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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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.
Obama and the "progressives" claim to love the poor. Judas also claimed to love the poor. He was a liar and a thief, and so are "progressives" a.k.a. Marxists. Oppression and murder follow in their wake. As Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them."
"Judas also claimed to love the poor"
so did jesus, but where did judas claim to love the poor exactly?
and by the way, you wouldnt recognise a marxist if karl himself came up and smacked you with a sign that said 'i am a marxist'
Judas' statement in John 12:5 implies that he cared for the poor.
I think it's very sad that in this day and age, people would try and use their religion to support their racism. (or hide it)
Obama's racism was on display right in Church with Reverend Wright.
Don't like having a black man as president much John?
The problem is not that Republicans don't care about the poor, it is that we are already committing 10% of our gross income for faith-based support. When you add extra taxes on top of that, we as a body of Americans are doing more than any other group to support the poor. Many liberal, democrats I know give a very small percentage of their gross income to the poor. They may give of their time in volunteerism but as far as $'s that usually given by means of government subsidies via their taxes only and not on a personal basis.
Here's a novel idea – try to stop being so holier-than-thou and categorizing people. Each gives generously. No one side is better than the other.
Interesting article , some things I agree with some not , but rather than help me understand Pres Obama's belief which is not for me to do , it helped me understand mine. As being of a certain age , I was raised in a very religious family , that included soical christainty . The church I grew up in was liberal in it views on helping others. My daddy was a southern democrat and no better man morally . If he were living he would be appalled at what many churches have turned into and the hate many christian republicans hold in their hearts for the least among us .I am Christian but thankfully had an upbringing that also taught me Jesus teaching on casting the 1st stone . I trully believe without loving the message of Christianty has turned many into a religion of hate much like many factions of being Muslin has done. It is a slippery slope we are on!
Southern Democrat = Ku Klux Klan Remember the Democratic Party memebers who voted with LBJ for Civil Rights were run out of the party in 1072.
Obama claims Christianity only in order to be appealing to the voters. He is a result of a political machine (one of the most corrupt in the nation), and will take this nation to frightening places if given a second term and a democratic Congress. It is beyond scary.
you cannot possibly know what is in his heart , only what you want it to be!
I know what's in his heart, blood, nothing else "in his heart" is important to his qualifications
We don't know what's in his heart....but actions speak louder than words.
Larry42; It IS true. Conservatives are incapable of being Christians, they are selfish, hateful, people who worship money and power (mammon). If you are a conservative, you will have a lot of friends in hell. Sorry, but the truth hurts.
Irony alert. 🙂
It is not that the right owns God, it is that the left has rejected God.
The left has NOT rejected God. geeez wonder what God thinks about your statement.
you think there are no left christians huh?
Hey John..... FYI on the god thing... no such thing. Fantasy, mythology.......
Obama is a Muslim, and Christianity came into play as a political stunt.
"Obama is a Muslim, and Christianity came into play as a political stunt."
for the last 20 years as he attended a christian church....riiiiiiiight.
Big fat lie.
He attended a "Christian" church ?
Two words: Jeremiah Wright. 😐
Revelations (last chapter of the Bible) according to right-wingers and born agains:
"And the 7th seal was broken and the anti-Christ (OBAMA) made his folllowers chant "Are you fired up?(meaning: Do you like HELL?) and "Are you ready to go? (to HELL)." "Then the anti-Christ (OBAMA) marked his followers (those that believe the straight from hell Obamacare is a good thing!) with the tatoo "hope and change". "But the Lord sent his Holy Angel Mitt Romney to battle the evil anti-Christ (Obama) and preserve the Lord's Trickle Down economic theory. And all was good".
whats really scary is that there are people out there that actually believe what you posted.
Carter wanted to be the anti-christ, but he failed. Obama does have a similar economy to Carter, so you may have a point.
Someone forgot to take their pills today.
I guess your bible does not have the following verses in it
2 John 1-10 NKJV
If anyone (Mitt Romney & Mormons) comes to you does not bring this doctrine (The Gospel of Jesus) do NOT receive him into your house (The White House included) nor greet him.
Galatians 1:8 NKJV
But even if we or an angel from heaven (like Moroni) preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.
The apostle Paul thought that the previous statement was important enough to say it twice in Galatians 1:9
He is the only kind of Christian that can lead America with its many cultures.
He s the only kind of Christian that will never make anyone question the religion because it hurts some.
He is the kind of Christian that is capable of thinking.
He is the kind of Christian that has my respect and vote.
Sounds like an athiest
I see. Tolerance and reasonable is atheism? Sounds a lot like militant Islamist – non believers deserve to die? Are you that kind of a Christian, anonymous?
I'll take aethism if thats the only option to have a good human being in office 🙂
I thank " GOD " for sending President Barack Obama to us no matter what some people will say MY President has opened the eyes of so many My President Barack Obama comes with a humble spirit,a vision for all people to reach their own destiny. "GOD " will take care of him and his family no matter what the devil throws at them. I pray that those who met the day that President Obama was sworn in when they plotted to do everything evil.low-down, dirty disgusting under-handed things to bring President Obama down just know the same God that is keeping President Obama is the same GOD you will meet one day and will ask you what have you done in your life. Will you be proud of yourself ?
what an absolutely ridiculous article
Wow...CNN...inferences of Obama, comparable to being a "Holy one," ....not biased, are you?
CNN – you should be ashamed of yourself putting this article headline right next to the negative one about Mormonism. Blatant Bias! Are you a news organization or not?
Want to know about our President?
Read the New Yorkers endorsement of him. Excellent and spot on.
It's a shame that this kind of GARBAGE makes it to CNN - CNN is no better than fox these days. If you want to talk about non-christians, talk about Mormonism. My uncle and aunt were Mormons and I have a close friend now who is a Mormon. We have talked extensively about her faith in the company of several other Mormons. According to all the above Mormons, they do not believe in a hell and they believe - and LISTEN UP - that Christ and Satan are brothers. They believe both were sons of God and that one is the black sheep of the family - but still beloved. And they believe that we are also the children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ and the devil.
Satan, hell, talking snakes, men living inside "fish", burning bushes, ark's, etc. Can you believe we're talking about something adults not only believe in but will fight over?
After being accused of being muslim, no wonder he is so 'open' about his religious beliefs.
I sometimes wonder whether he is athiest. Oh, did i day wonder? I mean fantasize about.
Obama is the best kind of Christian.
One who actually tries to help people.
Instead of all the fake Christians on the right who try to steal from the poor, the elderly, the disabled in order to give more to the wealthy. These people will all go to Hell.
Vote him in again and he will "Help" himself to your money, putz.
This is the most shameful piece of reporting I have ever come across. While I understand this reporter is only passing along comments from others, sometimes we should just ingore the speaker. Would you go to the nut house for views on economic policy. This truly is dripple. As for the so called religous right, these people as a group are so far removed from god and his teachings that I am in full agreement with Pastor Cass you can put them in a church it does not make them christians.
In fact it is the same religous nuts of the right that have brought the American Society to its destruction. Four years of opposing a man simply because of his colour and not fitting your mold, has deepened your decline as a nation after 8 years of the worst leadership in american history. Nearly 250000 dead directly due to the far right, Your economy is in tatters, your health care system rated as the least effective in the G8, your children ranking 17th in the world inn the education they recieve. But here comes the right again wanting more war, more military spending you can not afford, more policies of greed and consumption. Lets tally it up shall we:
War Hate Greed Lust for Power Domination over the weak and poor Subjicating others to your will
Sound christian to you, sounds the Satanism to me.
MEOWCAT – Obviously a Obama Supporter, the Jock Strap kind! We are the reason this nation may just have a chance of once again being great 'Under God'.
Funny how your Founding Fathers didn't want God into your nation in the first place but not until later it was forced onto all Americans. Forgetting that you have freedom of Religion and separation of Church and State?
'We are the reason this nation may just have a chance of once again being great 'Under God'."
when was that then? during slavery? trail of tears? jim crow? ah the good old christian filled days huh?
Obama's "gespel" is simple: 1) lie, cheat and steal your way to the U.S. Presidency; 2) rob the American people of their dignity; 3) force the U.S. into the new socialist world order, in which the "leaders" like Obama control ALL levers of production, finances, social structure, etc.
You know him, I see!
Soulphoenix – Obviously you aren't paying attention to the world. Sad that stupid people like you vote people into power.
# 1 and 2 actually refer to George W., or have you forgotten?
I suspect that if there is a second term for Obama, those who attack you now, Soulphoenix, will respect you later. Obama comes from the most corrupt (yet successful) political machine in the nation. His life is a mish-mash of doubtful beginnings. I don't think Obama Sr. is his father. I think it is Frank Marshall Davis, and I think Obama could well be the anit-Christ and that the second coming could be nigh. Interesting world, isn't it!
"and I think Obama could well be the anit-Christ and that the second coming could be nigh"
and i think you are a nutter