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.
Think the very question is racist. I never heard that type of question about Clinton.
Call me ignorant but I don't think Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?? Isn't that why all the conflict in the middle east. He is a wolf in sheepskin cloths people. Please open your eyes.
Anne, if you are religious you need to put down your one book and read others. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all read the same old Testament and believe in the same god. It is the messiah they disagree about. Jews = none, Christians = Jesus, Muslims = Muhammed. That's where the conflict arises.
As a religious person, you should not even be involved in politics. Didn't "God" say to leave Cesar's things to Cesars (taxes etc), but God's things to God (the world, its people and who they must obey)?
And if you actually are Christian, didn't Jesus say "For you (my disciples) are no part of this world, as I am no part of this world?" Christians are such hypocrites.
Prime example of why ALL religion is false, the only certain fact is that it is a business dreamed up by clever charlatans eons ago.
OK, your wish is my pleasure. You are ignorant. It is the SAME GOD.
For pete's sake, how can you be that ignorant in this age of mass media?
Then you are ignorant.
@Iathebiosas you need to read more too. Muhammed is not a messiah in Islam mythology. He is a prophet. Other Muslim prophets include Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Muslims believe that in the end times Jesus will revisit the earth and fight in the final battle too.
But in all seriousness, if I had to put my bet on Obama's religion, it would be athiest, because he seems to act like a grown up who doesn't need make believe friends.
I'm sure others have commented, but the UCC Is not a predominantly black denomination by any stretch. Trinity UCC in Chicago is predominantly black, but they do not reflect the racial make up of the denomination as a whole.
Why should I care what his religion is? I care about one thing; that he continues to be president, the Senate/House become blue, and that he will finally be able to do his job.
Obama is a thinking, global minded Christian...a thing that is becoming rarer and rarer. Contrary to Obama, the country is full of Christians who proclaim that they are pro-life yet will not condemn the sale of AK47's, or think that we should spend even more of our GNP on the military, or that we need to bomb here and bomb there, or who are anti-immigration and, in the epitome of hypocrisy, take communion at the church but don't want to share a penny with the poor (you know, the 47%). What a strange article! For goodness sake, Christ supposedly wore sandals, threw the money lenders out of the church, fasted and proclaimed community and selflessness. Without a doubt, Christianity has been hijacked and perverted by a myopic, bigoted and selfish people.
I too doubt Obama's faith. That's why I like him.
The question is why Obama converted to Christianity. Well, it's not really a question – he is a fake in everything, including religion. Obama's Christianity is an instrument for his career. I am sorry I voted for him in 2008. No more.
First of all, I want to know why the report is questioning Mr. Obama's religious beliefs? Who or what do you think you are? How damn dare you!
And to all of you who continue to want to believe that he was ever Muslim, you are extremely ignorant. Barack Obama was raised by his white mother and her parents. He has never practiced the Muslim faith.
If you all weren't small minded bigots you would have reconciled this issue long ago but attending all those "Klan meetings? must keep you pretty busy.
Lastly, President....I will say it again President Obama has done a better job then his processor. There was so much support for that nut that you all voted him in for a second term. He is the real reason for all the debt issues in this country when he sent us into two (count them) wars!!! But hey, he was the right kind of "Christian"????
When it comes to Religion, the best comment is no comment.
That's so true! But the empty bucket makes the most noise.
Read the inscription on our Presidents ring. It's a prayer to Alah and professes his belief in his God Alah. He has professed his faith to his Muslim religion. He is Muslim. Period.
I can't see it in the photo....
Anne, It's almost 9:00 am! Now to school! It's very important to finish the Sisth Grade so you can move on to the Seventh Grade next year. School is very important Anne; once you have a good education there's no limit to what you can do with your life; but you have to finish school and lean alot of things first. Now get!!!
Here are the pictures CLOSE UP of the ring, Anne. They are swirlies. Turn off the crazy. (snopes is the link)
Anne, you must of been kicked in the head as a child by a horse. There is no such ring in Mr. Obama's possessions. Nice try though. Must be all the drugs you take.
What? If a Muslim publicly says he is a Christian – he can be put to death. If ignorance is bliss – you must be very happy. God forbid, a Christian who doen't believe the same way you do! American Christianity has little resemblance to what Christ or the Apostles preached and lived. You reject a Progressive Christian – but will vote for a Mormon? Makes no sense!
Obama is the only kind of christian I can respect: intelligent, decent and kind. It is the "conservatives" that are totally wrong kind of christians
Check out the prayer to Alah on our Presidents wedding ring. He wears this in full light of his Muslim faith and believes in not our Christian faith but his Muslim faith. Call it was it is please. . He is Mislim and has said so many times and is proud of it.
This is, of course, another fucking tea bagger lie. Do you idiots have no shame?
Obama has mastered the art of playing both sides of the religious faiths like it was his own fiddle but I doubt he can be christian and Islamic at one time. He alternates slightly between each faith depending on which crowd has gathered but without any great devoutness showing to ether. He shows only enough skin to keep both sides interested.
what do you mean by "our christian faith" ?
By "our" you must mean "my"(yours), because it's not mine.
And if it turns out that he is a muslim? So What?? It's no crazier than christianity.
Wow. You're gullible. Stop reading the tabloids.
Gary, no, he is never "alternating" between both faiths. He is just plain old Christian.
What is he supposed to be rude to every Muslim he meets?
Remember Bush playing kissy face with the Arab Prince?
Does that make him an Arab?
You know, so many people believe Obama is a secret Muslim that it draws them out to vote against him. The scary thing is that might actually motivate enough people to vote against him and change the Presidency. NOT based on policy, but based on pure hatred based on lies peddled at them for years.
Anne, seriously? Please tell your psychiatrist to increase the dosage of your meds.
Who decides if you are the 'right' kind of Christian? GOD. You folks standing in judgement of others better watch out for your own judgement day. This conversation started when 'W' was in the White House. My, my Republican are still carrying on this righteous nonesense.
"Easy on the zeal Churchos… I've got something to say. Don't you get it? It's all Christianity, people! The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!"
Bart, The Simpsons
Ah, so true! 🙂
Yeah it's all the same brand of crazy however you look at it.
Obama ? I don't know what he believes in. Looks like he believes in socialism, weakening this country and taking God out of everything. Actions speak louder than words here.
George W. put God in everything, and he's the actual reason why our country is so weak these days, or did you lose your long-term memory?
It was Bush and the repubs that destroyed our economy and weakened our economy....but thank god you can blame Obama
When did this giant idea pop up that any ism but capitalism is bad? I don't understand the child like mindset of some people. It's a system of government, not some Hitleresque philosophy
Yes Audra, speaking up for and caring for the poor and the elderly,winning the Nobel Peace Prize, keeping this country safe for the past four years,being a faithful husband and father to his children. This heinous behaviour is anything but Christian and needs to be stopped.
But these people have to lie about Obama, how can they admit the truth that they can't stand the idea of a black man in the white house?
Any non-Catholic Christian is wrong' kind of Christian?
Guys really? All his actions are far from anything deemed christian. The man cant even say a simple pledge and cover his heart. And yet he stand for a country that promotes "In God We Trust". Wake Up everyone!!!!!!!!!
Saying the pledge and putting your hand over your heart having nothing to do with being a Christian. Also, the situation you are referring to was when the national anthem was being played while Obama was running for President. It is not tradition to put your hand over year heart when the national anthem is being played. Finally, "In God We Trust" was not adopted as the official motto of the United States until 1956 and is not a promotion. Make sure you check your facts before responding.
Wake up? I see you need a wake up from Dr. Drew! Get of dem drugs. You have never seen him not cover his heart. Put the crack pipe down and walk away
Christians would rather vote for a white Mormon who believes God lives on Kolob and that one can get his own planet like Jesus than vote for a black Christian. Yes, race is more important than religion to them. To rationalize and justify voting for a candidate from the Mormon cult, they need to convince themselves that Obama is a Muslim and not a Christian regardless of how many times he says he is Christian (as if a Muslim would deny Islam). But George Bush says he's "born-again" in his 40s and the Christians fully accepted him at his word.
They also still accuse him of not being a natural born American. Anything to pretend that his presidency was invalid. It's amazing how many of us can simply create their own reality out of their imaginations.
So it's ok to vote based on someones religion...but not based on the skin color? Both are quite arbitrary things.
Genetics is not arbitrary. Religion, in a free country, is a choice.
Why is this even being discussed? Religion and politics are separate! Let's worry about bigger things please. GOD – Protect me from your followers...
I agree, Dean. It's an absolutely inconsequential point to question any political representative's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. It's ludicrous that our society requires its president to be a "righteous" Christian. It's counter to our supposed separation of church and state. It's dangerous. How is our religious perquisite for a president any different (however more subtle) than the Islamic theocracies we so despise? We'll have an openly lesbian, black, female, but "Christian" president before we'll ever elect an atheist to the office!
Obama does not have a clear religous path just as he does not have a clear presidential path. His life and actions are full of contradictions. That is why he is failing as a leader. He is not the end all to be all leader that everyone hoped he would be.
Having a "clear religous path" leads to absolute certainty, like that felt by the 9/11 terrorists. I prefer leaders who aren't stuck in the old black vs white mode of thinking we outgrew as a nation back in the 60s.
Steve who is the end all leader ! Please take a moment and look back at all POUS. And then find the end all.
The world is changing. And Bush and Obama have done everything they can to keep American stron. However, Americans are short attention span, lazy, non-supportive...and blame everyone but themself.
It is up to us as Americans to led in our life, our family, and then help others...stop blaming the POUS because the rest of the world is catching up.
In my brand of Christianity, Jesus fed the hungry; heal the sick; and loved thy neighbor. I am tired of "judgmental, so-called Christians" who place people in compartmentalized boxes of who is and is not 100% Christian. No one has a clear religious path. That's why there is so much diversity in religion. Who are you or me to determine who is or who is not. I doubt that Jesus would support the mean spirit of this election process and the greed of the one per cent. When the bible was written, the church fathers, not Jesus or Peter, determined its contents. Get learning. The truth shall set you free.
In St. Luke 21:1-3: And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all. President Obama practices my kind of Christianity.