October 21st, 2012
06:59 AM ET
The Gospel according to Obama
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
5,200 people have =had their say = but not me. You were prevented from reading my cogent observations about the roots of Obama's Christianity by e-censorship. The oleaginous way to conduct such censorship is to couch it in =Terms=. If all 5000 of these comments meet the Rules of Conduct we have discovered what's wrong with the USA. In 2008 I studied Barack's religiosity or lack thereof. Based upon what I learned, I did not want him in the White House, and refrained from voting. I'm staying home this election as well. Fortunately, I'm a dual citizen of the US and Canada.
There are no censors here, only word filters. Get over yourself.
Delusional, paranoid freak...
There are no moderators on this branch of CNN. There is only the nanny filters of wordpress. Of course, those filters only apply to ignorant fundiot nutters.
Those of us who have evolved are not subject to these filters. We can say whatever we fucking want.
I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we are questioning the Presidents faith. Here is a terrific family man with two beautiful daughters and id living the American dream and we're a major news organization is questioning if he is the "right" or "wrong" kind of Christian? How immature and unprofessional have our news media outlets become. Romney is a Mormon and somehow no news organization is willing to talk about it, the faiths roots, and how much it has changed from the early 90's to capitulate to contemporary times. America is for believers and non-believers; plus for all those in between. Have you all forgotten what "Freedom" means in its totality. Remember our founding father escaped from religious persecution in Europe to help create these United States in order to preserve the concept or "freedom" and "Democracy". Don't be fooled by the media outlets. Both President Obama and Mr Romney have the right to believe in what they want, but more importantly our thoughts should be geared towards who is going to preserve and strengthen the concept or "freedom" and "Democracy".
Was there ever a "Right" kind of christian?
Obama is not a Christian. He has publicly converted, because every major politician in this country has to show that he is religious (unfortunately). I don't like religion, but I don't like fakes even more.
“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”
Perhaps you should go back to your bible and re-read the story of the fishes and loaves of bread...just sayin'
Religion – Christianity in particular – should have no relevance (much less any presence) whatsoever in politics or governance. We have this wonderful thing called the Establishment Clause, frequently referred to as Separation of Church and State. It is goodness in the extreme. Religion is a cankerous sore on our politics and our society. If religion is your thing, fine, but don't look for it, or wish for it, in our politics, government or governance – it has no place there.
He isn't one to start with.
Correct; he wears a ring on his left ring-finger with the inscription of the Shahada, the first five pillars of Is lam which is the proclamation of I slamic faith!
@ Anni – False, but you already knew that. You fundiots are so cute when you perpetuate stories that have been debunked as often as this one. Nice try, though.
I wonder if all these hate mongers proclaiming to be Christians understand that their vote for a Heretic instead of a Liberal Christian ( like Jesus was ), will have some real consequences for them? If you all really beleive the Bible you're always quoting, you might want to read the Hellfires of Eternal Damnation& False Prophet parts before you cast your vote. Don't play with fire, play it safe and vote the Christian. If you don't then it's going to be very, very hot where you're going. Ouch!!!
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Real social justice would be to teach the poor job skills usable in todays economy, not lifelong government handouts that leave them dependent on government. I don't mind my tax money helping those truly in need, but I do mind it going to sponges capable of supporting themselves. I have read the bible and I don't recall Jesus ever calling for the government to redistribute wealth, just that the wealthy should help to poor voluntarily, even to the point of selling off their excess property and giving it to the poor.I am convinced the 1% are far outnumbed by those that are poor AND greedy and that all the wealth, if seized, would not be enough to change anything. If we took the estimated trillion in wealth in this country and distributed it to the 50 million or so on welfare, it would amount to about $20,000 each. Would that really be enough to get the poor out of poverty and keep them out of poverty unless they use that money to learn marketable skills? By the way, once the trillion is seized, there would be no more wealth and then who, besides government, could provide jobs?
I'm just thinking through the sound bites and slogans to what would really happen and what the side effects would be.
The Bible clearly states what is expected of a Christian. While President Obama may believe he is still a Christian, he has turned his back on his faith for political expediency. The fact that he has then tried to justify this by distorting what the Bible says is an affront to God and true Christians.
religion has caused more death , destruction and hatred than anything else on this planet......for all of you who BELIEVE..you are all nuts.....its NOT real
prove it!! Oh and by the way greed not belief has caused more death and destruction than anything on this planet, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, all Atheist!! The Roman Empire, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, not religious conflicts!!! Stop blaming religion!
Prayer changes things .
Obama has waged a War on Christianity, and is promoting, and protecting Islam by attacking the Catholic and Baptist Churches forcing them to pay for Abortions, and Obama has lied about a U Tube Video puting down Islam that was done by an Egyptian Orthodox Christian whose family was persecuted by the Muslum Brotherhood in Egypt. Obama used the Video as a Scape Goat to promote Anti-Christianity in the Middle East while blaming the Video for the attack on Bengazi, Libya that killed forur Americans. Obama is not a Christian nor is he a Muslum that studied the Koran as a child in Kenya, and Indonesia. No, Obama is too arogant to believe in God...He is a God or so he thinks, and acts like he is.
Obama believes we are our brothers' keeper. So does Jesus. Mitt does not. Repuiblicans warp Christianity to convey an entirely non-Christian message. End of argument.
@ Bobcat..You are absolutely right, I just pray people see that this president is part of the islamization of the world (I am NOT a conspiracy theorist), before it's too late! I wish people just read about what's going on in other countries and continents before they rush to defend Obama and his likes!
Wow! that's quite a load of crap you spewed there....
a person may not appear Christian and they are and sometimes a person appearing Christian is not. A Pastor may behave, speak and serve like a Christian and may not be a Christian and a person in jail for a felony may be a Christian. When we have a choice, we follow leaders that are examples of Jesus Christ. If the spiritual gift of discernment reveals a leader is not a Christian, you have a personal Call from God on this matter to pray for the Church and your Church and if so instructed by God to reveal this to your Elders. From a reformed view, the Elect are the Elect at every stage of their Christian walk.
Obama is Muslim, not Christian. Only a moron would believe he is Christian!
Prove it. Without using the debunked ring story, what his name is, what his father's religion is, etc.
Seems to me, unless you are God, you have no idea what is in his heart.
Moron speaks out! He is pro abortion, pro gay, pro muslim, anti-Israel, anti-Christian, drinks, lies, steals the tax payers dollars, etc. etc. etc. You will know them by their fruits!
His actions and words reveal his heart. Open your blind eyes and deaf ears.
You need help. I hope that you get it before it is to late.
And any person with more than 2 functioning brain cells would see that you are an imbecile.
I guess you didn't get the message about the brown acid...
AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD
Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)
"Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."
Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;
Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).
Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does BO and his family)(As does Biden and Ryan)
The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.
Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.
I do not believe that Barack Hussein is a Christian nor does he have Christian Values. His middle name and where he was schooled in his youth and what his father stood for is where his mind is. A Christian would belong to the values of attending
Sunday Morning Worship and honoring the World Day of Prayer. Nope he did not!! But the muslim day of prayer was what he attended. And one more thing, a Christian would not strive to be a dictator, but be a leader of We The People.
obama is not striving to be a dictator
he is doing what politicians do
My friend was given a Catholic name, her parents are Catholic, she went to Catholic school and she's a Buddhist. My niece's name is Christian, she went to a private college run by the Presbyterian church and now she's Jewish. Using your theory, given my kids' names, one is Catholic, one is Muslim and one is Jewish. They'd all be astounded to learn that.
Oh, and your whole thing about the National Day of Prayer was debunked by Snopes. Here's a little hint – when you get a mass e-mail, check their site before sending it on – they do a darn good job of investigating.
Romney is not a Christian. He does not belive that Jesus is the Son of God and our Lord. He is a Mormon period.
I did not know that there was such a thing as a wrong Christian. Where does it say that??
You are so correct, You are or you are not. Quite simple. Barrack Hussein Obama seems to prefere the muslim way like his father.
Sonnie3: don't be so stupid.. His father converted to atheism years before Obama was born. Obama was raised by his grandmother who was christian. It's ignorant people likea you tht keeps this country in the dark ages..
The mistake people make is between what Jesus emplored individual people to do and how to live, and what Government should do on behalf of its people.
And what kind of Government policies did Jesus advise? None. He didn't say anything about it. He said as an individual we ought to turn the other cheek, but that doesn't mean that the Commander in Chief should do that as a foreign policy. Because the Commander in Chief doesn't just speak for himself, he has to guard the interests of the whole population.
Jesus said to give to the poor and those in need, and we should do that. But that doesn't mean the President should raise taxes and share out all the wealth. Etc.
As individuals, we ought to follow what Jesus said as revealed in the Bible, but the head of a Government can't enact those as policies. Read Reinhold Niebuhr's 'Moral Man, Immoral Society' for more on this.
I agree – the government shouldn't be passing any laws based on what the Bible says to do. The US government, however, has the obligation to "promote the general welfare" of its population.