balance approach to our problem, not an appraoch tilted to benefit the very rich among us.. May God's love touch our heart for our fellow American. I know that if we allow it to, we will re-elect the President who have shown a heart of caring. We know where Obama stand.
Ben, I agree with all you said, especially about turning our country over to some of the "greediest people who have ever walked God's Earth," instead of a good man, a great man, who has done his best for us for four years against ridiculous odds. I weep for us if we let him and ourselves down.
I agree with you, I think Obama truly does care about all of us, and he has my vote.
Christian, Mormon, Muslim, straight , gay, male , female, black , white....America continues to hate itself to death.
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.