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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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 is the RIGHT kind of Christian. He keeps his faith personal, practices it well, cares about the poor, and does not force it on everyone else. Unlike those on the other side of the aisle.
Would people be saying all of this is if was white??? ignorance
Nope! This is what these supposed Christians do to make themselves feel better for supporting a Mormon. On any other day, they would be ripping Mitt apart but since he is a republicant, they will support him 100% These so-called christians are full of hot air. Last election Obama was a muslim, so they wouldn't vote for him. Now he is the only Protestant in the two parties but they claim he is mis-guided so they can feel good about voting for the candidate that any other day would call a cultist.
Thank you CNN for this piece. As a faithful Catholic swing voter, my religious values would have clashed with with Obama's. Now I have reconciled the two! Thank you! This is one of the best Obama apologetic pieces Ive ever read!
Giving to the poor funds and services that were taken from others by force isn't Christian. It isn't charity either. We as taxpayers agree to a certain amount of social safety and we agree to a certain amount of social services. But these aren't charity and running a social services system has nothing to do with being a Christian. Christians value good works personally performed by the individual for those in need. Help by proxy isn't a Christian act. Further whatever Christian Obama may be he is factually a social policy president during a fiscal and foreign policy term. He was simply the wrong man for the right time in history. Where was Obama when John Carry was running?
Obama is way too smart to be a Christian – he's an atheist, but as a politician he knows how to play to stupidity game.
Why is anybody concerned about his faith? This is a free country, where we all enjoy religious freedom, right? So why not leave it out? Regardless of his faith, Obama, as any other president, will be lead by his personal convictions, faith or no faith. We need to stop being so judgmental of each other. We live in the greatest nation on Earth! Let's endorse the heritages and cultures that make us all so unique! He has a right to WHATEVER faith he subscribes to, as do you!
If you made a list of all the main-line denominations in the Christian America, the list would go into the hundreds. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostal, Apostolic, COG, COGIC, UCC, to name a few. (The Baptist church alone has at least 27 different branches.) The point is, nobody has a corner on the "correct" interpretation of the Gospel, and anybody or any group that claims that theirs is the only one should be ashamed of themselves for their arrogance. Obama is the first president with the moral authority to claim that, when it comes to religion, America is a big tent, large enough to hold many different perspectives.
How come everytime someone disagrees with Obama or makes even the slightest point/disagreement with the president people assume they are voting for Romney and are a "radical Republican"? No candidate is perfect, some "appear" to be better then others, but this idolatry of Obama by the left has gotten out of control. Liberals talk a big game about tolerance, but since 2008 this clearly has not been the case. The majority of Democrats (especially the younger ones) truly believe that if someone is Republican they must be either stupid, misinformed, brainwashed, a religious fanatic, a racist or some kind of greedy millionare. Although the GOP has forgotten and strayed far from its roots, the fact remains that there is absolutely nothing "radical" about endorsing true conservatism. Small government vs Big government; the bottom line in the differences between both parties. I really hope that the GOP catches up on domestic issues and realizes that religion needs to stay out of politics, because I and many others believe that Small government where the majority of power is left to the states is the superior form of government, and there is nothing wrong with that.
You are right, couldn't agree with you more and well said... CNN is always trying to push this President, they would do better in their ratings if they were not so biased.. Use to like watching them, but, not anymore...
sorry jeff but you are also making the kind of sweeping statement you are moaning when you say 'the majority of democrats'
and i can also point out how it seems some of the right view all liberals as godless marxist lazy scroungers. There is blame on both sides and it is disigenous to ignore that.
I have to laugh at the comment that conservatives favor small government over big government. The largest increases in the size of government occurred under Reagan and G.W. Bush. Go figure.
1) Your absolutely right there is blame on both sides, however given that the mainstream media is mostly liberal, americans are more easily exposed to the Democratic point of view, thus there is much more hate and insulting comeing from the left these days. Class warfare, playing the race card on a daily basis, convincing americans that the tea party are a bunch of gun touting religious fanatics. All one has to do is turn on MSNBC to see how hateful they have become. Remember the Colorado shootings when the news anchor from ABC tried to make the claim that James Holmes was a tea party member just because there was a registed tea party member by the name of James Holmes. Bias at its finest.
2) Im not claiming that recent Republican presidents have created a culture of small government, but small government is still at the heart of conservatism. Democrats are still much more likely to propose big government programs. (ex Obamacare)
Since when has true Christianity needed "REVISION" by this failure of a President????? He's attacked FAMILY VALUES; flip-flopped on GAY MARRIAGE [just one of his many "changes of mind!]; and he openly, and enthusiastically encourages ABORTION.
NOTHING has changed since God gave us the 10 Commandments – on which CIVIL laws are based. This man is actively working to destroy everything good and noble about America. And that's NOT including the wreckage of the ECONOMY!
Oh, there are so many things wrong with your statements.
Obama has never "enthusiastically encouraged" abortion, only a woman's right to have one if she wants it. He has never attacked family values, only the closed-minded conservative view of what that phrase means.
"NOTHING has changed since God gave us the 10 Commandments – on which CIVIL laws are based." Really? There's laws against "coveting"? There's laws against dishonoring your parents? There's laws against honoring other gods? The only laws that come close to the 10 Commandments are against murder and theft, and those are common in all country's laws, regardless of faith.
Obama hasn't flip-flopped on nearly as many issues as Romney. Pro-choice governor, pro-life today. "Progressive Republican" governor, "Severely Conservative" today. Where does Romney stand on any issue? Check your watch and the audience, it changes based on both.
"and he openly, and enthusiastically encourages ABORTION."
talking of the 10 commandments, there is one there about bearing false witness. when you try to claim he 'enthusiastically encourages ABORTION' then you break that commandment so hard im surprised there isnt a thundercrack punctuation.
Wow!! Really? It is ignorant people like yourself that make the Republican party the target of jokes and even entire satirical comedy acts (did anyone see the clip of Stephen Colbert at the George W. Bush presidential address?..hilarious!!) im sure that you are so amazingly christian and loved more by god that you have the authority to proclaim who is a good Christian and who isn't, because I'm sure that God loves your ignorant banter and blind judgement..you say he enthusiastically encourages abortion? are you kidding me? no one who is pro choice likes abortion or encourages it, but it is a reality..if i have to be and think like you to be a "real" Christian i say no thank you!!
This is a marvelous piece of propaganda. Thank you for sharing. I could not have done a better job if I were on Obama's campaign strategy committee.
"So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." – Barak Obama –
A persons beliefs inform their actions and that makes a persons beliefs very relevant to me.
The American Taliban (christian right wingnuts) remain a threat to America.
I used to think that CNN was somewhat neutral. And it used to be clear that FOX was the home of the tea baggers. But lately its become clear that CNN has joined the tea bagger society. Since the first debate they have done nothing but praise Romney and bash Obama. Why in the hell are they even running this story other than to bash Obama. Who the hell is any news agency to determine the level of someone's personal beliefs. They have no right to even determine if Romney is a good Mormon. They create this crap just to give themselves something to babble about and fill airtime.
President Obama is simply trying to keep the church separated from politics. We have been inching our way away from secularism and I command his action. Another good reason to elect him vs bigotry.
Forget his religion; WE NEED JOBS and that takes leadership!
Four more years of what?
FAILED LEADERSHIP – BLAME, BLAME, BLAME!
As much as I disagree with "Clayton," his is at least a legitimate concern as opposed to all this babble about which candidate is the "true Christian."
I don't care about a President's religion as long as he doesn't try to infringe upon mine or impose one on me.
I just want a President who is economically competent and not an embarrassment internationally. (Bush and Obama have both failed on these.)
* It's also an embarrassment that CNN is using this obviously biased story as their website's lead story.
Embarrassing was Romney's recent european tour.
Romney/Ryan is a ticket back to the dark ages.
"I don't care about a President's religion as long as he doesn't try to infringe upon mine or impose one on me."
Then don't vote for Romney/Ryan. They want to pass laws based solely on their religious beliefs. Banning gay marriage, banning all abortions with no exceptions, these are tenents of their religions and their views on social policy, not good law.
WOW, this guy is so transparently 'fake'. He is like a chamelion changing with it's environment...............
I guess we will just have to look at Mt 6:17. "by their fruit, you will recognize them...."
Obama's fruit is gay marriage, increased funding to kill babies in the womb, being a poor steward of the taxpayer's money, and waging class warfare.
You may want to look at Acts 2
"44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. "
When you are willing to practice that, then you can claim "class warfare"
Please, tell me where the Bible addresses class warfare, except to say that we should be generous and giving to the poor? (The Bible also doesn't talk about abortion or alleged mismanagement of tax revenue, but at least in that case you could assume a very figurative extrapolation of some passages in scripture would more likely lead to a stance against both)
More generally, are the people commenting here actually reading the article? If so, they're certainly not responding to the content of it, and Ben, I include you as one of those. There's plenty to think on, agree and disagree on, reflect on, and yet what seems more common is spewing out some off-topic, internally inconsistent garbage. If you *had* read the article, you'd see that you are doing exactly what Felten says you're doing. He describes it as "spiritual triumphalism," as black-and-white reasoning, but I might describe it in different terms. I would call it a blind and unshaking belief that whatever the self-described evangelical Christian thinks is actually the infallible word of God regardless of whether or not that comes from or is even related to the interpretation of scripture.
It's enough to wonder if the real divide between Obama's type of faith and the type of faith espoused by evangelical Christians in these comments and in the rest of the article is really not *theological* in nature but rather simply *logical*. How much of this gap is explained by an underlying gap in literacy skills and critical thinking?
REALLY Romney is a A MORMAN!
Would you conservative "christians" please just call yourselves REVELATIONISTS and not Christians!
You are an embarrassment to all of us that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. The only stock you put in Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John (the actual teachings of Jesus Christ) are the parts that support revelations.
Preparing yourself for the return of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with screaming at the top of your lungs that He will come again. You are actually “doing works” – as you people call it. Because you think that by doing this, it will help you get into heaven.
You think that Jesus has commanded you to evangelize; well he has also commanded you to help the poor needy and the sick and to lead by example. You would rather America be considered a Christian country so we could have state sponsored evangelizing, than, an America doing the Christian thing and take care of the poor, needy, and sick. You know, leading by example.
If you come back with the statement that the government should not tax the rich to help the poor then you are not even a revelationist; you are money worshiper who puts money above God!
You are one of the many who have been led astray. God have mercy on your souls!
Religion is PERSONAL,
cult or not, it is well said.
May God bless your soul.
Why on earth is this a story on your front and center web page? This is not news for a Monday morning - or any day for that matter. Get back to the news CNN! Certainly you could put this in a section buried in your site, but by it's very placement, you are pushing your agenda.