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. LEticia

    Thank God he is not a Christian!!!! He is a respectful human being as Christians should be , but they are NOT, shame on you people that discriminate against people in the name of God, SHAME ON YOU

    October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • GauisCaesar

      Thanks to sticking to liberal taking points. Apparently your ability to read a poll is pretty low. MOST Americans claim Christian....so you have insulted most of your country. But I'm sure you wouldn't consider that discrimination though...only when the Christians talk...right?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. Jim

    Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto. The first part of this statement would concern me, however only God and Obama knows if he is sincerely born again, we are not to judge. The second part should not be an issue with being born again nor should anyone feel they are not born again just because there is no emotional story to tell, although most often times, when a person has been forgiven of their sins, there is such a release of the awful burden they have been carrying that it is hard to contain their emotions. Salvation however is not based on emotion because our emotions are like a roller coaster, up one day and down the next, we could never be sure about salvation if we based it on emotion. No thank God, we have the assurance of Jesus Christ that, "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and he that comes to Me I will in no wise cast out." (John 6:37). That's all of us friends, no matter what.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  3. sickofbigotryandracism

    THIS IS A RIDICULOUSLY BIASED AND IRRESPONSIBLE "opinion piece." You talk about Martin Luther King, but fail to mention how radical Christianity was used to justify slavery, segregation, lynchings, and the racism and bigotry that still exists today as a very real part of Christian religious organizations. Religion is so lucky that it can always forgive itself of all its sins and justify whatever wrongdoing it does. And you are implying that Mormonism is the "right" kind of Christianity? I give up on you, CNN. You are awful and no longer journalists. Why don't you try putting out a headline story about whose company owns the evoting machines in Ohio. That could be actual news.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  4. Paul_1

    Those who sit in judgement of others Christianity are not followers of Christ.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • aRTHURrrrr

      WOW!! ISNT THAT EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE DOING???????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  5. Val

    CNN- the fact that you have this opinion article like this on the home page is disgusting.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  6. buzz

    Mitten Romney, worse republican candidate ever. All those who hated him are now supporting him? A bunch of lying two faced hypocrites, talk about flip flopping, that's why Mitt flip flops because his base are flip floppers. This is about race, not who is qualified to continue to be the intelligent leader of the Free World=Barack Obama/Joe Biden November 6, 2012.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • GauisCaesar

      Thanks....I've had a running bet on how long CNN will go without repeating their DonnaBrazille 2008 "If you aint voting Obama, you're a racist." I won

      October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • chaz

      thats how I see it too. Just please POTUS...stop trying to appease EVERYONE

      October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Mike

      As a Republican Romney was NOT my first choice. As a matter of fact, Romney is about as DEMOCRAT as a Republican can be. However Obama is quite possibly the most liberal POTUS in history, is actually a Socialist and needs to go. I don't care about religion, I am pro choice and I care about the economy, the deficit, jobs and the safety of the future of this country for my children. All of those things are in better hands with Romney.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  7. chaz

    oh man...stop talking Mr President. You may just get me to NOT vote for you

    We should love everyone, but hate the sin.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  8. Captain Kirk

    Why are Christians willing to follow a CULT LEADER ?

    Mitt believes in false GODS!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Mike

      And what false god would that be?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • chaz

      the enemy is a great deceiver...but I have discerning eyes. No scales...No votes for Mitt

      October 22, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  9. mememememememe

    it's not the "wrong" religion...he is just the "wrong" color.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |

      OBAMA is a "chameleon" – able and willing to change to whatever his voters want !

      October 22, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  10. Barney

    The Bible is a love story between God and His children, culminated with the coming of Christ. When Jesus came, everything was made new. That's why the Old Testament is just that, the "old" laws. God gave us Christ because it was the only way to figure out who truly loved Him, without having to force them to (free will). Most folks don't get that Christ was rebellious against the religious establishment. He was the first "extremist" so to speak.....but one that was extreme because he was peaceful, he healed folks both physically and spiritually, he was a servant to mankind, he did all the things that made and still makes peoples' eyes go crossed. But why? Because mankind lives in sin, and to be so righteous is extreme in a good way. Back to Obama: Everyone is on different levels in their relationship with God, even our President. Levels of maturity and ways of seeing things. This means that he is probably wrong about some of Christianity, but no more wrong than anyone else on the journey. We are all sinful. Including our President. He is not Jesus, nor has any other President been Jesus. Peace.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Greg

      Barney, check out "Matthew 5:17" for the Old Testament deal.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  11. Cherries

    Sorry Mr Prez, you're not going to win no matter what on this one. Weather it be a rosary or a rug you're not going to be able to appease everyone. Or you could say nothing, but that would make them mad, too!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • chaz

      I vote he says nothing. stop pandering Mr Pres

      October 22, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  12. Mark

    Your new headline for this story is almost as bad as your first one. What on earth is wrong with you people. The article is not a terrible article but the public attention span makes ADD look like too much concentration – and when it sees this type of headline (or the last one, whcih was "Is Obama the Wrong Kind of Christian?") sends a visceral message that the article debunks to a fair extent, but that many religious conservative type will not bother to actually read (preferring the simple conclusion that the headline invites, which is "you see, Obama is not one of us" when in fact, a largel majority of Americans of faith agree more with Obama's version of Christianity than Ralph Reed's or Karl Rove's. Shame on you for tilting the coverage in one direction.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  13. i_know_everything

    he is more christian than all of you filthy Repubs combined

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Robert

      Change you name to I_know_nothing. Wow.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  14. davidk

    Romney is a Mormon, which under strict christian theology is not christian either because they do not believe in the Trinity, the fundamental pillar of christianity. Some of the mainstream religions, Billy Graham for one, have softened for this election because of their prejudice against Obama (no, not racial prejudice but ideological). Says a lot for the value of their beliefs, putting something as silly as politics above their God's teachings.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  15. Wastrel

    This is a very disturbing and un-American article. It assumes that there are "right" and "wrong" kinds of Christians and that a Christian president is the right kind of president, and that only the 'right' kind of Christian should be president. It goes on to interview a bunch of idiots who believe the same things. I would recommend that the writer of this religious propaganda be banned from CNN.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  16. Sia

    I cant believe CNN posted this bs. How long is it going to take people to accept he was elected? Why keep talking about his faith? What is the underline meaning of this article and this close to election? He is a president not a pastor and his job is to care for 100% of Americans with their rights -guy/poor/rich/non-belivers/belivers etc. so get over it CNN.......

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  17. ArthurP

    Why is it at election time Americans seem to want to elect a Pope when they should be electing a President.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Russ

      Because we are always looking for the next messiah. Somehow we know we need more than just a president to fix us.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  18. Mike

    There's no "right" kind of believer because all religions are based on varying degrees of "faith." Which is of course, inadmissible in the real world: courts, clients for consultants, publication in a journal, etc.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  19. Charley Liberal Dog

    P.S. The real villain in the piece is not author Blake but the CNN editor who allowed or wrote the headline that featured this piece in the first place.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  20. Johnny 5

    I would like to hand out pamphlets on the fossil record at voting locations.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:27 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.