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.
Only CNN could come up with such an asinine question? Is it possible CNN is the "wrong news network" for America? Idiots.
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It's like no one's ever heard of Thomas Jefferson's views.
A christian deist, emphasis on the deist, he's a far more unique brand of christian than Obama. Albeit lacking in any spirituality, which is tragic.
Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. Don't pretend he was a believer in Jesus as the "son of God".
How can Rev. Cass say President Obama "doesn’t act or talk like other Christians." Geez I guess I didn't get the message that I'm supposed to be acting is some pre-determined way if I am Christian! That is the most ridiculous thing I've heard. There is huge variety in Christian faith whether you are Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalean, Methodist. etc.
Mormonism is a cult and there are many Ex-Mormons that can testify to the cult like nature of the religion but the christian right wants to say that Obama is the wrong type of Christian ! Ha,Ha if the Christian right can't see that they are making fool's of themselves , then I only pity them " for they know not what they do " !
"Dreams From My Real Father" is now available on Netflix to watch instantly.
Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself.
The Fraud is Obama. The facts are indisputable.
Really, how about the real Mormon Faith:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q6brMrFw0E
All we hear about the book is lies from the rightwingers who take words or sentences out of context. They have problems because Obama has told the truth about his life.
And where the hell do you find gay marriage being supported in the Bible...the only reference that comes to my mind is Sodom and Gomorrah...and if memory serves...those places were DESTROYED. The embracing of gay marriage wasn't the condemning part but it certainly didn't save anyone in there.
No one said the Bible supports gay marraige. On the other hand, it does praise Solomon as the wisest of men and he had over a THOUSAND wives and concubines. Good example of the Bible and marriage.
"Dreams From My Real Father" is now available on Netflix to watch instantly. Watch it, then make your mind up for yourself.
Obama's actual father is communist Frank Marshall Davis, the photographer that took the nudes of Obama's mother, Stanley Anne Durham. Yes, his mom's first name was Stanley. Her namesake father, Stanley, was a CIA operative who was assigned to watch communist Frank Marshall Davis.
It fits, people. The big mystery surrounding Obama has a logical explanation. Watch it on Netflix and decide for yourselves
Yes, Barack Obama is the wrong type of Christian for white evangelicals in America, they are willing to fall head over heels in love with Mitt Romney the Mormon, of which most of these churches have preached against this religious group from the inception that it’s a CULT and you need to stay away from that type of doctrine. I should know I have sat under this evangelical teaching for most of my life. Now these very same conservative evangelical Christian, god-fearing church goers, are willing to sleep with the enemy, the very group the preached so hard against, “Mormonism.” O’ you hypocrites!!
I am now convinced that most of American Christianity is a cultural practice, routed mostly in traditional affiliation than a true conversion, a weekly religious exercise, no different than what the Imam demands of the followers of the Muslin faith. To add insult to injury you have people like Billy Graham and his son Franklin going out on a limb for the Mormon leader willing to buy ad to elect this man as a leader of country. My beef is not with Mitt Romney, it’s these phony evangelical Christians or so they call themselves that get to me. Maybe God is having the last laugh, by exposing the hypocritical American Christianity for what it really is, just another religion.
Billy Graham has taken out advertising to sway Christians to vote for someone who stands for Christian values. The intent is obvious: vote for Romney. Relgiion basically annoys Obama (they cling to their guns, God, etc) but he has to give it lip service. It will be interesting to see if black Christians vote color or conscience, and the same with Christians in the Hispanic community.
As white Christians, my sister who is a minister and my father who is a WWII vet will be voting for Obama because they believe he better represents the values of Christ. Perhaps black and Hispanics who vote for him will do so for the same reason.
It will be interesting to see if Protestants and Catholics vote for a Heretic, or a Liberal Christian, like Jesus was. Can't wait to see the hypocrisy in full glory!! That hellfire of eternal damnation is going to be hot though! Ouch!!
Obama is not a Christian. Regardless of what he says, he is either nonreligious or a Muslim. With a name like Barack Hussein Obama and for him apologizing to the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi, I believe he's probably a Muslim. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.
So your religion is based, at least in part, to what you parents name you? Interesting theory.
Speaking of being like a duck, you might check the FACTS. Obama didn't apologize to the terrorists for the attack. Learn how to read.
What the many 'Obama is a Muslim' liars are so desperate to avoid, is any focus whatsoeveron Mitt Romney's membership in an anti-Christian 'religion'.
Mormons, BY DEFINITION, and are NOT CHRISTIANS.
MORMONS REJECT CHRIST AS THE SON OF GOD.
Mormons – Mitt Romney included – believe that Jesus Christ was "just another prophet" among many.
They REJECT the fact that he is the Son of God.
They REJECT Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of mankind.
They REJECT the entire concept of Christianity.
Unlike the silly, anti-Christian liars (like RUFUS) that are perfectly happy to debase themselves with lies, what I've written is the actual TRUTH.
Mormons are NOT Christians, by definition.
You won't hear them talking about that.
These so-called Christians have no problem lying.
These so-called Christians have no problem voting for a man who openly admits believing in a religion that REJECTS CHRIST
mitt romney uses religion....its a prop for him
not only is he a chickenhawk...he's worse...he actually marched on behalf of the vietnam war, then used his religion to spineless not serve...
and his spineless sons are chickenhawks...they use their mormon religion to not serve yet push for others to go to war.
he flaunts his money even as governor of a state, firing people for profit....yeah....some real man of god...thats what makes this article on cnn so disgusting.
They endorsement of obama by the largest mormon newspaper spells it out...
He is not the right anything,,except he is a traitor....
One of the most humble and tranformative ministers of our time has been the Reverend Billy Graham, who has purchased advertising that is obviously hoping to sway Christians to not vote for Obama. I think Christianity is just one more thing that annoys Obama (they cling to their guns, God...) but he has to play along. I will be watching the black churches across the country and see if they vote color or conscience.
Billy Graham considered Mormonism a cult until earlier this month.
Billy Graham's own website listed MORMONISM as a KNOWN CULT until less than a month ago.
I consider myself a "Catholic" and a Christian; however, I have a problem with people who treat Christianity as if it is some kind of club in which you have to say the right words to belong. In my opinion, being a Christian means treating people the way that you would like to be treated. It is about looking out for your neighbor and helping someone in need when you are able. All people, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or non-believers are God's Children. Let us all respect other peoples' religions. "Judge not lest ye be judged"
To find out what type of "christian" Mr. Obama is one needs on to read the inscription on his ring.
The ring story has been debunked by several sources, including Snopes.
Just more wishful thinking you have ZERO proof for. Keep wishing.
Where do you people get this stuff? Glenn beck?
The right-wing fundiots know this rumor is false. But like good little trolls, they figure if you tell a lie often enough, someone will buy into it.
What the many 'Obama is a Muslim' liars are so desperate to avoid, is any focus whatsoever on Mitt Romney's membership in an anti-Christian 'religion'.
Snopes says inconclusive
JOHN BLAKE i hope you reading this comment, you are the biggest fool and ignorant person and you think you have written a good article. Please it is people like you that are spreading hate going on in this country.
Yeah he most certainly is the wrong kind of "Christian"....a muslim.
IF you actually cared at all about TRUTH, you'd know he has never claimed to be a Muslim. There is zero proof that he has participated in any regular Muslim religious services for more than 30 years.
Don't be silly, he can't be a Muslim. Muslims have moral principals.
He is a Christian in the tradition of Christ--
Just like how Christians are the wrong form of a Jew? You religious nut jobs are hilariously disturbing. Since you don't want to bloody your hands who do you want me the agnostic to kill for you then?
Unlike the silly, anti-Christian liars that are perfectly happy to debase themselves with lies, what I've written is the actual TRUTH.
These so-called Christians have no problem voting for a man who openly admits believing in a religion that REJECTS CHRIST.
Sue Emmett is Mormon royalty. Her great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young, the founder of Salt Lake City, first governor of Utah, and president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (LDS) from 1847 until his death in 1877.But by the time she reached her mid-30s, she began to have doubts. Emmett started questioning the ethics and veracity of the church’s doctrine and its founders, including Young himself, and she grew increasingly concerned with the way, she says, the church treats women. Emmett says there is a lot of silent suffering among Mormon women ! She held these questions close to the vest for many years until, in 1999, at the age of 55, she finally made the hard decision to leave the church.
A direct descendant of Brigham Young, Sue Emmett left the church because of the very values she says make the thought of having Romney as President frightening !
The religious right does not like anyone who does not adhere to their policy of cramming their belief system down other people's throats.
Sort of like the gay lobby does? The far left & far right have a lot in common.
You say that like it's a bad thing.
Funny you would make that claim seeing as how the liberal big tent only allows those whose views coincide with theirs. All others are racist, misogynistic bigots.
What I find facinating about all this is the lack of discussion of Romney's religion, Mormonism. By all definitions it fits the description of a cult. And yet, Obama is being critiqued based on his "Chrisianity". To make sure everyone understands, consider the following; Mormonism believes God was once a man. It believes we too can be gods if we live a perfect life. God is not omnicient, but rather "increasing in knowledge". God has a physical body, not spiritual. The Trinity is 3 "separate" beings, not one. I could go on. Tell me, how is this not an issue for those who are concerned about Obama's faith?
Conservatives are Hypocrites ! They complain about a grain of sand in your eye , when they really need to pluck the bolder from their own eye ! BTW that is a christian parable !
the largest paper in utah, middle of mormon country just endorsed Obama.
Read the endorsement and you will not only question the stability of Mitt Romney but you will question his commitment to his mormon faith. They pretty much say he is a photo op political op mormon...he is a phony.
Obama is a real man of faith
Then Obama is guilty of pushing his religion on everyone. The bible does not say that it's the GOVERNMENT's job to care for the poor. It's up to people!
First his birth certificate. Then his middle name. Now his religious belief.? As christians, we are not supposed to judge. So look in the mirror, before you judge your neighbor. No man is without sin. All politicians will tell you what you want to hear. Deep down inside, you know that regardless who's in office, nothing will change. Gas prices will get worst. Taxes will only benefit the rich. The middle class will pay for the bad decisions of the government. Wake up people. Stop bickering about which party is for the people. The last I checked, neither the Dems nor the Reps have given up a dime of their money to make sure you can eat. The real Christians know that there is only one man that can bring change. His name is God! Without him, Obama will not accomplish anything. Romney will not accomplish anything. Lets all pray together, that the Lord will fix this country.
I Totally Agree !
So we can tell people's religion by looking at their birth certificate and middle name. Cool! Let's see, using that formula, I think my son is Jewish, my oldest daughter is Catholic and middle child is Muslim. They'll all be very surprised!
Is Obama the 'wrong kind of Christian?' All Christian are wrong! :)
(This notion now supported by 1 in 5 Americans ... and growing)
1-5 Americans confirm that Christinas are wrong? So, if I understand your proposal 20% of the population is right? And, if this is the case the other 80% should follow them. Yeah, I'm going to ride that train. Why are you (nonbelievers) always trying to convince me there is no God?
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.