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 isn't "the wrong kind of Christian", he's just a weak president. Time to vote in someone that can make a difference–an not bring religion into it.
So what, you're going to vote for Humpty Dumpty?
Just weak??? You are really out of touch!! People say keep religion out of it.....but when the most powerful leader of the free world says he is a christian – he should in fact be one....not a muslim, who regards the teachings of Jesus
Wayne? WAYNE!!!! Wake up!
Did you go back into your bacon-induced coma again?
Tom Tom.....your head is full of bacon fat as usual....not able to stay on topic with the rest of us....
I know atheists that are better christians than most "christians" I know.
...and I know christians that are better than some atheists...nananabooboo.....???
For all of the people that believe that Mormons are Christians: One of the key sticking point for evangelicals and many others is the issue of the Trinity. Christians, Catholic, evangelical Christians and Pentecostal Christians all believe in the Trinity; that’s the historic doctrine of the church, that God is three-in-one. Not three gods; one God in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although Mormon‘s don’t believe in the trinity, they use the same terminology. This is just one of the fundamental differences between Mormons and Christians. If you are a Christian please read 2012 'White Horse Prophecy' Warned Is Coming True In America.
What a tacky, biased HEADLINE. The 'wrong' kind of Christian? The WRONG kind is the one who holds a bible in one hand and a cross in the other and commits sins all 'in the name of the Lord'. Sam Brownback? Are you freakin' KIDDING me? He is a hypocrite and a bully. When you said the MEDIA had it wrong, you got it. Obama's 'faith' is what people believe in while shunning 'membership' in the churches of hypocrites like Bryan Fisher, Billy Graham and others.
Yes Obama is the wrong kind of christian....so is Jeremiah Wright – the pastor of twenty years that Obama needs to hide – why?? Because Jeremiah Wright damns America and keeps ties with muslims....hmmmm
Obama is the RIGHT kind of Christian. Like Jesus Christ, he doesn't strut around using Christianity as an excuse for war and as an excuse for being right. If all Christians were more like Obama this would be a better country and a better world.
Really?? You are comparing Jesus with Obama..??? Wow.....All Obama does is strut his stuff around with all of Hollywood, drinking his cool White House beer....thats just sad
I'm afraid of Obama now–His mother messed him up –One day he was a catholic, nest day he was HIndu and at other times he believed Buddhism. A jack-of-all trades.
Who are we to judge President Obama's faith. I glanced in a Mormon bible a saw absolutely nothing close to God-the Almighty Creator. Please!!!
The president follows the current mantra of roll your own religion. There is a Christian "tradition" that predates mega churches, and the president has long moved away from that, including his favoring gay marriage and abortion. You can debate those issues, but you cannot claim that Christianity would support either.
Obama said on February 2nd, 2012, "I want to take from the rich" because that is the "Golden Rule", really? What do you think the "Golden Rule" really is?
Whoever has the most gold wins!
America needs to know what is going to talk Obama with more "flexibility" after elections with Dmitry Medvedev ???????????????
Scary that people still consider obama an option AFTER his Libya cover up (and incompetence) AND his 'secret deal' with Russia - AFTER THE ELECTION.
I don't trust obama anymore–especially with my kids future.
What "Libya coverup?" What "secret deal with Russia?"
You seem to have confused real life with a James Bond flick.
I'm so tired of all the religious BS in this country. Can't you people give it a rest, even for one day? For a while I thought the bible thumpers were merely disagreeable. Now I'm beginning to truly despise them.
Religion is the single most destructive force in the world and a real threat to global civilization.
Obama is no christian or muslim, he is an agnostic or athiest just paying lip service to the religious fools as any politician would. His being agnostic / atheist is a big plus, unfortunately the fact that he is utterly clueless on the economy and how to fix it means the religious loon canidate may be our best hope for now.
Obama is a "Bible thumper".
Also, so called "Bible thumpers" help more people around the world than a vast majority of liberals who rely on government to do their 'charity work' for them–based on studies.
WOW!! There are a lot of screwed up folks out there!
Am tired of religion. Humanity will one day tire of it also.
The right wingers knew the only way to remove President Obama from office is to start lots of rumors about him and they have done a masterful job of that. Now their party is led by one who is running for the highest office in the land who has a complicated relationship with the truth, I guess he is a reflection of those who are following him.
no reflection at all is Mitt...just the lesser of two evils
Obama is a true Christian shown by his actions. The Gospel is full of commands to care for the poor and completely devoid of commandments to oppose abortion or gay marriage! The excuse that it is somehow unchristian to use the power of government to look after the least of these is completely lame! I am Christian and didn't see the Bush tax cuts flowing to the needy in our community, but I did see a lot of new massive fancy pickup trucks in our Church parking lot.
The right wing evangelicals are the wrong kind of Christian.
Another sad example of how the marriage of fundamentalist Christian organizations and politics has compromised the integrity of those organizations. The only Protestant Christian candidate in the national election is running for the "wrong" party in their eyes, so his faith must be discredited by the Christian right. Contrary to what some would have you to believe, people can be Christian yet disagree on major political issues. Why? Because Christ was separate from government. He was neither a capitalist or a socialist. He was not a member of a political party. He was concerned with doing God's work here on earth instead of amassing political power. Scriptures even tell of Christ rejecting a chance to have earthly power when tempted by the forces of evil.
Personally, I am glad to see a leader of our country concerned about our access to healthcare and ways to improve our lives through education. I'm glad our elderly don't have to bargain with insurance salespeople using vouchers as currency. I'm glad people have access to preventive care to prevent problems & not just emergency care to treat problems when they become severe. I want any child who strives toward an educational goal to have a chance of obtaining it unfettered by prohibiting financial limitations. No one can or should be arrogant enough to say they speak for Christ about issues He never addressed while here on earth (abortion and gay marriage for example). However, I don't feel any conflict between Obama's plans on healthcare and desire to help those in poverty have chances to improve their lives and Christ's expressed views on how Christians should treat their neighbors on this earth. Maybe I am the "wrong kind of Christian", too.
Oh, and from a totally nonreligious standpoint, helping our citizenry get a strong education and stay healthy so they can continue to be productive members of society instead of winding up on disability or on unemployment due to limited job skills happens to make economic sense as well.
I saw this dreams of my real father movie and it terrified me to think that any part of it might be true. If it is true God help us and I think it is.
Slick, well-financed propaganda. Don't believe a word of that crap. It's just an obvious, desperate smear job.
That's just silly.
You say that, but you don't care that Romney doesn't even believe Christ is the Son of God??
His whole religion is based on a rejection of Christ the Savior, but you want to post something about Obama that everyone knows is a lie? I remember when everyone was mad at the Wright preacher guy... He was a preacher in Obama's church. You might not like Obama, but obviously that was a Christian Church.
Romney, on the other hand, is a MORMON. Do you not know what that means??
It means Romney does not believe in Christ. It means he and his religion think Jesus Christ was 'just a nice guy'. A "prophet", but NOT the Son of God and Man's Redeemer!!
Michael, I'm not very religious, so Romney's faith is all not a very big deal to me but I sure don't want a communist as my President. Until it's proven as propoagnda, it makes a lot of common sense to me.
It "made a lot of sense"? How? What specifically are you talking about, Debbie? By the way, if you're going to use words, it's a good idea to know what they mean.
You know, words like "communist." I don't think you have a clue what "communism" or "socialism" are.
Unfortunately, it's not his faith or lack of it that Republicans care about.
It's the color of his skin.
You wonder why I say this.
Because they tell me. Because I hear them.
Not true. I love his skin. I would love to have some of it for my private collection.
It has NOTHING to do with skin color, but everything to do with incompetence. Sorry, the more I read about the Libya pre-attack security actions, the post murder/assassination response and the political cover up (to save Obama's political relevance), the more I feel that Obama needs to go.
Obama has been bad for the country because of his ACTIONS and POLICIES–not the color of his skin.
I suck monkeys' azzes in my momma's boxer shorts and smoke cow pies wherever I find them. And if Obama doesn't do something about those stink-bugs in my azz-crack, I'm gonna take care of this here election once and for all.
I know I'm an imbecile. I can't help it. I was dropped on my head repeatedly by my Aunt Fanny who thought she was a squirrel and used to try to carry me around in her teeth and bury me in the compost pile out back.
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.