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.
There is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. However, there is something wrong with being a radical Muslim.
The conversion to Rev. Wrights form of Christianity was to maintain his radicalisim while stating he is Christian to help obtain votes.
He hides his Muslim faith behind Christianity.
A vote for Obama is ALMOST like voting for Louis Farrakahn.
Outwardly, we were attacked by Osama. Inwardly, we are being attacked by Obama.
Search you tube for "Obama Admits He Is Muslim" and approximately 1:00 min into the video, in a one on one interview, out from his very own mouth, he states "John McCaine has not asked me about my Muslim faith."
When you combine his true faith and the radical mentoring and upbringing as seen in the movie 2016, it is clear to see and hear he is a Muslim with Radical ideology.
oh for christs sake grow up. accept it, he is a christian.
seriously you people that still claim this are like little children, you really are.
The president has repeatedly said he is a christian. In fact, what christians should be doing in this world is to have as many christians as possible and convert all other religions to christianity. The gospel of matthew the last chapter, Jesus made that order to convert everybody in the world to become a disciple- a christian. Won't you as a "christian" be proud seeing people being converted to christianity? The problem is that when you include religion and politics together then your rationalization ceases.
Can CNN kiss up to Obama more openly? I doubt it. I've just deleted them from my news circuit. The don't even pretend to report the political news. tata.
It would be sad to think that people would vote for anyone because of their religion, because there is only one God! Man made religions not God! We pray for many reasons. I rather vote for a person who seeks the advice of a just and righteous person for all people, than for one that is bias. So President Obama you keep praying and seeking God's wisdom and directiion for all of his people.
CNN tries to make Obama into a saint. Hahahahaha I'm surpassed they didn't put a halo in the photo!
Religion should not be discussed at all. I strongly suspect that a majority of Presidential candidates are not believers in much of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, especially all the miracles. The teachings of Christ or other religious leaders (except Joseph Smith) are fine but the rest is nonsense. Candidates, however, must claim they believe to satisfy the voting public. It's a game that has been played since the founding of this country and the charade continues today.
Just read Romney's family owns the company that makes Ohio's voting machines. That combines with his paying to keep THIS article on CNN's front page....disgusting. I guess Bush bought a presidency. No reason Romney can't I guess. Still sad that our country has stooped this low. Very sad.
pathetic to say the least. CNN journalism should take a step out of the caves and spend time/resources to dig into details that matter.
The Gospel according to CNN and Billy Graham: Take money from MItt Romney and pretentiously dump it into
our own self perpetuating "charities," in the name of Ted Turner and the Rich Folk of Atlanta, Hollywood, Saudi Arabia,
and Los Angeles, (with a kick back for Montreat.)
w w w . god is imainary . com
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real, but thanks for playing.
Nice example of how "tolerant" the left is when it comes to religious freedom.
LOL, so true!!
"Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real, but thanks for playing."
dont be silly.
No bias here..."The Gospel according to Obama" tells how great he is and how Christians should follow his lead. Right beside it, "Atheists to tail Romney, slamming faith" pointing out where his religion is bad. Good clear reporting with no bias ... right?
What difference does it make whheetr or not Mr. Obama is for or against gay marriage, or even has an opinion about it. What matters is that he is stepping up to a diverse nation of people an accommodating diverse style. What more could we ask for?Like I've said, if it were me I'd have President Bush give the prayer for a lot of reasons, one of which is that he owes the new administration and the country a blessing going forward and further, to show a dignity and unity in the changing of the guard.The departing president out of tradition leaves town after the swearing in but I see no problem in being kind and respectful to Mr. Bush. It is time to overlook the past and move on. In public opinion Mr. Bush is riddled with serious mistakes of judgment, but mistakes in fact will need the test of time, and regardless, we should be nice to him and others, including the Rev. Warren. When Eisenhower was sworn in Harry Truman had is bag packed and thought he and Bess might have to walk to the train station, which he was determined to do, but at the last minute found out he was to be given a ride which he gratefully appreciated and I suspect Bess did, too.
Interesting article. I think it is worthy to note that for most evangelicals Mormonism is a cult, yet they are willing to vote someone into office who is in their mind a member of a cult. The truth is that evangelicals do not vote their faith, they never have, they vote their cultural bias. Another example is Ronald Regan, a man from sinfuly hollywood who's life included divorce, children engaged in not "christian behavior" but evangelicals flocked to Regan. Bottom line, evangelicals will vote their pocket books before principles. A 2010 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found just 12% of white
evangelicals indicating that their religious beliefs have a major influence on their views on immigration policy. Similarly, just 13% say the same thing about their views about government aid to the poor."
TAX THE CHURCH!!!! How many MILLIONS has Romney "donated" to his church?? WHAT do they do with all that money? NO ONE 'cept the few "chosen" really know. Mitt won't release his returns and the Morman church certainly won't be forthcoming about how much money it rakes in. BUT the sheep will continue to bleet how Obama's a muslim, Mormonism isn't a cult anymore.....
So the pro Obama liberals on this thread will rant and rave about Romney giving to his church and they would rather give it to Obamas government... Hmmmm I am not even mormon and I would rater trust my money for good in that church than I would in Obamas government.
Yeap, we know what brand of christianity he comes from – Reverend Wright's anti-American, politicized, semi-Muslim christianity. I'd rather have an atheist in the White House!!
I would rather have a Mormon in the White House
you have never seen an old fashioned fire and brimstone preacher have you? that is what wright was, nothing more.
CNN tries, through the above and photo, to make Obama seem so righteous. Sorry, but it's a wicked person who can let a baby be killed while it is in the birth canal being born or leave it to die if it survived an abortion.
lying is also a sin, just so you know.
Speaking of Prayer:
I am sorry but God is busy right now but your prayer is important to us so please hold the line and God will get to you as soon as he is free. You are currently 2,345,678,534 in line.
(angels singing ..... )
I am sorry but God is busy right now but your prayer is important to us so please hold the line and God will get to you as soon as he is free. You are currently 2,345,678,530 in line.
(angels singing ..... )
I am sorry but God is busy right now but your prayer is important to us so please hold the line and God will get to you as soon as he is free. You are currently 2,345,678,519 in line.
(angels singing ..... )
One thing you must understand is Human incentive in an Economy. The Answer is his personal incentive.
Second; The Christian law of consecration requires you give to those in need freely without being forced it is not consecration when you are forced to give or pay a tax no matter what..... Its all about liberty
Third; the Law of agency will never be trumped by the law of consecration.
The law of Agency is any christians blessings
How can any Progressive Liberal like Obama even be christian when he denies people thier free agency and liberty by imposing Taxes and Penalties and overspending and picking loosers ie. Solindra Volt Windpower
The only Moral Issue is our Liberty.
"Second; The Christian law of consecration requires you give to those in need freely without being forced it is not consecration when you are forced to give or pay a tax no matter what..... Its all about liberty"
well first off its isnt the christian law but mormon law, and secondly its not about giving to those in need but giving your property to the church, whereupon they will give you stewardship of it. so in fact its handing over everything to the church, not exactly liberty
Difference between Religion and Salvation:
Labelling Obama as a different kind of Christian, is the lowest of the lowest of the lowest. Grow up. I am not Christian, however; respects all religions. Bringing someone's religion in politics, is the dirtiest politics. He may not be Christian or anything, who cares. He is not going for a Pop's position in Vetican. Leave the relgion out of politics you morons.
What Democrats fail to realize is that the child in the womb should also have human rights protection. Ignoring that life undercuts their support for ALL human rights. In the same fashion, Republicans fail to realize that there are many people who simply need our help to overcome life's difficulties. But life and birth must first happen for any social justice issues to be dealt with.
It will be nice to have a real president sitting in the oval office instead of a weak poseur. President Romney sure has a nice ring to it. Get used to saying it Barry groupies. He's on his way out. La la la la, la la la la, hey hey hey, GOODBYE, LOL. Learn the lyrics. Even the groupies can learn the lyrics since it's so easy. All together now, La la la la, la la la la, hey hey hey, GOODBYE. Abu Hussein had his chance and he blew it big time. Nobody can defend such a record, not even CNN or Bill Maher, or ABC or CBS. Now listen carefully, He's on his way out. La la la la, la la la la, hey hey hey, GOODBYE, Obama...
You are an idiot
Brilliant analysis, Frankie.......
You must be a 1%er. No other person would promote Romney/Ryan without shooting themselves in their foot.