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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About this blog
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.
Again CNN with this stupid story that no one cares about:? This is the second time CNN has run this story? You cannot tell America the real news about Obama but you can try to pit him a some how w victim?: WOW! You CNN really are campaign headquarters for Obama.
How can he say he is a Christian? In so many one on one news interviews he always confuses to being a Muslim. Allot of them are posted on u tube.
great timing here CNN. Keep pulling for your guy. story placement and timing are considered a part of the media bias too
have you been reading fixed news' headlines or is that not part of your agenda?
This article cites more evidence that the church age is drawing to a close, going down hill, with the Obama's foot on the gas.
its hard to call a man a Christian, when one of his first and "proudest" acts as president of the united states was to reverse the ban on late term abortions. a process where the child is turned, to be born breach, and the "doctor" jabs a pair of scissors into the skull and then uses a vacuum to suck out the child's brain.
did you sell your soul, obama, using the blood of our innocent to pave your way into history?
what are you on about? when did he 'reverse' this bill and when did he describe it as one of his 'proudest' moments?
so much for truth telling;.
Of course, we must state that mainstream Christian religions (Protestants and Catholics) do not consider Mormonism a Christian religion. I believe Catholics considered the Book of Mormon blasphemous and for all I know still do. This is "newsworthy" and should have been reported along with the above piece...if CNN really wants to go there.
cedar rapids, are you honestly unaware Obama made it illegal to help a baby that survives an abortion? I know your not from illinois but you should do some reading...
A person's faith and whether or not he/she is a sinner is no one else's earthly business. That's between you and God on the day of YOUR judgement. Let he is w/o sin... ? A person's faith in a position of leadership should be nothing more than a moral compass, not a prerequisite or a requirement. If an atheist turned this country and brought prosperity and social equality the evangelicals would denounce it as the work of the devil. So many self-righteous people need to learn to leave God in the clouds and come back to earth.
These right wing, so-called no-it-all Christians would do well to read Mathew 25 31- 46
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungrey, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
is there one in your list about:
give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
constant handouts don't work they create dependency and ultimately take away the self-respect of the very people you are trying to help.
is there one in your list about:
give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
constant handouts don't work they create dependency and ultimately take away the self-respect of the very people you are trying to help."
and what does the person live on while you are teaching him to fish? and will you supply him with the equipment to be able to fish, and guarantee him a fishing hole in which to fish once he is taught? if not then you have someone who can fish but still goes hungry.
there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong in providing a support structure to help people during tough times, it demeans no one in providing them with that support.
oh and by the way, you know that fish quote isnt biblical right? its actually a chinese proverb.
"He has been called the Anti-Christ". Well, so has Prince Charles. Does CNN have high school students writing the headlines these days? Tone down the drama and report the news. Dram, Drama, Drama.
"Nobody ever went broke underestimating American taste." – P.T. Barnum
They called Reagan the anti-Christ, too. You can't say you've really made it in the world of politics until someone calls you Hitler or the anti-Christ.
my wife's cousin says he stil isnt convinced obama isnt the anti-christ.......and hes serious.
So what I took away from this article is that no body knows what this guy believes but a lot of people think they do.
I'm must be a true Christian...I believe that the earth is only 9,000 years old, that the Flintstones had a pet dinosaur, and that Fred ate brontoburgers.
No, no, no. There were no dinosaurs. Those bones were put there by God to test our faith. Because how old the Earth is is something that He actually cares whether or not we have faith in. Or something. IDK. It's ridiculous.
The Dude manipulates the bible just like he manipulates everything else. He wears enough Christian on him to secure as much as the Christian vote as he can. Dude's a fake and I will never call him president
If people really care about this issue, then let them read the teachings of Jesus and see whether Obama conforms. I think most people would agree that a Christian is a follower of Christ. So is he following? Many with the name Christian are not following, conservative and liberal alike. Jesus himself says that many will say to him "Lord, Lord" on the last day and will be denied.
Finally, the only judgment that matters is God's. We are just the peanut gallery.
There are bigger and more important things to worry about in this country right now which many are a result of the person who is president and his beliefs! I agree with the "Sounds a lot like the authentic Muslim." And ......He still hasn't lost his " pimp walk"!!
This whole article was complete and utter horse crap. I was born Catholic (as were my father and mother) but I'm an atheist. What religion you were 'raised' in doesn't make you one faith or another; we have religious freedom in this country. We are not bound to the precepts of our ancestors.
And it always cracks me up when the far right call Obama a "Muslim"; these were the same people in 2008 (during the campaign) who said he was a bad "Christian" because of his 'radical' pastor (the one who married he and Michelle). They had no problem accepting he was a Christian during the campaign, but after he won and they were desperate to find cracks in his character? He was a Muslim, not a 'bad Christian.'
To me, as an atheist, the whole faith argument sounds like who'd win in a fight; Superman or the Hulk? It's people killing and dying over a fantasy afterlife that may or may not exist; instead of getting together and solving our issues in THIS life.
Religion, what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING.
Our numbers are rising... they'll have to take us seriously as a demographic before too long....
It is sad to say that a person like you stray away from your family values, but I respect your non belief in religion. Hopefully someday, God will call you to go back to him and that time you will realize those traditions from your parents. Believe me, there was a time when I was teenager that I kept questioning about the existence of God.
It is sad to say that a person like you stray away from your family values"
you confuse religion and values, they are not the same.
Don't pick on Jack... it's all part of the indoctrination. It's kind of like a disease. He can't help his misconceptions.
closet atheist. You need to come out of the closet (in more ways than one).
I'm tired of these "holier than thou" Jesus freaks. They're all hate-mongering hypocrites.
who is hateful again?
How funny. How, pray tell, do you ascribe hate to the overwhelming love of GOD? There are always fake followers, so states Christ. Being "born again" is a return to the relationship prior to the sin in the Garden by Adam and Eve which separated them from walking with HIM every moment of every day. You must have this relationship to enter heaven which is the progression of a relationship that begins by being "born again". Knowing HIM personally is the most wonderful relation!! To know that you are HIS, that HE is in control, that HE protects, loves and directs my path...THAT is worth everything!! HE longs to include you! As far as what you have written, please see that you come closer to the hate you abhor than does my post and life. 🙂
Bible, Kuran, and Bhagwat Geeta are beyond our material intelectual. Search for a God Realized Saint, surrender your mind and intelectual to HIM then you will be able to understand what is written in the Bible. read " Prem Ras Sidhant -Philoshopy of Divine Love, by Jagadguru Shree Kripaluji Maharaj.
“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. Sounds like just an average joe who will feel your pain while president
Notice, he didn't mention the Book of Mormon.
You do not have to be "born again" to be a Christian.
Actually, Jesus taught that you must be "born again" so your statement is the very definition of false. Maybe you just don't understand that being a "Christian" means you follow the teachings of Christ....?
"J R Brown
Actually, Jesus taught that you must be "born again" so your statement is the very definition of false. Maybe you just don't understand that being a "Christian" means you follow the teachings of Christ....?"
oh please, the born agains are just another cult offshoot of christianity, their view of what is the 'right way' carries just the same weight as all the others
Cedar Rapids, you are so intolerant and hateful sounding...you have inspired me to become a born againer.
Cedar Rapids, you are so intolerant and hateful sounding...you have inspired me to become a born againer."
i bet i havent. you know lying is a sin right?
Being "born again" is a return to the relationship prior to the sin in the Garden by Adam and Eve which separated them from walking with HIM every moment of every day. You must have this relationship to enter heaven which is the progression of a relationship that begins by being "born again". Knowing HIM personally is the most wonderful relation!! To know that you are HIS, that HE is in control, that HE protects, loves and directs my path...THAT is worth everything!!
now cedar rapids is being judgmental too!...quick somebody give me the name and number of a born again pastor so I can join the ranks.
Way to go Cedar Rapids! now we lost another one . You're doing us more harm than good!
oh please, the born agains are just another cult offshoot of christianity, their view of what is the 'right way' carries just the same weight as all the others"
Now why are you lying about this along with Christie Ley when I gave you the biblical text (John 3:3) regarding this just yesterday? You no longer even care about integrity do you? You MUST be born again or you cannot enter Heaven.
Maybe having a Mormon president will finally show Evangelicals how it feels to be oppressed by a religion that isn't their own. Federal bans on alcohol because that's offensive to Mormons. In any case, at least Christians will longer be able to call Mormonism a cult religion. Christians will legitimize Mormonism as a full-fledged religion on Election Day. Sell their souls and vote Mormon.
That's not going to happen. I'm a Catholic Christian, and nothing is going to make a Mormon a Christian, until they recognize and accept the trinity!
don't worry John, without Ohio we have 4 more years of hope and change to endure first...
When all else fells bring up race, gender and/or religion.