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. Richard Marks

    Just remember that the "religious right" in America is neither "religious" nor "right". Their "Christianity" is a fraudulent as their politics.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  2. ThyWord isTruth

    You can't be a true Christian if you are black or la democrat. The Bible, the true word of God, says that quite clearly.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  3. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. "Barack knows what it means to be a black man to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a n-–."

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  4. A christian

    I never thought that CNN would stoop to this level of racism. I have yet to see an article on Mormonism. I've never thought that CNN would try to split the nation via religion. CNN you should be totally ashamed of your actions.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  5. Fubarobama

    One phony lying politician that will surely end up in h e l l

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  6. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. "To say “I am a Christian” is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship."

    October 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  7. sharon

    obama is whomever he needs to be to win a vote ...no integrity no character no thruth with him

    October 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • KEKC


      October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • ebbbbbbbbby

      Do you think this is different from any other politician?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  8. kismet6166

    The born again/ take your bible as the literal word movement has only been around since the 19th century. I see nothing wrong with this article because I am open minded and not locked into a narrow set of ideas that, if challenged, exposes their ridiculous conclusions.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  9. mike

    OMG, this article is such crap. He has mentioned his faith more than any other president? Really, prove that. I can make up stuff too.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  10. shawn

    thats an odd thing to say...that the president is a different kind of christian. i grew up going to church all my life and the presidents views are not much different than my own. the difference between our views on our faith is that he is the president of the United States of america and because of such not permitted to allow his personal religious views to find their way into his presidential desicions. but as we have seen when it appears he does he is attacked and when he doesnt he is attacked. for the one pastor to say that he has never heard the president say he was born again is to show bias that persists from the religious right. i never heard richard nixon say he was born again nor did i hear ronald reagan or george w. bush say it. maybe they did but the point is it was never a public requirement to declare so. but for president obama there seems to be another requirement for him than for any of the previous presidents. hum....

    October 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • pc

      "Barack knows what it means to be a black man to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a n-–."

      October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  11. JonathanL

    I hope no particular religion ever gets a perma-grip on our democracy. Even Jesus believed in separation of church and state. Unfortunately most people have been brainwashed into one or other belief system, and don't realize that you don't have to believe in a certain number of Gods before you can develop a code of ethics. How can we begin to argue agtainst the tyrranical theocracies of the Middle East if we are not secular ourselves? If we allow Christianity to get a grip (conservative or Protestant or Fundmental or otherwise) on our government, due to majority control, then we risk Judaism, Islam, or Voodoo someday enforincing their gods and prayers upon us. Favor no religion, even deism. Give it up. Face it. Religion is not good at science. Government is not good at religion. That is not its purpose (though I wish Government would had some basic math).

    October 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • GauisCaesar

      Jesus is an advocate of a monarchy with himself as head. I have no clue how you ever came up with "Jesus was for separation of church and state." That's the most ridiculous thing on this blog today!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  12. Rick

    GOD DAMN AMERICA !!! --The Prophet Jeremiah (Wright)

    October 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  13. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. “We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional killers. … We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. … We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. … We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means. And … And … And! God! Has got! To be sick!"

    October 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  14. LScott923

    I am a different kind of Democrat. I'm voting for Mitt Romney and disagree with most planks in the Democrat platform. Some might call me a Republican, but I prefer "different kind of Democrat" to appeal to Democrats and also to athei...er, non-political people.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Rick

      My family were all "Kennedy Democrats".
      That bears no relation to the modern Democratic Party or to modern Liberalism. The Democratic Party has become the party of anti-Americanism, weakness, amorality, and socialism.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • sam stone

      By the same token, the current Republican party is something that the paragon of postward conservatism, William F Buckley, would recognize

      October 22, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  15. Veritas

    I have no doubt about Obama's faith. But his faith is objectively not Christianity. Christianity is a specific religion, with a specific history, and with a specific holy book, that actually says specific things. It's fine for Obama not to believe many of those things and to choose openly not to follow the Bible. That's part of the beauty of this nation and our freedom of religion. But I do wish he would come up with a new word to describe his new religion and let historic Christians keep our established name. Just seems kind of tacky and misleading.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Glenda Myszak

      I am a 62 year old white woman raised in the Christian church. I love my church and my God, but some of the radical preaching from the right has me terrified for our country. I believe the teachings of the Bible can be interpreted many different ways depending on who is reading it. I know one thing for sure we will only answer for our own sins when we stand before God. I believe our president is a Christian, but it really doesn't matter what I think.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  16. Laurie

    No deception please. NOT a Christian at all. Clearly!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • sam stone

      Who the F are you to decide that, Laurie?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  17. palval

    You're trying hard, CNN. Obama is a good man but not for this job.

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

      It is truly appalling how blatantly biased CNN has become.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • sam stone

      rick: both sides have their bias.

      palval: and why do you think that romney is any better?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  18. ArthurP

    Christianity is a CULT ... ... I do not care what the Emperor Constantine says.

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

      Is not. Either choose to follow or don't. That's on you. Just ignorant.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • sam stone

      drika: how does freedom of choice determine whether it is a cult?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  19. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. Jan. 13, 2008: “Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was riding dirty.”

    October 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  20. Chris33

    Obama is a real christian.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:45 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.