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. bz

    A real Christian wouldn't blow up a 16 year old boy on a kill list with a drone.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • snowboarder

      did real christians drop the bomb on hiroshima?

      October 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • ArthurP

      No but they will celebrate mass murder of innocents.

      "And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead." (Exodus 12:29-30)

      (terrorism – killing those with no political power to force political change by those with political power)

      October 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Sogreat1989

      Just as a real christian would not participate in the Crusades, a christian backed act of violence; and just as a christian would not go to another content and enslave their people just to make a profit. Thats things real Christians wouldn't do, but that is what many people who claimed to be Christians did.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  2. Dave

    The fundamentalist evangelicals feel that their interpretation of the Bible is the ONLY correct version. They are wrong.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • ForGoodOfAll

      I agree Dave. The Christian fundamentalists are ignorant, bigotted, brainwashed mental cases. If 'heaven' is where they are headed, I would much rather end up in the 'other place'. 'Hellish' would be the experience of spending eternity with the likes of those creeps!

      October 22, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  3. chris

    Community uplift – requires individual attainment.

    This is what always turns me off to liberal ideas..they cloak themselves for doing whats right for the people yet ignore the fact that what they want has to be paid for by someone. In large, those someones are those they hate.

    Individual attainment sets the example for others to follow or benefit from.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • RJW

      In other words you are taking care of yourself and screw anybody who can't. That's what I hate about people like you. You lack any compassion or sense. It's all about you . . . . and your God money.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Sogreat1989

      I understand your argument, but if people were to help others willingly (which is what people try to convince others to do) there would be no question of why you are taking from people to help others.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  4. palintwit

    I'm beginning to believe that Sarah Palin is the only one who can heal and re-unify our country. She is the "right" kind of Christian. But first she must return to her motorhome and resume her cross country tour. She will have to visit cities both large and small, taking care to speak only to "real Americans", dispensing her sage advice and folksy, homespun common sense solutions. We can be a great nation once again but first we must follow the Palin Path.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • CyndieKing

      Good one. There are those who won't appreciate this humor for what it is, and those are the voters who scare me.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  5. CyndieKing

    When interviewing for almost any job in this country if you are asked your religious affiliation you immediately have grounds for a lawsuit. Why? Because its no body's business what one believes, where one worships, or how one worships. There are obvious exceptions to this the most readily apparent being a religious leader in an organized setting, but I don't know that I agree that 'politician' should be part of the excepted group.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  6. paul

    I am not a huge Obama supporter and certainly not a supporter of organized religion, but I think there is a phrase in the bible, "judge not, less ye be judged." How can any of us, regardless of political or religious power, determine, or worse declare what an individual's relationship with God might be. This is why we have wars in this world. People....just because someone does not believe they way you do, does not mean they do not have a spiritual relationship.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  7. snowboarder

    as long as our politicians realize that they represent the entire nation and all religions represented therein, their personal religion is irrelevant.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  8. 2020

    President Obama never makes religion an issue, his personal faith in God is crystal clear, not for you or anyone to question. He is answerable to God, not to you.

    You mind your business in faith. God doesn't hire saints. The holy spirit meets all human needs.

    Mormon is a cult, period.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • ArthurP

      Does anyone else see the hypocrisy in the above statement?

      October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  9. me

    I, for one, along with the other 1 in 25 Americans who no longer belief in a Deity, thank him for stopping what religious people believe is true from cramming it down our throats. Abortions, birth control, it's a WOMEN'S choice, not a religious choice. Those who do believe, well then it is THEIR OWN religious choice. When you read about Atheists joining together, it's the end of the world. But we get this crap jammed up our butts >.>

    October 22, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  10. RudyG

    Bien dicho, BF

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  11. George Aranda

    SPLASH...... the intelectual elite sugarcoat Obama's ideology...... with this kind of analysis he should be a saint when reality is that his beliefs are antichristian in deeds (and facts are more important than words) Let it to the academics and Obama will be a pioner..... let it to REALITY and he is a demagogue without courage, since he believe in a social philosophy which is scare as hell to even name it............

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • sam stone

      Wow.....the antichrist.....scary to the inbred cvnts who believe in that stuff

      October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Sogreat1989

      They are academics, because unlike you they have been studying what the past says and actually analyze the things Obama says and does. That is why they can say Obama is a progressive Christian or whatever else.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  12. Rob

    The 'religious right' is another media myth. So Carter and Clinton et al are all 'looney left??. And the media dares to criticize candidates for name calling!

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • LouAZ

      The "religious right" is neither.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  13. pam

    Organized religion is just another power trip. It's no different than the power hungry corporations or the power hungry government. They all have their own agendas and want to be the end all authority over what people do and how they think.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  14. Adrienne

    If President Obama is the wrong kind of Christian, that's good. The rotten bigotted RW Christian movement has turned me off to religion. They are hateful and dangerous. It is too bad that they are the people who are driving the discussion about morality. They lack morals and souls.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  15. ObjectiveGuy

    I've lived in Chicago most of my life. A good "Chicago Politician" knows how to change his stripes for whatever audience he is with at the time. They will lie through their teeth, tell you exactly what you want to hear, promise you the moon and stars, and pretend to be one of you. Then, when he goes to the next event, he works his way into that group in the same way. Obama is very much cast from this mold, and uses Christianity to connect with people. If you study his past, and read his books, and look at his ACTIONS (not his words), it's pretty clear that he is a Muslim through and through, and pretends to be a Christian, since the US is primarily a Judeo-Christian based society. Don't be naive and gullible enough to buy into his act. Pretending to believe in a religion that you actually do not, in order to get a political advantage, is stooping pretty low.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • RJW

      Your name is pretty funny. Objective? Not in the least. You are nothing but another Obama hater. You are pathetic.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • visitor

      Oh paleeze, if you actually lived in Chicago your entire life you would know that Obama is hardly a Muslim. By the way, name one politician that doesn't speak to the audience? Obama does it a LOT LESS than Romney. First a moderate, then a flaming right winger to get the Republican nomination, now back to moderate. I am wondering why the right wing isn't furious over having Moderate Mormon Mitt shoved down their throats. After all, it WAS Santorum that actually won Iowa wasn't it?

      October 22, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Decency costs Nothing

      Objective guy – Excellent post! Well said.

      Now the blinkered, uneducated liberals will crawl out from under their stones for:
      [A] A snivel-fest
      [B] A name calling session! LOL

      October 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  16. hme

    Since this is a Belief Blog article, remove it from front page headlines CNN. Seriously. How much did he pay you to keep this on your page? Must be a mint. Sickening.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  17. IslandAtheist

    He's the kind that doesn't Buy-bull.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  18. ArthurP

    Being rich is a gift from God to be enjoyed by the receiver.

    "Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to eat of it, and to accept his lot, and to rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God." – Ecclesiastes 5:19

    October 22, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  19. BF

    La prensa esta tratando de vender a Obama como cristiano, una foto con los ojos cerrados no lo hace cristiano. Estan tratando de vender una botella de coca cola vacia, diciendote que tiene coca cola. vas a comprarla ? HOME WORK

    October 22, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • kimbatchelor

      Por tener politica de tratar los infermos, Obama esta siguiendo las ensenanzas de Jesus. Cuando el dios de Romney y los quien apoyan a el es el dios de riqueza, es una religion del diablo.

      October 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  20. buzz

    What a shame that people have turned Christianity into Politics to win a vote. America is segregated by bigots, that's not moving FORWARD, its ass backwards

    October 22, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • ForGoodOfAll

      I say 'amen' to that, Buzz!! Not much has really changed since the pre-civil war days. Bigotry is an abomination and it keeps our country from moving forward.

      October 22, 2012 at 11:44 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.