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.
Most of the "harsh" comments on this page are coming from the phony-bologna Christians. Shame on you!
Hope & Change? I would like some of that in the next 4 years, please!
I certainly see little difference in the views often stated by President Obama and my own. I certainly consider myself a Christian, and often wonder why those who claim to be seem so caught up in bigotry and hate. These do not seem to be the fruits of Christianity from what I can see. I also believe in the separation of Church and State. I will point out to those who are lacking an education in the matter that our motto was "E pluribus unum" from 1795 until some would push to change it into "In God We Trust" in the later part of the 20th Century.
Because some are not able to understand that once our leader is elected president, even if we did not vote them in > it is our responsibility as citizens to give him our full support.
When your team does not win, a person should have enough sportsmanship to say "well done" to the team that did win, and not set out to find fault and bring them to a fall > simply because they did indeed, win over that persons selected team.
It is very important that we do not short change ourselves by keeping our arms extended, waving our hands and simply not allowing the other team close to us. We are all in this together, and I"m not recommending you hug and embrace, but merely – listen.. and listen with an open, unbiased mind.
what good is the best healthcare plan in the world (say Obama makes employer's pay 100% of everything with no contributions from the employee) when you have no JOB to be eligible for the plan?
Obamacare self destructs in 2015, unless Romney stops it.
Satan would have you believe in many things to support his agenda, this image that Barak is a spiritual revolutionary is one of them. Would a man of God stop Prayer Day at the White House? It contradicts the story line when we ignore that Barak began Muslim Prayer Day at the White House as well, as Islam is in direct opposition of Christian Thought.
We have no secrets, yet, Barak is filled with them. Why would he spend more than a million dollars hiding his past, to include his birth certificate? Why would he use his lawyers to close his education off to the public? Why would he be using the SSN of a person born in 1890, whose death was never reported to the SS Administration? To many whys...to many illusions.
Nice try though, the attempt to lift baraks name into the halls of the Saints flies in the face of the truth.
Stop congratulating yourself as you bear false witness.
atta way js03. i totally agree
None of that matters to me, because I only see it as innuendo and rhetoric created by those that would keep him from office or have him pushed out from same.
What matters is what happens during his term. Not before, not after but specifically during. The entire USA can't and won't be turned around in a mere four years. As you cannot build a house in a day. And when building even a house, you have to take time, money, resources into consideration > now and future. You have to weigh everything – measure twice, cut once.
All I know is, until the four years are over, I am going to support the leader that a majority of U.S. citizens elected and do what he asks to help all of us – get back on track. It might take 4 more, and if he is not our leader, regardless if I voted for them, I'll be at the ready – waiting for "here is what you can do to help"... and do my best to do it. If I have issues, then most certainly, I will use the legislative hierarchy in place – to voice my concerns.
Real Christians are still mourning the loss of Peggy Rea, the actress that played Boss Hogg's wife.
If Romney is such a wonderful so-called "Christian", he wouldn't be running such a terrible, nasty campaign. Amen
All of you people Vote for Romney so we can finally become The United States of MONSANTO......yeah..
or maybe the KOCH Republic...take your pic, because they will control everything you do.....If you think you're paying taxes now, wait until you have to pay taxes on clean air, rain water, and non-toxic soil.....you better start now.
One does not need to be a member of a large publicity-seeking congregation that is long on talk and short on action to be a Christian. One of the most fundamental of the teachings of Jesus is that prayer in private is most sincere and likely the first answered rather than the all too public cheer leading.
Is there a need to be "born again" if your entire life has been led by Jesus already?
Yes. John 3:3
In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. "
"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"
Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
The Bible says not to judge, lest you be judged. Focus on the state of your own soul first, and don't presume to see into the heart of another professed Christian. Not a lot of "love of neighbors" evident in the harsh hateful posts here...
Yeah.... To all those Conservative "Christians" out there, here's something to think about: Spouting fire and brimstone, "born again babble", and stuffing you minister's pockets don't necessarily speak for Christianity either.
Christ has ONLY one interest – caring for the poor and forgotten. Redemption came from deeds – not placards are mottoes. Listening to these babbling Conservative Ministers, it strikes me as no small wonder why Christ chased the money changers out of the temple, and why Marx called Religion a pall on mankind.
"caring for the poor and forgotten"???? through GOVERNMENT?? or through the INDIVIDUAL??
remember God's core belief is FREE WILL.....not FORCE.....
Obama is a honk for GOVERNMENT ISSUED SOCIAL JUSTICE....i.e. 'fair share'
Interesting point of view. Every man will stand before the living God and give account for his life. The reality we all face is *slightly* bigger than the current political climate.
Funny how Obama's moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ doesn't include the unborn.
And funny how you don't understand the God-given human condition of free will. And funny how you don't understand that the U.S. Supreme Courts decision to give women a choice is the law of the land. And funny how you don't understand that Obama as President has will continue to uphold the law of the land. As to Romney, you really don't know where he stands on woman's choice. Romney has shown himself to be multiple choice in this regard.
funny how you wouldn't even have fingers to type with if your mom had exercised her "free will" to kill you in the womb. Fight for something that makes sense.
Christiany does not endorse GOVERNMENT as the arbitrator of Social Justice.....jesus is that arbitrator....
Obama's CORE BELIEF is Social Justice.....Obama believes that only via the hand of GOVERNMENT can SOCIAL JUSTICE be FAIR ...i.e. "fair share"
"What ever we once were...we are no longer a Christian nation"
Barack H. Obama
Jesus is not God.
Jesus gave us the Lord's Prayer.
"Scholar" – how wrong you are: He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The numbers are clear. Christians in the US are the most charitable people in the WORLD! Hands down. And not only money BUT TIME. To try to imply that Christians don't care about the hungry and the poor because they don't agree with supporting inefficient, wasteful, ineffective, government social programs is a flat out lie. Just look at Biden's charitable contributions (even on a percentage basis) and you'll get a snapshot of Liberal views on giving. It's really not even close. Christians work hard to help those in their local community through their church and other charitable groups. And that's not even mentioning the amount of time and money that goes to missions in 3rd world countries.
I love all the "christians" on here spreading their hate and lies, because you know Jesus was such a hateful dude.
People are so stupid...it's so clear the George Bush destroyed our Country in his 8 years of office. Obama had to endure all the crap he got stuck with. He's tried so very hard the last 3-1/2 years to undue all the damage. It will take the next 4 years to dig out from more of it, and many, many more years. Hopefully we get a Dem in there for many years so we can get our Country back to where it belongs! And...Obama is not a Muslim, you Christian-right crazies!
Obama has failed, time to move on.
To see & understand, that a person has only responsibility for things that happen within their timeframe of responsibility – is a difficult thing to process for some people > less the person being subjected to the accusations... is themselves.
I am unclear how CNN challenging Obama's faith is an attack from the right.
Pay some attention to who's doing the 'challenging'.
It's not challenging but pointing out some differences from those prancing in public hypocrites who proudly proclaim their piety on street corners – Matthew 6:6
Do you know what the earliest copies of the Christian Gospels, not the fab 4 approved by the Roman Empire, say about the Resurrection, 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.
The first half of Ezekiel Chapter 37 is about the Resurection and the second half is about our Kinsman redeemer, that Messiah King of the Jews. The Resurection and the Messiah are both Prophesy from the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, written concurent to Hosea; the other King of the Jews redeemer prophesy.
Arthur, you are deceived. Not only the 4 gospels, but the entire Bible, Old and New Testament, declare the resurrection of Messiah, and someday, all of us. Some to eternal Life, some to eternal Shame. Hope you find your way to the Life side. Don't be deceived – do some real research for yourself. (The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and Evidence that Demans a Verdict by Josh McDowell are good starts).
@John P. Tarver:
Neither state his name was Jesus nor identify his/her Earthly parents. No way to know who they were talking about. He/she may now have even got here yet.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times. "
Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied ;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
ArthurP, I pray that the Lord might open your eyes so that you can see that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. Shalom and Maranatha!
He's not a Christian. He just uses it to advance his political career.
Yeah, I'm sure Obama is crying because he'll never get the vote of the creationist, snake-handlers, the evangelicals or any other backwards borderline hate-preaching christian faith that still hasn't gained the level of enlightenment to join us in the 20th century, let alone the 21st.