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.
Since when is being "born again" a requisite for being a true Christian? I figure being born the first time was good enough if I'm living a decent life. Plenty of people in the churches who don't act so Christian, and plenty of people outside the churches who behave much better.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. ”
Since when is being "born again" a requisite for being a true Christian? I figure being born the first time was good enough if I'm living a decent life. Plenty of people in the churches who don't ask so Christian, and plenty of people outside the churches who behave much better.
MN...even if he's a Muslim, which HE IS NOT...SO WHAT??
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRISTIAN........
OBAMA IS A MUSLIM!
The Gospel According to Obama = Jeremiah Wright
He's a pragmatist, which is good.
Oh, also, just to add, even though the LDS church has worked hard to legitimize itself in the eyes of many americans, the evangelical christian fundamentalists consider the LDS teaching such a grave perversion of the christian faith (holy trinity issue, extra bible (Book of Mormon), etc.) that it drives them absolutely nuts whenever Mormons try to pass themselves as "christians." However, evangelicals reaction to Romney in this election....SILENCE.
It's amazing the vitriol against Obama here. Hello Christian fundamentalists, are you guys really going to vote for LDS Romney? He's a Mormon, a religion considered by you guys as a CULT!! He'll be the first heretic president of the United States. Kind of puts you guys in a dilemma. LOL.
It's unfortunate, that neither Obama nor Romney are genuine Christians, based on each one's political and religious views which just run in contrast with the Bible. Any Evangelical Christian would know...The American people are unfortunately that they have no legitimate Christian candidate to choose for. http://www.verifiedwriter.net/
It is unfortunate that there are no nonreligious presidential candidates that I can vote for.
@Pete Silva. Wo decides who true Chistians are? You? Your church? Evangelicals?
Christianity is all about tolerance, unconditional love, refraining from judgement etc.. Yet it seems so many 'Christians' are more about condemning people with different viewpoints than adhering to these basic tenets. If we are all God's children, and God wants us to love our neighbour as we love oursleves, how does this type of persecution and intolerance make any sense?
No wonder people think we are idiots.
Religion is the story used to cover their racism, which is apparently stronger than their faith.
Please vote for the least delusional candidate, who is also least likely to foist his cult's silly beliefs on everyone – Obama!
Why, CNN, are you giving voice to these religious terrorists? Yes, the Christian religious terrorists in America who purport hate and self-absorption and self-righteousness? You could have had more credibility in this article without those sections. And now you've given another forum in your comments section for all these people. To all you people that are saying he's not a Christian for whatever personal reason you choose: Are you following the true Christian ideals and practices by spewing your nonsense? I am not a Christian, and in my view, YOU are the ones giving Christianity a bad name.
Obama is a liar and he needs to take his wife and kids to Kenya and live.Vote for mitt Romney...
By the way i am have white and half black I can say whatever i want .....
It doesn't really matter what colour you are....nobody cares but you... and as for your brain ....that's a real can of worms....where do you people come from
I agree, but on the other hand the Merlot has an oaky finish with hints of tangerine and banana.
The President is a "photo op" christian ... in his heart I think we all Know he supports Islam .. and BTW the President is not the first black man elected to that office... Obama is a Mixed Race individual
Are you breaking God's Law to push your political agenda. How do you know what Obama thinks in his heart.Thou shalt not bear false witness. And believe me. Moslems hate Obama more than he loves them. Just try to understand that you have a better President than Bush. Romney could be better but don't feel you have to lie to get him elected. Let him say the right things. Otherwise they will say only what gets them into office. Don't sell your vote cheap.
Obama is NOT a Christian – He is a MUSLIM. He mentions his "Holy Quran" but not the bible. Everything he does is anti-christian. He is on the wrong side of every moral issue.
"You will know them by their fruits"
Gonna be painful for you when he's re-elected, eh?
Where is CNN's story "The Gospel According to Romney"? Doesn't that seem fair for Americans to think about Mormonism too.
Obama = Jeremiah Wright vs Romeny = Mormon
I'll take Romney anytime...
People throwing stone like the Pharisees. I would like for someone to name one person in the Bible other than Jesus that didn’t sin?
This world is not perfect and either is this president. If you want a perfect president then you should be perfect too.
Jesus died and arose for an imperfect world that needs saving. He died for the sinner.
For those throwing stones especially my brothers and sisters, “Christians”, I wonder what you do in private or what is your thought life like?
We should take personal responsibility for our OWN actions.
Thanks I was beginning to think American Christians are not thinking Christians. Very down to Earth. More grease to your elbows. Hope you come more often.
God will bless Obama, because of those who Hate him...Thanks Christian haters, your place in Hell has just been sealed by the hate in your heart, and he knows your heart!!
Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to America or Chrisianity. He must go!
Spoken like a true hate monger. If your a christian than you don't know it's teachings very well or its history. Your more consumed with your own selfish needs than the needs of our country and it's people. It's painfully obvious how you've been manipulated to suit someone else's agenda. You parrot the twisted views of a few and obviously have no capacity for objectivity. President Obama has done so much good and more than likely helped save your sorry butt. So much of modern Evangelicalism is so far from the teachings of Jesus it is a totally different religion.
The WORST thing? ...Really? The Civil War was a pretty bad thing to happen to America, so was WWII and The Great Depression. The martyrdom of the early apostles was a very bad thing that happened to Christianity, so was the Spanish Inquisition and the proliferation of denominationalism. Obama is really worse than these things?
The writer has no idea what he's talking about. A tree is known by it's fruit. President Obama is the most pro-abortion President in history, and NO one who fears God could do that. More importantly, Jesus is not, and never was, "non-violent". "Many are those slain by the Lord", and "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace on the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Anyone that believes He is still the passive baby in a manger is only pretending to know scripture or the character of God. Jesus will execute judgement- be on the right side on that day.
Your empty proxy threats are asinine.
Now, get back on your knees
For every Jesus quote you mention which, in your interpretation, appears to characterize Jesus as aggressive and advocating political rebellion, there are countless others (e.g. "turn the other cheek," the Sermon on the Mount, just to pick the low-hanging fruite) that make it clear that Jesus' position is exactly the opposite.
Stop reading the Bible in verses or memory verses. Read the Bible passage by passage and you will realize how much repentance you need. He meant in the passage about bringing a sword that His followers will be persecuted even though they are peaceable not that His followers will be persecuting peaceable non-believers.
This man is an anti-Christ. In the New Testament or New Covenat John tells us that even now there are many anti-Christs. He is certainly one of them. If you want to know where Obama stands on an issue just ask yourself, which side would be the most evil? That is the side which you will find Obama on. He is evil to the core. Why can't some see this? Because we are living under a strong delusion. God foretold of this delusion in the book of Revelation that would occur in the last days. Recieve Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, this of course is the true Gospel, and you will have eternal life and avoid eternal damnation/eternal death.
Wow, Sam, you're nukkin' futz! Didn't you get the memo? The bible is a fraud. You'll have to find another excuse to hate black people now.
Sammy: Your god is a vindictive, petty pr1ck.
And you a snivelling delusional little sycophant.
SAM – I agree. We are in the end days
Sam stone, you don't have too much time before you die and reach the end of the line and you'll be pushing up daiseys. Why spend what little time you have left fighting us christians? eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.
your world-view makes no sense. good luck with your atheist religion.
He in this case is not fighting Christians but people like you who call themselves Christians and drag the name of Christ in the mud. Pro-abortion is even more stupid. You can't be pro-abortion if people are not having abortions. A lot of Christian girls and women are having abortions. Is it Obama who has been encouraging them? No. Churches which only preach politics, money and dogma do by starving these girls and their parents spiritually so that sin is not subdued in their lives and they can't have spiritual peace. Even worse is those who ask their children to have secret abortions and then blame the Obama devil. Shame.