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. Captain Kirk

    Mormonism is NOT from the GOD of Moses! Nor from the GOD and Father of Jesus Christ !

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

    Wrong kind of Christian MY AUNT Effie, Google Barack Obama is a 33rd Degree Prince Hall Freemason, (Yes yot read right, He's a Satanist... But then again, So is Romney...)

    And as for interpreting the Bible, it is to be taken literaly, as Jesus said, I'm not here todo away with the law, But to fullfull it...

    October 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  3. ArthurP

    You keep using that word 'Christian'. I don't think it means what you think it does.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  4. maryj77

    neither presidential candidates are christian, mormons do not believe what is written in the bible, they added another book, they also believe in celestial bodies being inhabited by the children they birth, they believe that Jesus was satan's brother along with a lot of other unbibical things, so they are not bibical christian either. they are moral, but that is it. christians are followers of Jesus Christ and His word alone.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  5. bill

    The wrong kind of Chritisans are the GOP "do as I say not as I do" party. The GOP are as religious as the taliban. Christianity and GOP are totally mutually exclusive terms and do not belong in the same sentence. And what a hypocrite for Billy Graham to wipe mormonism from his list of cults for political purposes and to take out ads funded by GOP SuperPACS, after he said he would never enter into the political arena when he got burned by the GOP Richard Nixon debacle.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  6. Rick

    Let's see an article about Mornams magic under garments,or how it's OK to lie in the Morman doctrine. Come on CNN,show those things.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  7. gladiatorgrl

    President Obama is the President for "we the people" (including our Muslim brother's/sister's, our Jewish brother's/sister's, our Hindu brother's/sister's, etc...) YES he will stand with his "Muslim brother's" as he SHOULD because they are AMERICANS. We don't hold all Protestants and Catholics responsible for the IRA, we don't hold all Christian's responsible for the genocide in the Balkan's, etc...

    "we the people" come in all colors, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders, and yes religions... because we are humanity.

    “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.”
    Seneca (Roman philosopher)

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. Captain Kirk

    Mormonism is NOT from the GOD of Moses! Nor from the GOD and Father of Jesus Christ !

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  9. Concerned for America

    Obama has only been to a Christian church 6 times in 4 years! It's a photo op just as his 9/11 pic on Facebook on 9/11 (& fundraiser) yet more importantly NO words of sorrow there for our people who died! He tried to allow a mosque to be built there... wake up people! He's against our country! He couldnt even answer himself to condemn the jihad/Muslim/Islam terrorists. He had the media helping him out which was a lie! As far as the church he did attend, it was with a man who damned America! That's what he's doing to us! No plan, gas, jobs? He doesn't care as he is selling out our country! Tried to take out God & Israel! Mitt said in that funny dinner but serious part was that he will be our Allie to America to protect us from these terrorists & the left media selling out our country!! Mitt Romney will help YOU! Even the Topeka 7 of 10 states were run by Republicans! Jobs! Trust! Loves our America! Really is looking out for YOU (even the deceived haters!). Don't blow it or you won't even know what country you live in! He can lie abt being a Christan too. Watch this link. (how he cares for his family is how he'll care for you! Men died & he lied!! More than ever before we need Mitt Romney!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Jhx_2TqffE&feature=youtube_gdata_player & watch how he loves babies etc too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eILPwSOtXxI&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    There are scary things you don't know about in Obamacare to affect you too! His allegiance is to Allah! Wonder if he'll wear the ring tonight... Wake up Please! & don't vote without watching the movie 2016! He'll be true to them (Muslims – brotherhood) they are even in the Whitehouse & funding mosques! But he's true to them and not US!! Wake up! All they do is talk about Big Bird, binders, and lies! Mitt has real Hope & Change we Can believe in!! Last chance! Don't blow it! He does care about you!! & me!!
    Mitt Romney!! <3

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • gladiatorgrl

      because "born again" Bush II's "crusade" (his words) in Iraq worked so well for our country???

      October 22, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  10. Gimmeabreak!

    Obama only believes in Obama - to him there is nobody and nothing bigger than he is. And eventually the universe will say, "no more," and that will be that.

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

    A "different kind of Christian"....?

    The kind that says, "Surely God hath not said....."

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  12. Still waiting

    Charley, good point! It only got renamed but the jist of the article is the same! And still nothing about the other candidate's religious beliefs and perspective which people have to consider (in an ideal world) before casting their vote if President Obama's are on the balance!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  13. CK

    Thank God there is only going to be a couple more weeks of CNN stories trying to convince us that Obama is something he is not.
    He voted against medical care for tiny infants that managed to survive abortion. IIt is illegal to try to save them.
    Would a follower of Christ allow this?

    October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  14. tikki

    Its pretty simple, other than ones faith in believing in god, and America's acknowledgement of one (not particular). THERE SHOULD BE NO RELIGION IN GOVERNMENT!!!!!!!!! Matter of fact I get disgusted when preachers bring it up, I'm walking out, why, THERE SHOULD BE NO GOVERNMENT IN RELIGION.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  15. Helene

    I go by the man, not his religion

    October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  16. Todd

    Leviticus is in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament... The current person in power had four years to create a gov't union of gays. What makes you think re electing him, or attempting to discredit the Bible, will help CNN's cause?

    October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  17. WJ

    So a progressive Christian versus a Morman – pagan. Why is the "religious right" silent about Mormanism? They have dismissed it for decades as paganism. Why the silence now?

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

      @ WJ: not everyone is silent.
      Mormonism is not Christianity. It's not even monotheistic.
      But Obama's "Christianity" takes openly anti-biblical stances on life & marriage.

      This is not choosing the best Christian for the job. This is choosing the lesser of two evils.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • barry_is_the_best

      because some people dont feel the need to tell others what to believe – unlike liberal a_holes

      October 22, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • sam stone

      "because some people dont feel the need to tell others what to believe – unlike liberal a_holes"

      wow, barry, evangelicals are liberals? who would have thunk it?

      russ: the gay marriage issue is about equal rights under the law.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Russ

      @ sam stone: per the article's headline, we are not debating the merits of political process. it is openly a question of the Christian faith. the Bible is abundantly clear on this issue.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  18. Dr.Diamond

    -This headline should have read Obama a real christian..it takes a real christian too stand up for what's right. These so call white evangelicals were they same people saying hang'em in the 1940's and 1950's in America. Well let me say they seem to forgotten that there are many Black Christians in America. We stand for what is right and not for what's just white. Helping people is just the right thing too do. If white people were born slaves they would not be rich & wealth. Let's face it! they earned their wealth & riches on the backs of black slaves. After all white people would have been cover with blasters working in the cottons fields of Mississippi an 95 to 100 degrees. Thanks should thank black people for being black.
    Obama 2013 A.D.

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

      When are you going to stop "milking" your ancestor's hardships? The "white" man owes you nothing. If you feel the need; Africa's doors are wide open. Though, I might warn you that quality of life is much better overall in America. I see more racisim from blacks in today's America. I think it's time to get rid of Affirmative Action, and biased college application regulations based on race.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  19. Captain Kirk

    Wake up America........ Mitt Romney is a CULT LEADER !

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

      get out you palm leaves........the messiah is here. just ask him.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  20. Culpepper

    Of course fundamentalists still question Obama's Christian faith, despite Obama clearly stating his Christian religious beliefs in two books that he wrote, because that would have required fundamentalists to read a book that doesn't have the word "Bible" on the cover, or to simply be able to read. We know that ain't gonna happen

    October 22, 2012 at 10:31 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.