October 21st, 2012
06:59 AM ET
The Gospel according to Obama
By John Blake, CNN
President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals.
When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”
The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:
“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say.
“Barack Obama has referred to his faith more times than most presidents ever have, but for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,” says Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, an evangelical activist group based in Washington that focuses on poverty and social justice issues.
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“It is not the faith of the religious right. It’s about things that they don’t talk about. It’s about how the Bible is full of God’s clear instruction to care for the poor.”
Some see a 'different' kind of Christian
Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.
No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”
“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”
Some Christians, however, still see Obama as the “other.” He doesn’t act or talk like other Christians, says the Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian president of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission.
“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.
Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto.
Obama talks about his faith and attends church, but Cass says that doesn’t mean he’s a Christian.
“Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. “You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”
The origins of Obama’s faith
The suspicion about Obama’s faith may seem odd at first because he’s written and spoken so much about his spiritual evolution in his two autobiographies, “Dreams of my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” Other books, like “The Faith of Obama” by Stephen Mansfield, also explore Obama’s beliefs.
Mansfield says Obama is the first president who wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Obama’s mother was an atheist and his grandparents were religious skeptics (Obama’s family has challenged the description of his mother as an atheist. Obama called her “the most spiritually awakened” person he’d ever known, and his sister called their mother an agnostic).
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Mansfield called Obama’s boyhood a “religious swirl. He was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, and strains of Hinduism and Buddhism while growing up in Indonesia during the 1960s.
“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominantly black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.
Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.
In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:
“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”
When many people think of Obama’s religious experience in Chicago, though, they cite his exposure to the angry sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and “black liberation theology,” a movement that emerged in the late 1960s and blended the Social Gospel with the black power movement.
Bass, the church historian, says another black pastor shaped Obama’s theology more: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He attended liberal Protestant seminaries where he learned about the Social Gospel’s concern for the entire person, soul and body.
King once wrote that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them …is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
But King and the black church also fused the Social Gospel with an emotional fervor missing from white Protestant churches, Bass says. Other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by the Social Gospel, but they weren’t shaped by the black church.
“This is the first time we’re hearing the Social Gospel from the perspective of the black church from the Oval Office. It makes it warmer, more emotive, more communal," Bass says. "There is less fear of linking the Social Gospel with the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Exodus and Jesus’ healings.”
The emphasis on community uplift - not individual attainment - may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.
King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”
“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”
Obama is not a Christian, some think
For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity.
Jesus was nonviolent. Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Afghanistan that have not only removed terrorists, but killed civilians.
The Bible talks about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Obama invoked Jesus when he came out in support of same-sex marriage. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule," Obama told ABC News during his announcement.
Jesus talked about helping the poor. But he never said anything about creating a massive health care law that taxed the rich to help the poor, some Christians argue.
But Wallis of Sojourners says Obama’s push for health care was a supreme example of Christian faith.
A situation where 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance is “a fundamental Christian problem,” Wallis says.
“Health is such a Gospel issue. Jesus was involved in healing all the time, and to have some people excluded from health care because they lack wealth is a fundamental Christian contradiction.”
Wallis has been one of the most persistent defenders of Obama’s faith. But no matter how much Scripture he and others cite, doubts about Obama’s faith have followed him throughout his political career.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson once said that Obama distorted the traditional understanding of the Bible “to fit his own world, his own confused theology.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, publicly questioned Obama’s faith, then later apologized.
Conservative Christian books and websites are filled with stories of Obama allegedly trying to suppress the nation’s Christian heritage.
The Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” says Obama is trying to change the national motto from “In God we Trust” to “Out of Many, One,” and he’s ordered the Pentagon to remove biblical verses from its daily report.
“That’s the most serious thing someone can do to a nation, trying to separate a nation from God,” he says. “He seems to be trying to change the Christian laws our Founding Fathers made.”
Andrew says Obama is actually an enemy of Christianity. In his book, Andrew argues that the Founding Fathers were Christians who created a “covenant Christian nation” and calls for a “national repentance.”
“I think he’s an anti-Christ,” Andrew says. Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity.
Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says.
“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”
Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights also disqualifies him from being a Christian, Cass says.
“It’s the most pro-abortion administration in the history of America. On every social issue – the sanctity of life and of marriage between men and women – Obama is on the wrong side of every moral issue,” he says.
He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.
“No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible,” Cass says. “These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.”
Cass says he doesn’t know what Obama believes.
“He’s conflicted,” Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."
How progressive Christianity lost the public square
There was a time when Obama’s brand of Christianity would have been understood by millions of Americans, historians say.
The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.
The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.
Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.
“The notion that religious people should be about feeding the poor and helping the homeless is a carryover of the Social Gospel,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio. The Social Gospel was adopted by many Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, says Bass, the church historian. Some of the Social Gospel churches grew popular because they provided the poor with everything from English classes to sewing instructions and basketball leagues.
“The first American megachurches were liberal, Social Gospel urban churches,” Bass says.
The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.
But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.
Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”
The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.
That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.
“They have millions of adherents who believe in a literal six day creation and a literal Adam and Eve – so it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felten says.
Progressive Christians eventually lost the messaging wars to this fundamentalist subculture, Bass says. Their nuanced view of faith couldn’t compete with the “spiritual triumphalism” of conservatives.
“If you get up and say we’re right and we have the truth, then you have a powerful public message,” she says. “They have a theological advantage in the public discourse. It’s comforting to have things clear, to have things black and white.”
The result today is that the Protestant tradition that shapes much of Obama’s Christianity is fading from public view.
The share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
White mainline Protestants make up only 15% of the nation’s population, the survey revealed. The study also found that the fastest growing "religious group" in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.
Another generation of Christians, though, may bring a new version of progressive Christianity back.
The lines between younger conservative Christians and progressives are blurring, says Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”
Pally spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She says her research revealed that more than 60% of young evangelicals support more governmental programs to aid the needy, as well as more emphasis on economic justice and environmental protection issues.
“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” she says.
Her perspective suggests that Obama’s faith may be treated by history in two ways:
He could be seen as the last embodiment of a progressive version of Christianity that went obsolete.
Or he could be seen as a leader who helped resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
Yes, Obama is a "progressive Christian" leading us the a post-religious society just as he has lead us to a post racial society. Of course, he is also the liberal messiah who would make the ocean levels recede and heal the planet. LOL LOL
lol, post racial.
Obama is not a follower of the one true religion – Mormonism – and he will never go to the Planet Kolob because Kolob will only admit true believers who are white vulture capitalists like Mitt Romney.
Only the Word of God and the Spirit of God define the right kind of Christian and the right kind of Gospel. Obama and his gospel do not fit the definition.
Neither do the conservative Republicans.
The only bottom line here is separation of church and state. Religion has no place in politics. At all. Religion is a non issue for anyone running for ANY office but especially any national office.
Obama mocks God every time he stands up for policies that are against the gospel. Which would be just about every single day. You don't get to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. Jesus wants us to help the poor and needy, but to do so out of our own kind hearts and not be forced to. He also warns against those who are poor who are idle and want to take what others have.
The central teaching of Jesus, whatever you may think, is "Love thy neighbor." And as for not helping the lazy poor who presumably, you and Mitt Romney would say, deserve what they get - what do you think is the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal son?
"Obama mocks God every time he stands up for policies that are against the gospel."
So do the "moral" conservatives of GOP, did so for a long time. As for the " poor who are idle and want to take what others have".... Yes, we have some of those who love to be freeloaders, but it is the vultures of corporate mafia who are the ones who take what others have, feeling they are ent-itled,and they do so because our politi-tians make laws that allow them to do so..... And I have to say that the self-righteous hypocrites of "moral" republicans are more guilty then god-less liberals. They are like pharisees of Christ's time. Read your Scriptures in context, dear floridamom. Let the Spirit of God show you!
BTW, no liberal speaking here!
The inescapable value of religion to those who would try to change the world is that it is based on faith, which is simply belief without proof.
It is much easier to get people to do what you want when they don't have to think about it.
OH COME ON NOW!! WHAT NEXT - Protestant Christians, White Protestants, Black Protestants, Mainline Protestants....Progressive Christians...... OH MY - can't you think of something sensible to write about. This is such nonsense..... .. KEEP RELIGION AND POLITICS SEPARATE.....
It seems to not matter whether he's a Christian or not since the majority of Christians are voting for a Mormon. I think the majority of the Church has been mislead in washed down teachings of Christ and persecution of others. Walking in love towards others seems to have been thrown out the window and has been replaced with war loving, finger pointing, prosperity teaching pharisees.
lol! Prosperity gospel is a direct product of the liberal mindset. How can you miss that one?
Shame on you CNN for focusing on religion when Ted Turner is an Atheist himself ! When are we going to get to Issues ?
Economy, Environment, Women's Rights, Foreign Policy, Voter Suppression, Jobs ????
CNN should be ashamed of itself. This goes right along with Franklin Graham's ad. Pres Obama is a a good, God fearing, God loving man and his acts have demonstrated that. CNN has moved too far to the right.
WHAT THE HELL – CNN did you ask this question of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore? This country would rather deal with Mitt Romeny and his pack of lies then to give Obama the chance he should have had when he was elected in 2008. The RIGHT has done nothing except for demonetized this man from DAY ONE. Anytime you will have anyone that is in elected office say that his job is to make "President Obama a one-time President" speaks volumes. Granted, people (even elected officials) can say what they want – but this is ridiculous not to mention a damn shame when this country is stuggling (and Obama inherited the mess). I don't care if he is a Christian or not, he has demonstrated that he CARES about people (not just the RICH) and that's what matters to me.
It will be OK, Lisa. Just sip a little more koolaid and you'll get that thrill running up your leg again.
from reading a few comments alot of people lost there faith, thats whats wrong with this countrie ,nobody believes in god anymore ,no wonder why people are ignorant they dont have no respect ,which is what the catholic and christian religions do ,stop hating you will meet your maker one day and hopefully he slaps you right in the teeth, so much hate and you'll call me stupid for believing theres a god and i think the same of you, people are so dumb so smart but yet so stupid
I just don't understand how people can believe in any god. It blows my mind. I don't mean to sound cruel, but I think they are so stupid and sad.
And yet you chose the only character from the Simpsons with integrity as your handle... who just happens to be an evangelical?
I really don't think they care if you understand it or not.
Stay out of politics!
The GOP aren't Christians.....We all know mitt romney isn't
Baloney. Obama's not a "different kind of Christian." He's an everyday, ordinary Christian within the Protestant spectrum. He seems "different" only to fundamentalists who have moved so far to the right that the center looks left to them.
Agreed. These religious right nut jobs are so hypocritical they are the exact opposite of what Jesus taught us. Equality for all, love your neighbor was His biggest message. LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. People don't really know what that means. You do not spew forth words like "you're going to burn in HELLL" God told us not to judge, to love our fellow man and that he who is without sin may cast the first stone. It just sickens me to see all those sealots on TV pusihing their perverted message of the bible to suit their own ignorant needs.
TommyTT, I assume from your post that you are a "christian". Where was our Lord Jesus, was he left, center or right as you have defined it ?
reply to John: you talk about not judging and get called people "religious right nut jobs" and "hypocrites". Were you judging and being intolerant ?
What's going on with CNN here? Is somebody the right kind of Christian? Whooaaaa....... So to be President of the land of the free, you have to be a certain type of Christian? So in the future women, gays or any ethnic individuals would have to be a certain kind of Christian, right? I suppose if you're a Native American, who follows there ancestral religious beliefs and would like to run for office in the " land of the free" they would be out of luck? God pray, if you were an American Jew.
Mormonism is a CULT......... I don't care what the Pope says.
Christianity is a CULT ...... I do not care what the Emperor Constantine says.
I would say that Sam Brownback and the Religious Right are the wrong kind of Christians. One can't pick and choose from the Bible and simply ignore the texts that one doesn't like - especially if these texts are the central teaching of Jesus. The whole history of the Christian church has been subverted by these new folks who focus on "personal salvation" rather than "Love thy neighbor.
And shame on you, CNN, for that tendentious and inflammatory headline!
I prefer Obama Muslim than evangelist,
I prefer Obama former President...rather than current President. Romney 2012.
I dont know the mans heart. I know if your faith is in your heart, you have to talk about it, it dominates your life, it is the center of your being and your whole world, anything less is mental assent. I make no judgment on the man, it is between him and the Lord. PP
Is CNN the wrong kind of "objective" news provider? Why run this article with a "headline" questioning whether Obama is the "wrong" kind of Christian? Seems a bit provocative, to me, and indicates that CNN is fishing for attention.
As an atheist, the only issue I have with a potential President's religion is whether or not they will try to promote it in any way. Folks like to criticize the role religion plays in some Muslim nations, but I don't think that the many of the most fundamental Christians in the U.S. would object to having the "right" Christianity enshrined in local, state, and national laws if they could.
Witch burnings, prayer in schools, attacks on science, "blue" laws, Prohibition, and attempts to put the 10 Commandments put into classrooms... these are all part of this nation's history. You can use religion as a weapon or a cure, but all in all, I would prefer that it not be part of the national debate when choosing a president. For some reason, though, CNN feels the need to interject it into the debate.
Hard to believe, though, that traditional Christians have come to terms with Mitt Romney's Mormonism. It would seem that only the creators of South Park were fearless enough to go after the core tenants of this "faith" in their TV show (not the play). Any "faith" should be looked at critically, and it would seem to me that Mormonism's creation myths are more that a bit sketchy.
Fundamentalist Christians, it would seem, have come to the conclusion that when comparing the Mormon Capitalist to the Community Organizer Christian, the former is closer to what they think Jesus would admire. I wonder what the historical Jesus would have thought about this?
Thoughtful comment. Thanks.
Those who practice religion are at a turning point in civilization. They can either continue to delude themselves with their attempt to use literal interpretations or they can allow their spirituality to grow with man's increased awareness. Humanity will not survive long without science and understanding of our environment. Great libraries and contributions to knowledge have been destroyed by religious zealots, like those in Alexandria and Rome... and Tennessee, and Georgia.... Fundamental Christians can either close their minds, and completely lose relevance, or embrace a changing world to positively influence it's development. Mythology rarely survives intellectual enlightenment.
President Obama is a Christian, but he doesn't try and force his religion on other people...He respects the fact that we are different and have different beliefs and he tries to honor that..so different from evangelicals in America...The best way to bring a person to Christ is by love, but some of these so called Christians in this country are some of the most hateful people I have ever seen...If Mitt Romney had the qualities and acomplishments of Presdient Obama, this would not even be a race, but some of the "Christians" who claim to love God but hate Obama with a vengence hate him just because he is black...Yeah I said it... I understand now what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to "beware of the yeast (lies) of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Evangelical Christians) because they walk around with their chest puffed out and think they are better than other people; fighting Obama against healthcare that they themselves need as well as millions of other people in this country...They claim to hate abortion but want to cut out any resorurces to help the mother once the child is born...They endorse a man (Romney) who religion is in total conflict with the teaching of Christ...They worship on Sunday morning, and Monday morning call Obama a muslim, keyan, monkey, n--er,etc.....They approve and applaud old evil rich white men who are trying to buy the election with money and voter intimdation and fear....Do you think God is please with that?..No he's not and they are only fooling themselves and are going to be the main ones that God will tell in the end, "Depart from me you workers of iniquity, I know ye not".... I'm so glad that God sees and hears everything that's going on down here, because in the end, he has the last word, and his will is going to be done...I want to tell President Obama to hang in there because "No weapon formed against you shall prosper"..keep your eyes on Jesus and he will alow you to acomplishment everything he meant for you to do for he has called you for such a time as this......