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.

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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.

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).

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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.

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. AgonyF

    Who would Jesus vote for and why?

    October 21, 2012 at 8:03 am |

    • Jesus would not vote because he would be in jail where the white Christians would put him by any means necessary.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:14 am |

    Religion has no place in government. We have forgotten the separation of church and state. Religion belongs to the most ignorant of humanity that is too fearing of truth and death.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Chris

      Truer words have never been spoken.

      October 22, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  3. deadwrestler

    Then going to REV, WRIGHT church for twenty years and claiming he did not hear the message of hate
    is just another lie. You Tube Rev. Wright and listen, I tell the truth.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  4. thomas

    Obama is more like Hilter than Jesus.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  5. waheid

    It says much about CNN's committment to "news" that every week we are treated to another essay on Christianity. The time and space spent on this nonsense would be better spent on articles describing the state of ignorance in our country. Meanwhile, the Christians could go every Sunday to their temples of intollerance and listen to some snake oil salesman spout nonsense.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  6. Dave

    Christians are gullible, credulous, hypocritical, naive, and live in fantasy land. There is another kind? Oh yes there are, there are the people who claim to be Christian but have no knowledge of their religion nor do they really want any... and that is about 95% of them.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  7. dontbow

    He made up his own Bible apparently. Now cnn is defending that too. sad.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  8. Mr. Zooman

    If you think Mr. Obama is a Christian, you are duped. His ring even says "there is no god but Allah". He was raised a Muslim and is obvious in that camp. His Christiansity is purely political.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • midwest rail

      Another foaming-at-the-mouth fundiot perpetuates a lie. How very Christian.

      October 22, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Ultraquark

      I am not the most vigorous Obamaite, but I've read "Obama is Christian" "no Obama is Muslim" "no Obama is atheist"... Sounds like Obama is anything that a given person needs him to be. Obama claims to be Christian, whether he really is one is only known to God. Anyone can attend church or read the bible, or say this or that, but it doesn't make them a Christian. Instead of people claiming to be part of this or tht group, just to get votes or be included in something, or to feel better about themselves, how about we just look at what thy actually do, rather than what they say.

      October 25, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  9. Mark Taylor

    In my mind President Obama is EXACTLY the right kind of Christian. He follows the direction from Jesus, Paul and the Book of James to take care of the poor, widows and orphans. What did the last administration do? made their lives more hellish, tried to take away medicaid for children. These folks have the Sunday-go-to-Meetin' definition of Christianity in there heads that is so wrong. Almost none would stop and lend a hand to someone struggling. These folks claim they worship Christ but their actions indicate they serve Mammon. God Bless President Obama.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Mr. Zooman

      Christians don't steal money from others via the government and then give it to whom they think needs it. You are missing that little fact. I as a Christian give my own money, that is Charity. This is a major confusion in your mind.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  10. Logic

    There is no "right religion".... They all have equal evidence to support their claims (zero evidence), so how can one be "right" or "wrong"? If you want to believe in the bible, go ahead, but to tell other people they're "wrong" when you have no evidence is bigoted, closed minded, and just plain stupid..

    On another note; if you get your morals and values solely from the bible, I feel bad for you. While there are a few good lessons from Jesus, ultimately the bible is a source of horrible morality and it is irrelevant to today's world.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  11. Chasity

    there is no wizard in sky folks..live and let live pleaseeee

    October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Ultraquark

      We are to live and let live even if there is a God. And if there is a god, he doesn't live in the sky or in an imagined heaven. He pervades the universe and whatever exists beyond the universe. I still think we have legacies of Greek mythology pervading people's perceptions of the God Jesus was referring to.

      October 25, 2012 at 3:07 am |
  12. FootballFan

    The book is "Dreams FROM My Father", not "Dreams OF" My Father". This mistake is all too often not corrected.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  13. Ricardo Williams

    I believe that Christianity is a very personal journey with Christ every moment and every step of the way. I am not one to decide who is a Christian or not.
    I am oppose to abortion. I am saddened when I see a mother and her infant and young son 3year old, spend the night in a public restroom. To me that kind of experience is just as bad as abortion.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  14. libfreak48

    The fundamental (excuse the pun) problems with far-right Christianity are exactly the same issues our Savior spoke about to the Pharisees: judgmentalism, hypocrisy, intolerance, and the hyper-extremity of observing the letter of the law rather than its spirit (as evidenced by statements from various preachers that people such gays and disobedient children should be killed).

    Christ never sought to judge anyone, never inserted himself into politics, and never, ever spewed hatred.

    But He DID say "by their fruits you will know them."

    (And to all you "persecuted" American Evangelicals, it might do you good to pick up a book on the history of Christianity and read it. Since the time of Christ, His followers have gladly suffered pain, persecution and death from government after government – from Rome on – for the sake of the Gospel.)

    October 21, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Ultraquark

      Excellent point. They should be glad to suffer for their faith if they are really part of that faith.

      October 25, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  15. MN

    CNN, you will do or print anything to get Obama votes. How dare you! How about saying something nice about Romney or Ryan? They are the true Christians! But, of course, you would never admit it. It seems like you are trying to start a new religion or cult. haha...Watch out for God reigns supreme!

    October 21, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Michael Murphy

      Romney and Ryan are the true Christians? Romney believes Jesus and Satan are brothers and that neither are any different then you or I. Ryan Believes That Jesus's Mother is co-Redemptive and that She is Equal to Jesus. Please understand what the Scriptures say and what the Book of Mormon and the Catholic Church say because they are very different and you can not believe all three

      October 21, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  16. Mary Mary

    Obama is not a Chrustian. Ask him to tell you when and how he became a Christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Cryslas

      And DO tell from your particular version, how Romney is a Christian? I have Mormon relatives and friends that are great people, but you must read about the Mormon faith if you want to know why Billy Graham has always called it a cult.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Michael Murphy

      You are doing the exact same thing that Satan did and was kicked out of Heaven for, Taking God's Job in deciding who is his child and who is not. I would be very careful in judging another persons faith because only He and God know a persons heart. Remember the words of Y'shua, "Those who help the least among you have helped Me, those who visit the sick, have visited Me, those of you have visited those in prison have visited Me. I think Obama's form of Christianity is closer to what Scripture teaches then what Billy Graham is saying by taking down the fact that Mormonism is a cult according to Scripture

      October 21, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • The truth

      Mary Mary,

      Ask Romney how he became a Christian, Romney is a member of a cult who thinks God came from some distance planet.

      October 21, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  17. jim tillman

    And Who the Progressors?

    October 21, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  18. Chip

    Obama was never Baptized.

    October 21, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Christian hazing rituals aren't anything to be proud of Chip.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Me

      So? Your point is? A drop of water makes a difference? I was baptized, but now that I have grown up...I KNOW that does not make any difference. It's not what others do to you, it's what you choose to do for yourself. Get out of the Dark Ages. Rituals are worthless.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Cryslas

      Obama was baptized in 1988 at Trinity United Church of Christ. He was married there and had his 2 daughters baptized there as well. As a side note, his mother was baptized postumously by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Romney's Mormon Church) in 2008.shortly after his election.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Michael Murphy

      If you knew what Baptism was you would not put any special thing to it. It is from the Hebrew Tradition of Mikva or the washing before entering Temple. Hence it became a Tradition for people to wash spiritually before receiving Y'shua. But only the accepting of Y'shua's Sacrifice will cleanse you according too Scripture

      October 21, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  19. Mauser

    Very interesting article,
    I think we Americans make issues too complicated,
    Why does everything have to be so politized?
    Live and let live.

    October 21, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  20. bigpicture

    I have told several people and still believe that Obama is a historical figure. He has to be. Anyone who can stir up as much emotion, hatred and love from Americans has to be important. I believe that he will be as big as Kennedy when all the dust settles. He has opened americans eyes and angered many as well. He has questioned our beliefs and radically changed america. I do not know what would be worse, him not getting reelected or the nightmare the GOP will unleash on us if they take the White House.

    October 21, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Joy Denton

      Those who call themselves "Christians" and judge others have earned their just reward.

      Jesus said there are two commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

      Anything beyond these two commandments is more often than not man-made. If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you will not want to see that neighbor suffer in any way. You'll make sure they are clothed, fed and housed.

      October 21, 2012 at 8:35 am |
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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.