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.
If Obama is the wrong kind of Christian, the what the heck is Mitt Romney. There is certainly a stretch of the imagination to making Mormonism a Christian sect.
So what does this mean? He's not a big enough phony? Religion has no place in government anyway. I long for the day when we rescue our government from the zealots and put science and humanism in their rightful places.
I know quite a bit about the Mormon faith and Mormon have evolved toward mainstream Christianity during my lifetime, while Black preachers have sold their congregations into slavery, like Malcolm X predicted. There could be no greater contrast between these two rich men than their faith.
How can you call the Mormons Christians when they believe that Jesus was "just a prophet"????
ROMNEY has gotten a pass.... President Obama has seen people who politicize faith attack him since he first ran for election.
Mormons do NOT believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and man's Redeemer.
THAT is a fact.
No amount of lying will alter it.
When you're willing to BETRAY God and lie to support your political positions, you need to take a step back.
Are you the same John P. Tarver that posts young-earth creationism in the CNN Light Years blog? Radiocarbon dating is a hoax and the fossil record is a conspiracy, and all that?
Yes, Rufus, it is in fact the same idiot.
Who cares who he prays to–or how or why? I CARE ABOUT WHAT HE DOES–which shows his character–What he has done shows he's dishonest, deceitful,apathetic toward anyone suffering, incompetent and arrogant-so whatever he does in church doesn't mean anything!
Wow.. and I'm guessing that you give Romney a pass on all of his illegal activities, shipping jobs overseas, admitting that he doesn't care about the poor, etc.?
Counting down to the failure of our healthcare reimbursement system in 2015, unless Romney is elected.
Another dishonest post from John Tarver.
By DEFINITION, Mormons are NOT Christians. They DO NOT believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
this just goes to show the idiocy of modern american christianity. the religious right in this country acts like the pharisees of old. They are the religious establishment that Jesus so railed against in the gospels. If you don't do this, you are not christian. If you believe this, you are not christian. If you are not like me, you are not christian. They section each other off to impress their imaginary friend more than the other person does. to what end? to hate. to use it to divide people.
look at those calling mormons non-christians. Why is that? because of arbitrary rules they made up. take a step back and see how ridiculous this is.
"Dreams From My Real Father" is now available on Netflix to watch instantly.
Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself
The wrong kind of Christian? How about a new kind of Christian? How about the 21st century Christian?
Dead heat my Rumpney. Mitt would have to almost win every state that they're within 3 points of in the polls. Even the states that Obama is up by a few points. Mitt would have to somehow win all of those states and then he could maybe pull out a miracle if he gets every other state they're predicting. Obama is up by 60 Electoral votes.... I'm sorry but mark my words there is NO realistic way Romney can win. All you Romney lovers don't even waste your time voting.
Polling has traditionally favored the Democratic Presidential candidtate by 5% and anywhere Obama is not ahead by 5 points is already lost.
Wrong kind of Christian for sure, but right kind of MusIim, isn't he?
OMG (Obama must go) !
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.
When you're willing to BETRAY God and lie to support your position, you need to take a step back.
There is a spiritual emergency in America.
Barack Obama is in the process of trying to recreate the Christian faith in his own, very liberal and unorthodox image.
Built on a foundation of radical Black Liberation Theology, theological liberalism and post-modernism, Obama is undermining historic, biblical Christianity while claiming his is a Christian. In the process, he is defaming the Christian faith.
By declaring he is a Christian, yet denying Christianity's most essential truths and traditional morality, Obama is associating Christ with some of the most wicked practices imaginable, all of which are condemned in the Bible.
By any historic or biblical standard, Barack Obama is not a Christian.
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.
That you are willing to offend God by lying in support of petty personal politics says EVERYTHING about YOU, your "FAITH", and the your (lack of) personal integrity.
Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself...
You can't change the rule book and call it the same game. Folks want to make Christianity fit their lifestyles and immediate concerns. Hey, It'd suit me just fine if I could make up my own religion...but all I would have is a counterfeit belief system based on the latest color of the day. Call it how you want, make it what you will, but Christ would not approve of abortion or gay marriage...just as He would not approve of a liar or a bigot. Sorry folks...it is what it is. And guess what, we are all guilty of something. But to promote an unrepentent theology that goes against the Bible is wreckless and somewhat irresponsible...for those of us who actually believe in God. Most folk that opine on such matters have never studied the Bible.
There are Biblical scholars who have studied the Bible in much closer to "original text" than you have who disagree with your assertions.
Im pretty sure God gave us the free will for a reason. You do not need to partake in the sin, but the people who do not follow your religion should have the freedom to do what they want with their bodies and be treated equally with the same benefits as everyone else. You are advocating against the God-given purpose of our creation.
Instead you believe in a religion that somebody else made up, some shepherds in the desert thousands of years ago, some ignorant person that believed the earth was flat. LOL
Everyone knows that this man is a muslim.........If you didnt know now you do.
Sure, nte – Who cares about the truth? What does character matter? Just lie, and if it helps your Christ-hating candidate, all is 'forgiven'.
Shame on you.
Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself..
Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself.
Ok Ok I'll watch it if you promise me a Planet of my very own, oh yea and lots of women too.
Mormon use the KJV and therefore have a greater chance of bewing a Christian than an NIV reader. In fact, an NIV devotee would be better off with the book of Mormon. The Mormon heaven of playing out the Adam and Eve scenario has a lot of apeal.
Are you lying, John Tarver – or are you simply ignorant?
This is too funny, seeing the conservatives attack the President's Christianity, when most Christian church leaders declare Mormonism a cult. Take your pick, an imperfect Christian, or a cult leader.
You are seriously defining Christians by the version of the Bible they read? You are a complete joke and are far from a Chrsitian. God help you.
Christian means follower of Christ BUT nowhere in the gospels is there a KILL LIST, or Christ telling his followers to Covet (be envious of) there neighbors goods--JUST SAYING-
All of the former presidents have claimed to be Christian, but many of them have gone to war...killing thousands, maybe millions...and for what...Democracy? Hasn't the current president gone through enough? He is scrutinized in ways that others have not been. Some subtle, and some outrageously obvious. But to judge his character based on what kind of Christian he is, is below the belt and people are searching for reasons to despise him when they shouldn't. Is it really that frightening for a Black man to have the kind of power he has? No matter how good, or graceful, or suave or articulate or responsible he is, it will never be enough for those who are used to the old ways. The old ways have hurt people for generations, and cause strife and ill content within every community. It's time to change 100% from the spiteful ways of old. If a Black man knocked on your door, and he called himself Jesus, and he fit the profile of an angel, and his presence was Godly.. and said...come...follow me...would you walk with him....would you invite him in if he was a traveler and was weary, would you feed him at your table if he were hungry, and would you offer him a drink from your finest wares...would you embrace him as your friend?
Born Again's are CINO – Christian in Name Only. The Male leaders of the Catholic Church are the same. Catholic Nuns who care for the poor and infirmed are a good example of real Christians.
If you are not for universal health care, then you are not a Christian.
I'm for universal HEALTHCARE-just not in favor of universal HEALTH INSURANCE-trust me –. The insurance companies–DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR HEALTH–it's all about cutting expenses aka denying care–OBAMACARE SUCKS!!!
Another Shame on you, CNN. Nice "headline" for the last weeks of the election. Are you going to be fair about it then, and post a headline tomorrow saying, "Do Mitt Romney's Endless Lies Make Him a Good Christian?"
Unlikely. Instead, you're phony "Faith" blog, which probably has no business being attached to a reputable journalistic news organization, splashes something that can only be viewed on its surface as anti-Obama. It doesn't matter what the article says. You just TOLD thousands of undecideds who won't read the whole article, that Obama is the "wrong" Christian for them.
As to the man's faith. He views the Bible as a cause for being good to people, while his opponents see it as a means of enforcing division, hate, bigotry and greed. The question never needed to be asked.
Watch it and then make your mind up for yourself
Hey nameless advertisement person, if you really wanted for people to make up their own minds, you wouldn't be hawking a one sided propaganda piece, or would at least offer a counter piece about Romney as well. The LAST thing on your mind is for people to decide the truth for themselves.
I keep waiting for some reporter to ask me, a progressive Christian who works for a mainline church, if Romeny (or Santorum, or Bachmann or Ryan) are the "right" kind of Christian. Who decided this conservative pastor or that is the spokesperson for the entire faith?
Of course, if asked, I would answer that I don't share their views, and neither do the Christians I work with and for. But, as we sang today "There is a wideness in God's mercy." It's a big faith and I don't have the final answer. Neither does Gary Cass. I believe we are judged by how we treat the last and the least of these. Rev, Cass seems to believe we are judged by other standards. It is not my place to judge or speak for him. I respectfully ask him to do the same.
But that's not an answer that will create headlines, raise ire or produce page views.
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.