The Gospel according to Obama
President Obama is not just a racial trailblazer, but some say a religious pioneer as well. No president has ever shared his type of Christianity, historians say. Some say he may revive a form of Christianity that once dominated America.
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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

“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.

The 1925 “Monkey” trial of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher who taught evolution, drove fundamentalists underground, some say.

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).

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Obama has reached out to evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, seen here praying at Obama’s inauguration, but many still doubt his faith.

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.

Obama along with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha leave church after attending a Sunday prayer service.

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.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church • Courts • Creationism • Culture & Science • Culture wars • Evolution • evolvution • Faith • Fundamentalism • Gay marriage • Gay rights • God • History • Homosexuality • Interfaith issues • Obama • Protestant • Religious liberty • Same-sex marriage • Schools • Science

soundoff (8,626 Responses)
  1. janetlaw

    “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.

    Ummm....didn't Jesus help the poor? Oh, I am sorry, Obama is not YOUR definition of Christian – your definition is to block out anyone who is different – wonder what you would of done with Mary Magdelene?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  2. Pam Schwartz

    I don't think he's a Christian at all; he's a Muslim. Furthermore, he's a wolf in sheeps' closing where this country's future is concerned. God help us all if he wins again.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  3. emma67

    Obama's heart is just filled with too little truth and goodness. He likes to hear himself speak and ha no humility whatsoever. The idea that a liberal society should what makes religion glorified, is just plain gross. Not many religions today really get or get why Jesus hung on that cross. He had to take that last breath so the spirit could be glorified. And not many so called churches today understand the glorifcation of the spirit. All I hear is little sound bites about one or two soapbox issues so both sides can try to one up the other side with their swords. When you walk in the spirit of the light, you live in this world, but not of this world. Obama has a very narrow view of faith. He sees everything through the streets of Harlem and therefore has limited his spiritual growth and development. Those who love in the name of God are not so wicked in their ways. Dividing by over zealous selective pickings of what he thinks is right, just shows that he isn't really guided by the light of the spirit. Just look at his big old toothy smile. There is no smile in his eyes, it's all in his teeth. Fake, phoney and very disturbing. I've been blessed by walking in the faith without having to proselytize and point bony fingers at others. By protecting myself in the shield of the light, I have been able live happily in this world but not get sucked into the liberal mantra meant to brainwash people into losing their way on their spiritual journey. Obama can call himself whatever he wants, he not someone I would particularly find much joy in being around. He's very manipulative and mind controlling. The free will is something we were given to use for the greater good and those who lose their way are not going to be brought back to the light with retaliation, pontifications and mind control by a man driven by pride and ego.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Think highly of your own opinion, do you?

      October 21, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. JustWondering

    How many other "Christians" wear a gold ring inscribed with the words "There is no God but Allah" in Arabic?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Peter Bishop

      It is the same God...it is the radical elements of Islam that are the issue.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • redSun

      oh, oh I like these games...
      question for you – just when did you stop beating your spouse?
      see what I did there?

      October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Nancy

      just wondering – do you have proof – and even if so, so what – facts, please

      October 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      Do you enjoy being played for a rube? Good lord...

      October 21, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  5. brad4nyc

    The only people who worry about Obama's brand of christianity are radical christians. Radical christians are every bit as scary as radical islamists. The good news is God is Imaginary.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  6. zul

    Presient Obama refused to bomb Iran at the suggestion of Israeli Netanyahu.In a matter of few weeks the tide has turned. He is behind polls and now his religion is being attacked. Watch how media would puish him just before election.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  7. GRC

    First and foremost...Obama IS NOT A CHRISTIAN. Obama has only attended a christian church just 5 times during the last 3.75 years. And, he only attended those church gathering when he was called out for his lack of attendance. OBama is a Muslim, plan and simple. And if you can't see that, which has been demonstrated many, many times by his own actions.....then you are blind and have "turned" the other check to avoid another "slap" in the face by Obama!

    October 21, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      Judge not, lest ye be judged.

      You are the type of "christian" that gives real christians a bad name.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • rker321

      Look, whatever you want to Call Obama and define his Christianity on how many times he has attended church, you are going to find lots of people who are Christians but they don't happen to attend chrurch, They are probably bad, Catholics, or bad Protestants, whatever you may wish to call them but they are still Christians.
      Now, what I haven't been able to understand is how come Mormons call themselves Christians. when their Jesus Chrits i not the son of God, he is human and not devine. They don't believe in the Trinity, God is The Father, The son and tThe Holy Spirit.
      And their God is a man that has achtieve perfection.
      Now, Mormons are not Christians. yet you hear them all the time reffering themselves as Christians,.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  8. Ameri2010

    Question: Is Obama is the wrong kind of Christian?

    Answer: Yes!

    Even CNN suggests he is the wrong kind of Christian. Now send this to your friends, compliments of CNN.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • rker321

      He may be a "bad" Christian is you will, but I least he is a Chrisitian, not like Romney who is a Mormon and Mormons are not Crhistians. research the differences if you don't know them.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. jd

    Romney's faith is about a man who says golden tablets where given to him here in the USA by an Angel and that how this other testament of Jesus Christ came about –

    October 21, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • AllisonSwain

      Romney is proud to be Christian. Why can't Obama admit he is Muslim? Does his PR person think this will hurt his chances of re-election? Either way, Obama is our first multi-racial president and our first Muslim president. I would rather live in reality than allow them to play games with the people of the U.S.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • rker321

      Not only what you say is true but also. Their Jesus Christ is not devine he was born like you or I. He was the son of two mevery mortal individuals. They don't believe on the Trinity, which states that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy spirit.
      And their God is a mortal mand that because of his goodness has achieve perfection. Pleaple just don't research.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  10. ggVT

    “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.” << – uhm.. it's supposed to be: "you can put me in a garage, but that does not make me a mechanic"... duh

    October 21, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  11. Lindy 500

    different" kind of Christian
    Yeah the kind that make up their laws as they go along...

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  12. tam

    Is there a "right" type of any kind of believer? In the Catholic church there are extremes, as there are in other churches, in Judaism, in Protestantism, in Islam. How can anyone define the "right" type. Unless you mean the extreme right.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Nancy

      To me, the 'wrong' kind of any religion is the one that seeks to impose their views, values, behaviors on those who do not subscribe to their point of view

      October 21, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  13. pn

    DECEMBER 21, 2012 will no longer be MYTH.... Because it's talking about MAYAN GOD. Different kind of GOD.

    The world spend a year finding out the truth about december 21, 2012. iching comes from china. Not mexico. hopi comes from native american not mayans. bible comes from europe not mayas.

    The truth is.... UNEMPLOYMENT is rising. It's GOVERNMENT'S FAULT. Oh yes it is.... They screwed up healthcare, real estate, to everything. They crack the egg.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  14. Kiss

    Why did Obama just get 15 million dollars loan from Bank of America to be paid after the election?. Don't they still owe us from taxpayers bailout? are they lending our tax dollars to obama. If he wins will he pay it back with our money?

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • midwest rail

      You fundiots are so cute when you foam at the mouth.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  15. bebow

    So many are so certain they fully grasp the mind of God that further seeking is unnecessary. Judge not. As my momma used to say, "Church is for sinners, not saints."

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  16. Bob Knippel

    Religion has no place in American government.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  17. Peter Bishop

    The religion of secularism trumps all...

    October 21, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  18. treblemaker

    Any person or organization who claims that they alone speak the truth about Christianity is a liar.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  19. ricardo1968

    The religious right in the U.S. is nearly as frightening as the Taliban. Their stunning lack of compassion belies a deep moral confusion. They seem only concerned with power, and forcing everyone to hold their views.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Beth

      the Liberal left are the frightening ones who are destroying the moral fabric of this great nation, a nation under God. They are using their power for godliness which will lead to anarchy, as Rome fell so will America

      October 21, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • NotFooledByDistractions

      well said ricardo. One needs to look no further than their over 1,100 pieces of anti-abortion legislation to see the similarities. During the biggest economic crisis this country has seen since the depression, they were frantically proposing anti-abortion legislation not jobs and recovery solutions.

      October 21, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Beth

      the Liberal left are the frightening ones who are destroying the moral fabric of this great nation, a nation under God. They are using their power for atheistic , godless values which will lead to anarchy, as Rome fell so will America

      October 21, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  20. camuski81

    Don't mind me, but I won't be voting for David Koresh and Jim Jones in 2012.

    October 21, 2012 at 11:01 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177
About this blog

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.