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. Beloved4ever

    Government merely reflects what people believe in their heart; It does nothing to form those beliefs.
    William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania wrote in the late 1600's " Government seems to be a part of Religion itself.....Let men be Good, and the Government cannot be bad.".

    October 22, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Zippy

      Conservatives and Christians DONATE much, much more time and money to charity than liberals. Liberals prefer to have government shoulder their responsibility. Forced redistribution is not a biblical concept.

      Remember the parable of the talents?

      October 22, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  2. KayakerAP

    Obama is not a "devout" Christian. His wedding ring has the phrase "There is no God but Allah" inscribed on the inside. His mentors were on the FBI watch list for communism. LOL! This President is so far from any Christian belief it's ridiculous. He wants the globe on an "even playing field," with allowing the USA of not being the great super power it has become. Please vote this guy out of office.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  3. billy D

    At least Obama is a Christian unlike Romney the Mormon. Obama's version of christianity is more in tune with God then the Evangelicals whose preachers drive Rolls Royces and live in Mansions. The Christian Right has confused Godliness with Wealth.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  4. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. "We started the AIDS virus. We are only able to maintain our level of living by making sure that Third World people live in grinding poverty."

    October 22, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Randall Shutt

      Wright was right about the whole 'Keeping our standard of living by keeping the rest of the world in poverty' bit. Take a look around... We're losing our standard of living every day while many cultures are experiencing an increase in their standard of living.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  5. Theophilus

    Here is one of Obama's prayers. I pray God hears and manifest his response for our Nations sake.

    "When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our Country and its people. And when I go to bed at night I wait on the Lord. I ask Him to forgive me my sins, and look after my family and the American people, and make me an instument of His will." President Obama

    October 22, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  6. sharon


    October 22, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. GI Joe

    ROMNEY is the one who is not a true christian. He's a mormon, and for 94 years Billy Graham said so. His son changed his website after Romney greased his drug-addcted palms with cash enough to keep him doped for decades.

    Romney is SATAN.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Zippy

      Yet, even with your crazy stance: Romney will make a much better president than obama did.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  8. Agnostic

    If Obama is a Christian, then I am Abraham Lincoln.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  9. billym67

    "Jesus was nonviolent." Interesting....correct me if I am wrong. Jesus and God are actually one in the same....depending on which part of the Bible you read. Yet, God asks his followers to perform acts of violence quite often, telling them to kill anyone who stands in his way. Why the contradiction? Because God is an imaginary character made up by a primitive people to help give meaning to their lives!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Darrell

      and yet you find ur way onto this post/ article.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Harry Long

      There is no where in the Bible that Jesus is called God. He was the Son of God, and denied that he was God. The Trinity did not exist until the Nicene Conference in 325 AD. Prior to that Jesus was acknowledged as the Son & Holy Ghost. The closest to a reference to the Trinity in the Bible was the Baptism Prescription and that is seen only in a later translation of a single Gospel.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  10. glorydays

    Leave your crutches at the political door, please.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  11. pc

    Jeremiah Wright is Obama's spiritual mentor. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because of stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own backyard. America is chickens coming home to roost.”

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Randall Shutt

      Sorry, but Wright was also right here. We *have* sponsored state terrorism in "lesser developed countries". Our foreign policy has been everything *BUT* Christian in many areas of the world.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  12. sharon

    obama is whomever he needs to be for a VOTE ...FRAUD

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • ReasonableXX

      The irony of making that statement when Romney is the other candidate is hilarious! The man took the opposite stance from his days as governor on every major issue out there during most of the campaign. Then has the audacity to switch them again during the first debate. His supporters are so ignorant of the actual facts they didn't even notice because he did well presenting it.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • sam stone

      as opposed to other politicians, sharon?

      October 22, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  13. Perrochato

    Hanging chads are out of the question in most populus places, so you need some excuse to scare the believers. Does CNN belong to Rupert now?

    October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  14. Ali

    “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.”
    ------–God tells individuals to care for the poor, not the nation state. Nor is the US a religious country, whatever our candidates might like to pretend. It is a SECULAR country in which Christians of various denominations live among people of other faiths and no faith at all. If Obama really believed in helping the poor, then how about doing it by caring for his aunt instead of expecting the US government to do so? And how about his relatives in Africa? And then there are his own charitable contributions which aren't all that outstanding.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  15. Paul

    I'd heard about CNN's right-leaning agenda and this op-ed piece absolutely symbolizes it. But for arguments sake, what kind of right leaning media are you? Should we "interpret" that you condone stoning Obama for not being the right kind of christian? Should he be "...cut down and thrown into the fire" as per Matthew 7:15-20? There are many fundamentalists who will read this and because they see themselves as "the right kind" will want to "punish" Obama and all those who don't fit into their rabidly extreme model. I'm disgusted by CNN. Horrified that this sensationalist claptrap should even make it on the site. While we're at it, Romney isn't even a christian! Where is that article? Where's the coverage of the Mormon's racist religion? You disgust me.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Zippy

      You are the ONLY person that has heard of CNN's "right-leaning agenda". They have been in the obama tank for four + years.

      Obama isn't the "wrong kind of Christian". He's just an inept, weak president. Time to move on and vote for someone else.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Perhaps you should take your bias off and re-read. This article is in no way "right-leaning"...only the headline is.

      And CNN Belief blog has covered Romney's faith quite thoroughly.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Southerner01


      Thanks, I needed that. Too funny.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  16. J Smith

    I've never read so much BULL in my life. Who gives THEM the right to judge Obama whether he is a Christian or not. How typical of the "conservatives" ."do it our way or you're going to hell". unbelievable. I am a Christian that believe God LOVES all and that he died for us. Jesus was on the earth for an example. the Pharisees then are the conservatives NOW. Obama 2012!

    October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  17. Sarah

    Christ is not to be found in anyone, much less a leader, who condones, and even promotes shedding innocent blood with abortion. Obama's claims to be a Christian are a lie. He's either lying to himself, or he's lying to others, but his walk with Jesus would be one in disobedience. Deuteronomy 27:25 says: Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood...". If Obama is a Christian, it's in words only. His heart is far from God. He proved it when he promoted a bill that allows babies to survive abortions, to die. The Doctors are not allowed to save that child's life. Matthew 12:30 says "He who is with me is against me"... Obama says he is with Christ. His heart shows he is against Christ.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Sarah

      2 Corinthians 11:13-15
      For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • ArthurP

      God gives life with the first breath, so it was for Adam so it is for his decedents.

      Genesis 2:7

      "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

      October 22, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Ali

      Taking such pride in ordering the assassination of Osama bin Laden doesn't seem to me a very "Christian" thing to do, especially from someone who received the Nobel Peace Prize.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • myweightinwords

      And yet in the bible, your god demands the shedding of innocent blood quite regularly.

      And the "church" has not always dictated that life begins at conception.

      This should not be a single issue election. There is too much at stake.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  18. Cyle

    Romney is a mormon...
    Obama is a catholic...

    Who cares?

    October 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • billym67

      I care....because we are electing men and women to run our country who believe in an imaginary character made up by a primitive people to help give meaning to their lives!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  19. Beloved4ever

    I’m not saying who you should or shouldn’t vote for, be it Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. What I do want to say is that you shouldn’t vote for either candidate just because you have been cleared to do so (or been encouraged to do so) by a preacher, pastor or evangelist. You should vote for one or the other because you are convinced in your own mind that person is the best for the job and truly has a 'Heart For America'. God gave you a brain for a reason; use it.

    Nor should you require Romney to be a Christian before you vote for him, just as you shouldn’t spread the lie that Obama is a closeted Muslim in order not to vote for him. There is no religious test for office in the United States. BUT....and I say BUT...If you are a Chriatian and you have decided to Vote for the Christian Candidate.....atleast make sure that he is indeed a CHRISTIAN, in that, he BELIEVES Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of mankind and not just some 'Good guy'.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  20. ArthurP

    Christianity is proof that the Roman Empire never fell, it just Evolved.

    October 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • billym67

      Actually, Christianity is proof that people believe in fairytales!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:55 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.