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.
I don't know if he is Christian or not, and I don't care.. He's a good man with a good heart and he cares for our country. We should all support OUR president for the next four years.. After all, he's the President of the UNITED STATES of America. He's everyone's president...
I find it very amusing that the minute one person states that Obama is not (or most likely is not) a follower of Christ, they come back with a retort that Mormonism isn't even close to Christianity (which is true).
But, the article is about Obama...not Romney. The question is whether Obama is a believer in Christ or not. Simply because someone refutes Obama's claim to faith in Christ does NOT mean that they simultaneously say that Romney does have a legitimate claim to faith in Christ (which he does not).
Neither candidates are Christians. What is a Christian? Someone who has been completely transformed by God, follows completely, trusts in, and obeys Christ. Neither of these gentlemen come close to that definition. If you pick a Bible and ready what Christ actually said and taught, and how he behaved, you find that many people who call themselves believers are not.
P.s. We have been given minds of discernment, or minds to judge. Judgement and condemnation are different words with different definitions.
This is logic 101, people.
"What is a Christian? Someone who has been completely transformed by God, follows completely, trusts in, and obeys Christ."
YOU ARE WRONG SuzieMarie !!!! Christian does not mean a perfect human (transformed, follow, trust, obey...etc) that's what Islam and Judaism want humans to be, Christian means a imprefect human in realtionship with a perfect God – Christ Jesus. Please do not represent Christ if you do not know who He is.....
I know EXACTLY who christ is...He is a fictional character in a book of myths, written to control people who were not allowed to be part of the religion of the people who wrote it.
Belief in gods is the same as the belief in needing to be ignorant
Who invited me ?
I like you.....you are sweet.....you crack me up:)
God Bless you!
President Obama and so many of us simply ask and take action on: 'What Would Jesus Do?"
THIS is Christianity!
That is the same as asking, "what would Gandalf do?"...both are fictional creations of man.
Even at that, there is NO WAY you could possibly know what Jesus would do...which means you are acting on your own ignorance...rediculousness.
Prayer changes things .
As we near perhaps our most important election in modern times I am very concerned at seeing that so many Christians have apparently lost their way and are imperiling themselves, and this country as a whole, by supporting the presidential candidacy of a Mormon 'high priest'.
Unlike many preachers, my position on the Mormon/Romney candidacy is unequivocal and unmoving. To put it bluntly – and to focus solely upon the most important issue that I, as a Christian minister, must consider – I will state it as follows: Because Mormonism is a church of Satan, and Mitt Romney, in his leadership role(s) in this insidious and abominable cult, is a disciple of Satan, no Christian can support his candidacy. It's as simple as that folks!
Now, we can all debate as to why Reverend Graham has taken the actions he has until the cows come home, but, all that is, at this point in time really, is a distraction (no surprise there!). We may never truly know why he took such an immoral and bewildering course of action. But, ultimately, it is God who will judge him for it, not us.
The important thing that all Christians should focus upon in these dawning days is the Truth. And the truth is that this country cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of Satanical anti-Christian and anti-American cult. I realize that Romney has promised much to many Christians, and has managed to assauge their concerns over his "religion" with many vocal assurances. He has said what he has needed to say to every particular group he has spoken to, promising "change", an end to abortion and all sorts of other 'answers' that seem to fall in line with Christian morals and values, but..! What else would one expect to see and hear from such a man? Yes, he has checked off all the right boxes, but, if one looks a bit closer they will clearly see that he has checked off a great, great many other boxes as well. Boxes that, on their own and alone, are enough to disqualify the man.
I will close by asking for all Christians that have pledged their support to this man to reconsider. Because, in my opinion if you are supporting this man, you clearly have not thought it through enough! I ask you to meditate upon it and pray over it. And I too will pray and ask God to help guide us through this dire situation and lead us to the correct decision.
God Bless America, and Please, please vote for anyone but Mitt Romney!!
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a Christian. He denied the deity of Jesus.
Yeah, he doesn't seem like other Christians because he's not an ignorant unthinking moron that can't separate Sunday school from the Sean Hannity show. He actually reads and thinks and understands things, instead of just using his faith as a way of hating on people who are perceived as different and trying to make himself feel superior- which is the way, sadly, *most* "Christians" in the United States use religion these days.
I am curious as to why there is no mention of the ring which Obama has been wearing for over 30 years, which is adorned with the first part of the Islamic declaration of faith, the Shahada: “There is no god except Allah.” The proof of a man's convictions lies not in his words alone, but also in his deeds. When the two conflict, it is one's actions which reveal the man's true convictions. Aside from Obama's efforts to promote acceptance of the Muslim faith, the fact remains he wears this ring, except during Ramadan, when Muslims are forbidden to wear jewelry. Why was it not mentioned anywhere in this article?
yeah great points. Every Muslim I know never prays toward Mecca, openly denies being a Muslim, kills Muslim terrorists by the thousands, eats pork, drinks alcohol, prays in a Christian church... Barack Obama is so Muslim-y.
If you honestly believe that Obama is a Muslim... kill yourself. You are too stupid to live.
His ring doesn't say that, that's a myth. Just search Snopes Obama Ring, they have hi-res photos which confirm it's nothing but a continuing s pattern.
What is Rev. Wright doing these days?
Why did CNN turn to the right. It was the only NEWs organization that seemed neutral. Now you have people like Piers Morgan instead of Larry. Get rid of that Idiot called Morgan. I will not watch CNN as long as he is there.
You took the words right out of my mouth! I don't have a grudge specifically with Piers, though I don't watch his program, but the whole network is getting hard to relate to. I can't put my finger on it. I've read a few articles recently that just left me scratching my head. I used to come to CNN first, but lately I've been going to a few others first and CNN only occasionally. It's not only about neutrality, but about trust and integrity, and I find I'm trusting CNN less and less.
The CNN blog sections are not really produced or edited by CNN staff. So.. some of them do take on a more partisan slant. I am not a fan of Piers Morgan, either, but I think in general the core CNN programming is, as it has always been, fairly neutral.
lol...go to the Mormon White House article and all the Right-wingers are complaining how leftist CNN is.
Well John – it's interesting that Obama is able to redefine and somehow capitalize on his own belief of what he *thinks* is Christianity. Even Satan knows and recognizes Jesus as Lord and Savior. Even Satan capitalized on God's commands and re-framed the discussion of Eve.
oh, so like pretty much all religious people you have the audacity and hubris to speak disparagingly about what other people *think* their religion is supposed to be about, implying that, apparently, you and only you have all the real answers. I guess you must be God. Wasn't there some bit in Christianity about humility? ah, no, must have been my imagination. Since YOU clearly are the final and absolute authority on what is or is not "true" Christianity.
If anyone is a true believer in God, then they will believe in the entire written bible. The bible is the true written words of the history of mankind. If you denie any part of the bible, you are then calling God a lier. This is not something a true believer would do. So to say you believe in God but denine the bible, means that you are not a believer in the God that made us. That makes you a non Christian and a lier not to be believed by any people. Tell me to whom I speak of.........
JESUS IS THE WORD OF GOD not the Bible. Bible is a collection of books written by human authors under the influence of the Holy Spirit. You can also write if the Holy Spirit prompts you. Don't make Bible into an idol and worship every word it says (like muslims with Koran). If God wants he can even use anything to reveal His will. God speaks through the Holy Spirit and writes his law in your heart. He dwells in you, you are his temple. Do NOT make the Bible into God. That is idol worship......do not put anything above or equal to God.......Have a relationship with Christ Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit and worship God.
Who invited me ?
I like you.....you are sweet.....you crack me up:)
God Bless you!
"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.”
What an ironic stmt to hear from someone that represents the side that too often equates the character of a person with the kind of church they attend and how often they are in the pew.
Obama's not even gone yet and the lib media is missing him already
taking care of the least of these my brethren has nothing to do woth the poor and needy in the usa or any where else. Jesus was a jew and any time he referred to my brethren he was talking about the Jewish people so this means what have you done to help the Jewish people
That's ridiculous. If Christ's message of brotherhood was only in reference to the Jews, then all of Christianity is mistaken, as the religion itself was meant only for Jews. To say what you are saying is to believe that Christ's words were temporal and shallow; only applicable to that time, place, and people.
Christians read the words of Jesus as standing true for all time, and all people. That's what Christianity is about.
I think this was a fairly balanced piece – and it did make some heavy blows against those right-wing fundamentalists – specifically that it's no surrpise that if they believe in a literal Genesis, and ignore the evidence of evolution, that it's not a far stretch for them to beleive Obama is a Muslim. He's obviously not – it's impossible for him to even be a 'secret' Muslim, as he withheld financial aid to third world Muslim countries until they drop their anti-sodomy laws and release gays from prison. Not even a so-called secret Muslim could justify doing that.
But let's be honest here- what's really going on the far right is racist paranoia. The man has a Muslim name, had a Muslim father, ergo he's a Muslim. And that's racist, hard and true, because being Muslim is NOT like being Jewish – it's not both a religious and a racial heritage, it's ONLY religious.
I have a question. Why do you find the religious beliefs of your president so important? Doesn't such a discussion add only more adversity between different parties? It solves, and thus serves, nothing. Who cares whether or not he is a good christian, and whether or not good christianity is defined by actions or belief in the bible.
The rest of the world for sure doesn't give an F. Isn't it far more important to discuss the way he wants to lead your country? You are a world power. Show some responsibility.
Reblogged this on Tea and Trivia.
I've never been aware of a church that wasn't driven by compassion for and service to the less fortunate. It is a dangerous fallacy to establish the assumption that many churches don't care about others while implying that the disfunctional and corrupt government does. It is a ruse to forward a Godless and almost Marxist agenda and as history teaches us Godless Marxism has ALWAYS led to dire, negative outcomes for ordinary and poor people.
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There may be simple people left who would or would not vote for Obama because they think he is or is not a Christian. My question to such people is "Don't you know any Christians you think should NOT be president?"
Whether Obama is your brand of Christian is certainly not the issue-"it's the economy stupid," and Obama is for more spending and more centralization and government influence and control. That "social Gospel," to which the author refers can be seen during any election cycle among the "community organizers" in El Paso, Chicago and Berkley. No one who lives there has any doubt what so ever who they are, they are community organizers that are understood to be communists. Everyone knows this and for the author to ignore this fact either means he is incredibly inexperienced (troubling) or down right duplicitous (scandalous). You can call it Marxism, socialism, communism- whatever ism you want, or don't call it anything. But this is why someone who understands the strength of our country, the free enterprise system and our forefather's primary battle will not vote for Hussein Barak Obama
Obama has improved the economy and is now officially a "job creator". He did an excellent job recovering from the abyss Bush pushed us toward.
Amen Ruth! Amen!
the Church has been feeding and caring for the poor long before the Social Gospel movement of the 1800s.
And I don't know if Obama's "brand" of Christianity was once the mainstream view as the author claims. I don't think Christians supported gay marriage or abortion back in days of the Progressive Era and the Gilded Age.