The Gospel according to Obama
President Obama is not just a racial trailblazer, but some say a religious pioneer as well. No president has ever shared his type of Christianity, historians say. Some say he may revive a form of Christianity that once dominated America.
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.

The 1925 “Monkey” trial of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher who taught evolution, drove fundamentalists underground, some say.

Mansfield says Obama is the first president who wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Obama’s mother was an atheist and his grandparents were religious skeptics (Obama’s family has challenged the description of his mother as an atheist. Obama called her “the most spiritually awakened” person he’d ever known, and his sister called their mother an agnostic).

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Mansfield called Obama’s boyhood a “religious swirl.  He was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, and strains of Hinduism and Buddhism while growing up in Indonesia during the 1960s.

“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”

Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominantly black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.

Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.

In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:

“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”

When many people think of Obama’s religious experience in Chicago, though, they cite his exposure to the angry sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and “black liberation theology,” a movement that emerged in the late 1960s and blended the Social Gospel with the black power movement.

Bass, the church historian, says another black pastor shaped Obama’s theology more: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He attended liberal Protestant seminaries where he learned about the Social Gospel’s concern for the entire person, soul and body.

Obama has reached out to evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, seen here praying at Obama’s inauguration, but many still doubt his faith.

King once wrote that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them …is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

But King and the black church also fused the Social Gospel with an emotional fervor missing from white Protestant churches, Bass says. Other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by the Social Gospel, but they weren’t shaped by the black church.

“This is the first time we’re hearing the Social Gospel from the perspective of the black church from the Oval Office. It makes it warmer, more emotive, more communal," Bass says. "There is less fear of linking the Social Gospel with the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Exodus and Jesus’ healings.”

The emphasis on community uplift - not individual attainment - may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.

King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”

“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”

Obama is not a Christian, some think

For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity.

Jesus was nonviolent. Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Afghanistan that have not only removed terrorists, but killed civilians.

The Bible talks about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Obama invoked Jesus when he came out in support of same-sex marriage. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule," Obama told ABC News during his announcement.

Jesus talked about helping the poor. But he never said anything about creating a massive health care law that taxed the rich to help the poor, some Christians argue.

But Wallis of Sojourners says Obama’s push for health care was a supreme example of Christian faith.

A situation where 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance is “a fundamental Christian problem,” Wallis says.

“Health is such a Gospel issue. Jesus was involved in healing all the time, and to have some people excluded from health care because they lack wealth is a fundamental Christian contradiction.”

Wallis has been one of the most persistent defenders of Obama’s faith. But no matter how much Scripture he and others cite, doubts about Obama’s faith have followed him throughout his political career.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson once said that Obama distorted the traditional understanding of the Bible “to fit his own world, his own confused theology.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, publicly questioned Obama’s faith, then later apologized.

Conservative Christian books and websites are filled with stories of Obama allegedly trying to suppress the nation’s Christian heritage.

The Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” says Obama is trying to change the national motto from “In God we Trust” to “Out of Many, One,” and he’s ordered the Pentagon to remove biblical verses from its daily report.

“That’s the most serious thing someone can do to a nation, trying to separate a nation from God,” he says. “He seems to be trying to change the Christian laws our Founding Fathers made.”

Andrew says Obama is actually an enemy of Christianity. In his book, Andrew argues that the Founding Fathers were Christians who created a “covenant Christian nation” and calls for a “national repentance.”

“I think he’s an anti-Christ,” Andrew says.  Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity.

Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says.

“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”

Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights also disqualifies him from being a Christian, Cass says.

“It’s the most pro-abortion administration in the history of America.  On every social issue – the sanctity of life and of marriage between men and women – Obama is on the wrong side of every moral issue,” he says.

He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.

“No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible,” Cass says. “These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.”

Cass says he doesn’t know what Obama believes.

“He’s conflicted,” Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."

How progressive Christianity lost the public square

There was a time when Obama’s brand of Christianity would have been understood by millions of Americans, historians say.

Obama along with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha leave church after attending a Sunday prayer service.

The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.

The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.

Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.

“The notion that religious people should be about feeding the poor and helping the homeless is a carryover of the Social Gospel,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio. The Social Gospel was adopted by many Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, says Bass, the church historian. Some of the Social Gospel churches grew popular because they provided the poor with everything from English classes to sewing instructions and basketball leagues.

“The first American megachurches were liberal, Social Gospel urban churches,” Bass says.

The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.

But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.

Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”

The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.

That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.

“They have millions of adherents who believe in a literal six day creation and a literal Adam and Eve – so it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felten says.

Progressive Christians eventually lost the messaging wars to this fundamentalist subculture, Bass says. Their nuanced view of faith couldn’t compete with the “spiritual triumphalism” of conservatives.

“If you get up and say we’re right and we have the truth, then you have a powerful public message,” she says. “They have a theological advantage in the public discourse. It’s comforting to have things clear, to have things black and white.”

The result today is that the Protestant tradition that shapes much of Obama’s Christianity is fading from public view.

The share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

White mainline Protestants make up only 15% of the nation’s population, the survey revealed. The study also found that the fastest growing "religious group" in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.

Another generation of Christians, though, may bring a new version of progressive Christianity back.

The lines between younger conservative Christians and progressives are blurring, says Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”

Pally spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She says her research revealed that more than 60% of young evangelicals support more governmental programs to aid the needy, as well as more emphasis on economic justice and environmental protection issues.

“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” she says.

Her perspective suggests that Obama’s faith may be treated by history in two ways:

He could be seen as the last embodiment of a progressive version of Christianity that went obsolete.

Or he could be seen as a leader who helped resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church • Courts • Creationism • Culture & Science • Culture wars • Evolution • evolvution • Faith • Fundamentalism • Gay marriage • Gay rights • God • History • Homosexuality • Interfaith issues • Obama • Protestant • Religious liberty • Same-sex marriage • Schools • Science

soundoff (8,626 Responses)
  1. gladiatorgrl

    so if Christians founded our nation? ... would that be the one's that burned people at the stake for being non-believers? The ones that initiated the Trail of Tears?? the ones that gave blankets infected with small pox to people so they could TAKE their land? the ones that benefitted from slavery and oppression of the poor? are those the "values" that founded our nation? REALLY??

    or was it the agnostics/freemasons that wrote NO STATE SPONSORED RELIGION?

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  2. rstlne

    Here's the thing – the Bible may well have initially been the "Word of God," but it has been copied and translated and literally changed by human MEN for over two thousand years now. We have no idea exactly what books were meant to be in the bible and what are there just because of the decisions of human men, who often had real-world considerations about power and politics on their minds as well as their "religion." The Council of Nicea is just one example of the meddling of human men in the wording of the Bible. To insist on taking the Bible completely literally in this day and age is to me unfathomable. If people are going to insist on that, then why don't they all just go right back to living as if they were alive during Jesus' lifetime? Why not give up all of the comforts that science and technology have provided, as the Amish have basically done? To do any less would be the height of hypocrisy.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • gladiatorgrl

      in the OT man is just a pawn in between a fight between one who thinks he's omnipotent and one who said NOT!! I mean if one had to bet per the right wing the talking snake's winning.... you know evolutions a lie from the pit of hell... what a WHOPPER that is huh?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  3. ohiomark

    Actually, some believe Obama is really a secret Muslim, and not a practicing Christian. We all know how most Muslims feel about America and the western world. Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • sam stone

      "We all know how most Muslims feel about America"

      Beware the moron making sweeping generalizations

      October 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  4. Chaing

    It has been the conservative evangelicals who have turned me off to religion along with all other fudamentalist so called 'Christians'. All have been wackos in my experience! If left to them we would have a very scary America....not far from stake burnings, religious wars and internal persecutions. They have no right to call our President "the wrong kind of Christian". Personally, I think we should be taxing churches the same as businesses.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  5. Well... Duh

    Of course he is, he allowed Gay Marriages... didn't he.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • sam stone

      How is he "allowing gay marriage"? Equal rights are protected under the 14th amendment. To not allow it violates the 14th amendment. if that bothers you, perhaps you can go know yourself in a biblical manner

      October 22, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  6. StellaLuna

    Where is this "Christian Grip" this MSM is talking about?
    Freedom to practice your religion, as long as you don't engage in criminal activity, is legal and protected.
    Abortion is legal and protected.
    Women's rights are legal and protected (it's up to an employer to set your wage, BTW)
    I just don't get it. As a woman my rights are secured. The rest is up to me. I just don't get this placing blame on
    PS...I'm an atheist and think all this MSM rhetoric is divisive and the agenda of the globalist/libralist/whiney minority,.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • lib19

      I agree. These libs are still living in the 1950's.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • gladiatorgrl

      Suggested reading: The Family by Jeff Sharlatt. IF you really think it's all much ado about nothing.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  7. John

    Jesus often told us to give of our substance to help the poor. He never said take from somebody else to give of their substance to help the poor. That is up to them to make that choice, or not, and deal with the consequences of their own actions.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • StellaLuna

      Hitting Nail on Head with the Truth Alert!
      thanks, John.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  8. josebear5

    listin to him he's has open the whitehouse to muslims and terious.I don't want that kind of man as president.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Pam R.

      What an idiotic statement. Obama is more christian than the right wing put together with their 'holier-than-thou' policies. It is ignorant people like you who put nuts like Bush and Romney in office who do far more harm than good with their darn wars, etc. Very religious sending people to their deaths. You don't deserve to be able to vote you lunatic!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • sam stone


      thanks for illustrating the opposition clearly and succinctly.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  9. Will

    Obama is NOT a Christian! How many times does the Imperial White Knights of the Tea Klux Klan need to remind you?

    October 22, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  10. David Taylor Jr.

    Reblogged this on David's Blog of Common Sense.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  11. stacy100

    please who say..."leave obama alone and his religion", are not religious people. That's what you do not understand. A True Christian can not turn off their Christianity for their job. They are Christians, night and day, week after week, whether you like it or not. Also, Jesus was never saying that Rome or the Roman governement should take care of the weak/sick/poor. That is to be the job of Christians.....the church.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  12. lilygirl

    I would like Mr Andrew Cass to tell me to my face that I am not a Christian. I am a whole hearted follow of Jesus Christ. I am a white, middle class American woman. I am pro-life & support gay marriage. I do not have an "emotional" conversion story & do not tell everyone I meet that I am a "born again" Christian. I know what my faith is, what it means to follow Christ & I prayerfully share my faith with those whom the spirit leads me to. Jesus did not turn away those that did not fit into Mr Cass' mold, that was the Sadducees & the Pharisees. I voted for President Obama in the last election & he has my support this year as well.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • livingston

      Well said.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  13. Believer

    As a Christian, I know that it is not my place to decide who is and who is not a Christian. That is something reserved for God alone. These people taking upon themselves a role reserved soley for God are surely confused about their importance in the world.

    With regard to the poor, while I can't claim to live up to the teachings of Jesus all the time, for the record:

    Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

    Mark 12:41-44 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

    Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

    Luke 16:19-25 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

    In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  14. firewalker225

    As Elvis would say.....He's nothing but a DEVIL in DISGUISE.

    In the MOOSELAMB world it's OK to be DECEITFUL towards your ENEMY.

    Obama has half of the Country BAMBOOZLED.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • sam stone

      wow, quoting Elvis. now there's a deep thinker

      October 22, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • sam stone

      I"n the MOOSELAMB world it's OK to be DECEITFUL towards your ENEMY."

      Do you seriously think that here in the "Christian world" the political hacks on both sides of the aisle don't attempt to be deceitful toward the citizens?

      you are an imbecile.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  15. palintwit

    I'm beginning to believe that Sarah Palin is the only one who can heal and re-unify our country. She is, afterall, the "right" kind of Christian. But first she must return to her motorhome and resume her cross country tour. She will have to visit cities both large and small, taking care to speak only to "real Americans", dispensing her sage advice and folksy, homespun common sense solutions. We can be a great nation once again but first we must all follow the Palin Path.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. Peony

    CNN used to be the go-to channel for fact based news. Now it's attention grabbing, slanted headlines like this that erodes the trust.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  17. Lindsey

    "Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto."

    So the good Pastor claims one has to be...ahem..."born-again"...to be a Christian? Well the millions of Catholics in this country should take note of that. Cass has just said that they're not Christians because they're not "born again".

    I have zero patience for fundamentalists of any religious creed. Fundamentalists have caused and continue to cause much of the strife, oppression and murder in the world, with their willful ignorance of and hostility to science, blatant fear of strong women, and desire to enshrine their beliefs into the law of the land, essentially forcing all to accept their version of God else face severe punishments.

    Over. My. Dead. Body. Guaranteed.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  18. Yes

    If it's not Catholic, it's 'wrong' kind of Christian.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • sam stone

      did the good priest give you candy after touching your fun parts?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  19. ohiomark

    Actually, he is not a Christian in practice, he is really a secret Muslim. And most people know what the Muslims really feel about America. Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • gwolfpack

      that's just stupid BS

      October 22, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  20. Norbert

    Scary about the level of hatred and hostility that people can get whipped into. If your plan for peace on earth includes any thought even close to, "If everyone just thought like me, then all would be well"...then you're an idiot and you're dooming mankind. Thanks for nothing.

    October 22, 2012 at 9:56 am |
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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.