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.
The fact that religion is even a factor in choosing the president highlights the sad state of political affairs in the US.
So much for separation of church and state.
Let's not forget that this was the party that shunned the word GOD from their convention!
and rightly so. religion has no place in politics
But then they voted it back in, with a "supermajority" of about 35% of the conventiongoers. That was classic!
Hell th emore I read about him the more I think he may be the real deal manchurian candidate. His entire life is series of conflicting stories. Most would agree that generally tends to mean many are lies or truths reformulated to sound better. How can he seriously claim to not have known Rev Wright was a whack job?!?!? He himself said the guy married him and he attended his church for years and years. I think he is a christian because Chicago is a christian/catholic town and america as a whole is a majority of christian religions. Who knows what he really is...probably an athiest...which would be fine with me if he would just tell the truth. I don't believe a single word this guy says almost ever...heck he probably even secretly hates beer as he brews it up for the cameras in the white house kitchen....
"Hell th emore I read about him the more I think he may be the real deal manchurian candidate. His entire life is series of conflicting stories."
only to the right wing-nut conspiracy theorists.
"In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology"
So he views the Bible, the Koran, and these other books of "myths" as equivalent. Pretty much reinforces the view I have developed from listening to him speak.
well of course, they are all mythology, its the right place for them
He said, all those books were on the bookshelf, like they would be in any very smart household.
What he didn't say is which ones he preferred, Good Old Boy. He said that, be saying he is a Christian.
Is he not talking all "Praise the Lawdy" enough for you? Is there not enough dripping with religion to satisfy you? You prefer Good Old White Boys who make a big show of religion, practically slobber over it?
He's clearly not a Christian, IMO. Whether you think that's a good or bad thing is up to you. I just wish he'd be honest about it.
He was talking about those books were all in his household as he was growing up. He did not say weather he still has all of those books in his household today. You can't really dictate what your parents will do while you are a child.
So you mean the book from the "Christian" myth should be held at a higher standard than others?
"Dreams of my father" should be corrected to "Dreams from my Father"
Every Christian is the wrong kind of Christian. When you stop believing in fairy tales and using them to make yourself and others miserable, then you will become the right kind of Christian – an EX-Christian.
I'm not sure what a "liberial" is, but I like the progressive part. It's certainly better than regressive.
Obama isn't religious....you have to be a human first, to possess a soul. No, he is a kenyan, muslim nagger. Why even pretend?
You must be one of those correct type of Christians. You are the type of Christian I'm most familiar with.
Intelligent people, just ignore this idiot. He probably thinks the same of all black people he sees.
You are soooooooo right!
What a waste of news space with a meaningless article on religious beliefs of president Obama. he is a true christian just like any of us. Please stop making stupid comments on his beliefs.
and you wonder why christians get such a bad rep.
So he isn't religious, but is a Muslim? How does that make any sense?
wow. Not even embarrassed to be a racist? Who let you out of the closet with their subtle approval of your fears and hatred? Let me guess... Rush Limbaugh? Sam Brownback? Pat Robertson? Michelle Bachmann?
I don't know about the "wrong kind of Christian", but he sure is the "wrong kinda of president"...
With all due respect to CNN, this is bunk. Fundamentalists have less use for Mormons than faux Chrsitians like the president but they got over it for an election this important. Obama is a Christian of convenience.
Aren't they all? Christians (and jews and muslims) believe in their faith because of fear. It's rather inconvenient, going to hell for eternity, isn't it? Hypocrites all.
How insulting. I'm also a member of the UCC. We are Christian. Just not the ugly, judgemental kind.
How do you know whether someone is a Christian from convenience or for some other reason? What criteria is used for deciding such a thing?
Like both Bushs, like Nixon, like Clinton, like Johnson, etc etc etc.
Well, Bush Jr might have been the real deal. He needed it to stay in Recovery. Look how well that worked...
Reverend Gary Cass embodies the hypocrisy of his own religion better than anyone else I've read about.
The fact that we have a large portion of this country that actually believe Obama is a secret Muslim means it should fall apart.
You people don't deserve this country anymore.
Obama is a Christian.
Romney is not.
That seems pretty clear to me.
Obama is a fake. In religion and politics. I am sorry I voted for him in 2008.
Right wing Christians feel they have a manopoly on Christianity, yet they are accepting Romney as a Christian. Come on people you are giving a bad name to the faith.
That's a loaded question. You can't support the Gay agenda and still support Christian.
Well, Christ calls us to support ALL persons. So,.... there it is. The UCC is a Christian church that believes is doing what Christ calls us to do, not what the old testiment says was good for people before Christ. Jesus changed everything. Read the book. All of it. Not just the part about being gay. How about the part where we love all people. The part were all are welcome at the table.
Babs I agree.
There is no such thing as the "right" kind of Christian. All are wrong!
It's called a "wrong" Truth!
Why is it that so many of the religious nutters seem to think we should employ some type of religious means test for our political candidates?
I so agree.
The non-religious do it all the time, so what's the difference?
"The non-religious do it all the time, so what's the difference?"
you think so huh? ok then.
The authentic Christian doesn't have a vote this election. Can't vote for the cult guy masquerading as a Christian while blaspheming, and can't vote for guy supports gay marriage either.
Sounds a lot like the authentic Muslim.
I think priests should marry.....each other. Maybe if they were busy arguing about who is going to do the dishes tonight, they would keep their mits off little boys.
"Sounds a lot like the authentic Muslim."
How so, no doctrines were posted? That wasn't too well thought out on your part then now was it?
Your archaic way of thinking by following a silly book needs to go the way of the dinosaurs.
For anyone who has attended a UCC church, you'd understand Obama's religious journey and beliefs. It is not about adherence to a strict creed or the literal truth of the Bible. It is not about punishment. The individual church may be a member of the UCC, but the congregation owns the building, chooses the minister, and chooses how they govern themselves. The denomination exerts no control, but does provide organizational support.
It does not enforce a creed, it does not disparage other beliefs. And, yes, the social mission is very important. Orthodoxy is not. UCC does not demonize other religions or denominations. One can argue that the fundamentlists adhere more to the phliosophy of the paternalistic, wrathful God of the Old Testament, rather than the redemptive social justice message of Jesus Christ from teh New Testament. Feed the Hungry. Matthew 25:40 How you treat the least of my brothers is how you treat me. Although even the Old Testament has Proverbs 14:31: He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
After reading that think you need repent, turn to Christ, and find another church. In that order.
Very well said.
After reading that think you need repent, turn to Christ, and find another church. In that order."
repent for what exactly? believing you should help people? thats a no-no to you is it?
You need to repent for your votes and repent for your church and join that inane person's tribe. That is what that inane person said.
"repent for what exactly? believing you should help people?"
A doctrine of performing acts of civil righteousness is not gonna get you to Heaven. So again, repent.
"A doctrine of performing acts of civil righteousness is not gonna get you to Heaven. "
depends on your motivation for doing so, in the same way that generous acts of charity wont either if the reason you are doing it to try to buy your way in.
the two most spoken words in the New Testament are power and poor. Jesus was all about helping the poor and that takes power. Actions speak louder than words and that where UCC is.
"depends on your motivation for doing so, in the same way that generous acts of charity wont either if the reason you are doing it to try to buy your way in."
Wrong yet again. Salvation is not by works so it doesn't matter what your motivation is. And why are you bent on fighting your way into Hell by still arguing after receiving sound counsel time and again?
"And why are you bent on fighting your way into Hell by still arguing after receiving sound counsel time and again?"
are you claiming you are the one giving this 'sound counsel'? the ego of you.
"are you claiming you are the one giving this 'sound counsel'? the ego of you."
Ego has nothing to do with it. That counsel comes straight out of the bible, nitwit. You're so ignorant of the bible that you don't even realize that.
What kind of question is that? They are ALL the wrong kind!!
One meant to drive the forums crazy with right wing nut job post.
Not all. EX-Christians are just fine 🙂
Leave Obama alone and his religious choices.... it's his personal life....who are you to judge others of what kind of religious beliefs they should have? I thought we live in a country where freedom of religion is one of our "rights" so why not leave him his right and leave him alone. There are bigger and more important things to worry about in this country right now so get back to work and stop backbiting!
Because a lot of people whether religious or NOT, as you will read from these posts, seem to believe it justified that everyone else MUST believe as they do themselves or that person is messed up somehow. There is no "allowing a person to believe or not as it suits their own person" rather both Atheist and non-Atheist, it really doesn't matter who, simply isn't happy unless they are allowed to pass judgement on their fellow man or woman as if they ARE the master of the human race. Why some feel they must stick their nose in the business of others is a curious question.
Okay religion is a person's own business but if he is Christian he realizes that Jesus went through a lot of ridicule. Where do people think that Obama is above being ridiculed. Obama is the one who started the controversy when he was sworn in on the Bible or was it the Koran we shall never be privileged to know. Obama declared war on religion when he declared this is not a Christian nation. He would not recognize World Day of Prayer and yet he entertained the Muslims in DC during their religious holiday. He has the appearance of being non Christian. Obama is the one who declared war on religion and he will be the one held accountable by God our Creator. Remember Satan knows the Bible really well and Satan is the great deceiver. Obama is giving all the appearance that he is trying to redefine Christianity. A person is or is not a Christian and cannot be iffy on it. Yes God alone is the great judge but as Christians we have a right to question. Obama is only a man and not a messiah.
"Obama is the one who started the controversy when he was sworn in on the Bible or was it the Koran we shall never be privileged to know."
dont be dumb all your life, you can see the bible he was sworn in on in the video of his swearing in.
"Obama declared war on religion when he declared this is not a Christian nation"
obama said the US was not JUST a christian nation, and he is absolutely right.
"Obama is the one who declared war on religion"
when? its a nice right wing talking point but baseless.
"Obama is giving all the appearance that he is trying to redefine Christianity"
no, apparently he just differs on what your version of it is, other christians dont have the same issue as you.
sorry petermg but lying is a sin and you are steeped in it right now.