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.
ROMNEY 2012 LANDSLIDE
Romney 2012 LANDBOMB !!
fofo...EXACTLY!! well said!
Since there are secular Jews, couldn't Obama be a secular Christian?
Obama is the good kind of Christian.
One who believes in helping people.
As opposed to all the "fake" Christians in the rightwing who want to steal from the poor, the elderly, the disable to give even more money to the wealthy. All of these "fake" Christians will burn in H E L L.
Obama is a rich man who gives very little to charity.
Obama is a rich man who gives very little to charity.
Romney donated all of his govenor salary to charity, given much to charity beyond that. public service, the list is long.
obama hasnt done anything
You mean his mandatory "charity" to the Mormon church? I think "mandatory" and "charity" are mutually exclusive.
I agree. We can only hope so.
Mandatory? There is the old idea to give 10% but thats not exclusive to Mormons. However, Romney contributed far more than just 10% so your 'Mandatory' theory is flawed.
When Conservatives make any attempt to define or explain ANY "Liberal," it becomes clear that they view E V E R Y T H I N G through their ideological lens, to the point that what they try to purport as President Obama (in this case) is virtually unlike the actual person, his actual thoughts and intentions.
YES, "Liberals" do it too, but to a much lesser degree – AND, what really annoys "Conservatives is the fact that we can use FACTS to characterize them.
You just classified all conservatives into one ideology, doing exactly what you accuse conservatives of doing towards liberals. Go figure!
In his attempt to define or explain President Obama,it becomes clear that Sam Brownback views E V E R Y T H I N G through his ideological lens, to the point that what he purports President Obama to be is virtually unlike the actual person, his actual thoughts and intentions.
YES, "Liberals" do it too, but to a much lesser degree – AND, what really annoys "Conservatives is the fact that we can use FACTS to characterize them.
Wrong, he views Obama through Obama's own policies and stated beliefs. Those views are difficult to follow since Obama's religion is one of convenience. 20+ years under Rev. Wright and Obama in 2008 disavowed him saying he didn't realize Wrights radical left wing religious views which is utter BS. Obama knew Wright very well. They were friends, both inside and outside the church.
It is bad enough that Obama has destroyed this country financially. Now he wants to misrepresent Christianity.
He will answer to a higher power for that.
What has Obama done to destroy the country? I think someone needs a time out from Fox News, you're starting to believe them.
Yeah, neither Cheney nor Newt are higher powers.
If ignorance is Bliss, you are in Nirvana (and NO, I don't mean the grunge band).
@Joel, He has destroyed the country by doubling Bush's deficit to over $1,000,000,000,000 per year. 44 months of >8% unemployment, <2% economic growth etc. Ya, you can blame it all on the GOP or Bush but its been nearly 4 years. Time for Obama and the Dems to take responsibility for their policies and own this economy. 44 months is the slowest recovery from a recession of any president. Reagan inherited a worse economy and had it back to the starting level in 18 months, way above by 27.
Keep your religion in your own house and quit trying to shove it down everyones throat. I'm sick and tired of religion in government. It has no business there. There's supposed to be a separation between church and state, but you and your ilk seem 'hell-bent' on making sure it takes front and center in this country. Disgusting...
Some of the people on this post questioning the president's faith are the same people who would purposely try to cut you off in traffic when you are trying to get over with your turn signal on. I guess you have nothing to attack the president on, so you try after his faith. PATHETIC!!!! just like most republicans...They blame the president for everything....so how come I don't hear anything about our do nothing congress...Isn't it their job to formulate legislation???
The arguments against the president is lame at best! What you are saying is that he had enough leadership ability to navigate the country through a second great depression, but can't navigate a recovery? What would you people rather have? A depression? Or a Recovery? That's like saying an Olympic track star would not be able to run in a high school track meet!!!!
When did we name our recent status ad the Second Great Depression? I thought it was a great recession? The next great depression will be if Obama is re-elected!
Romney = Satan
Considering that he believes that Jesus was Satan's brother, he probably would see that as a compliment.
Romney = Mr. Ed
Are you saying that we should talk about the state we are in because of that imbecile born-again Bush?
It amazes me how it is so clear that the more intelligent people have chosen Obama last election and will do so again.
If Obama is reelected and drives this country into the ground. Because that is what he is doing. In 4 years you can come back on here and apologies to all of us idiots that will not vote for him because we see him as he is a socialist.
Only the dumbbells (of which there are plenty in the U.S.) and the racists (of which there are also plenty) will not vote for him.
Most clear-thinking people know that President Obama has accomplished a lot and is trying to the right thing for the most people.
Do we really want to go back to the Bush Republican days???
Obama not only re-wrote what the Christian faith is –he has re-written to ten commandments. #!He says I am your Lord , your God you shall put no one before me, # 2 thou shalt kill in to promote my political career, #3 Covet your neighbors Goods, #4 Dishonor your Mother and Father by insults and neglect–(first you'll have to move in with them –since there will be no jobs) and on and on!
Your comments are almost legible enough to be considered Pathetic!!!
Lily, you're idi8t.
lily you are seriously in need of help. That is the most ridiculous unsupported post i've ever seen! please don't post anymore for the sake of the countries intelligence
Every business owner I speak to (I sell businesses insurance) says they are waiting for the election before moving forward.
When pressed, they tell me they fear if Obama is re-elected they will pay more in taxes, spend more on healthcare and not be to grow, expand or hire more workers.
My survey is not scientific, just the business owners I call on every day.
By the way, the majority are minority owned businesses.
at first I thought it was just to put me off and not commit to buying from me. But when I did follow-up questions it always comes out...they are scared of the unknown. taxes, healthcare costs, etc. etc.
I agree Clayton. I own a small business in manufacturing and I am interviewing for 2 positions this week but I will not do any hiring until after the election. And depending on the results of the election, I may not hire anyone. I talk to business owners large and small everyday and they are in the same boat I am in. It's a shame businesses have to run on fear of the government.
Businesses are not hiring simply because there is not enough DEMAND for their products. And why should they? There are no other reasons like healthcare or taxes. We have had 8 years of the Bush tax cuts already, and are the "swell to dos " hiring?
So why would giving them even more money do anything? Just another crazy "trickle down" theory. This is a pretty sad country when we have to hear the trickle down plan again and again and again and ......
There is a word for a different kind of Christian. Heretic!
They were just the losers to the version that had the might of Rome to kill off it's enemies for them.
Everyone has to agree with you, huh? Hope you have a comfy chair, you'll be waiting a while.
I consider myself a born again Christian. I was baptized and I believe in God. However, over the past several years I have questioned that faith and I have stopped going to chruch. Why? Because the so-called Christians in today's churches, especially the baptist, have become too political. They have demonized this president and have spread lies about him and his faith and that is wrong. Today they are all nothing but a bunch of hypocritical, racist hateful bigots and I refuse to be a part of it. Even the Grahams (Franklin) have sold their souls for political gain. Christianity is America today is a shameful scam.
Do not walk away from God because of these people. They will have to give an account for their racist views. They are not acting as God would have them to, and it is not biblical.
I most sincerely agree with you. Christianity has become a convenient "hideout" for the bigots, hypocrites, shallow thinkers and haters who so zealously (and publicly) espouse their "profound" love for Christ. Those religious leaders who use their bully pulpit to lecture the sheep as to who, or what, they are supposed to vote for are, in my opinion, the worst of the worst. Meanwhile these "quasi" churches don't even pay taxes. Christianity has been hijacked and distorted by those who would use it for their own ends. Meanwhile the sheep keep baaing in lockstep.
Religion should not have gotten this far in the election of our President.
"Easy on the zeal Churchos… I've got something to say. Don't you get it? It's all Christianity, people! The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!"
Bart, The Simpsons
Simple a "Christian" against the Bible is not a Christian as a Muslim against the Koran is not a Muslim.
He is not a Christian.
How is Obama against the Bible?
Wrong, not all Christians read the bible and interpret it the same way. That means there are other factors outside the bible that influence ones beliefs yet they are all still Christians.
His secret Gospel is Kuran
Do you know what the earliest copies of the Christian Gospels, not the fab 4 approved by the Roman Empire, say about the Reselection, the cornerstone of Christianity?
Nothing, nada, zip, it never happened. It was introduced as poetic license to the story later on to make him more God like.
What is reselection? Is that like where we get to re-select a president and get a better one this time?