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. Aurora Chuck

    The mormon critics on this blog are very ignorant and uninformed. The Mormon church was the first organization with aid in Katrina and Haiti. They even arrived way before our Federal Government. Research the fact yourselves and stop being so ignorant.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  2. Socrates

    Is Obama the wrong kind of Christian? I really hope so. Agnosticism is the philosophy for the intelligent, religion is for the insane.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  3. PA86

    “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.” One could say the same thing of the Rev. Cass. My Bible also says something about judging and God giving man free will.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  4. paine

    we don't need freedom of religion as much as we need freedom from religion. throw off the shackles of 2000 year old mythology and mind control. it is time that humanity grew up and stopped believing in santa claus. we can not have a viable future by living in a distorted version of the past

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Chris

      That's funny. I usually refer to it as believing in a cartoon or comic book

      October 21, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • guaraya

      Just for the info– the Judeo-Christian influence on humanity is much more than 2000 years old.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  5. Cheyla

    I am really outraged that CNN would put this as the lead story. The religion of any secular leader should not be a story of any relevance. The Republicans attempt to form a religious christian state is currently one of the most grave threats to our secular government.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  6. Tina

    Give me a break!
    Since when do the evangelical bible thumpers get to define what is christian? Just because the people who talk nothing but religion don't like Mr. Obama, does not mean there is anything 'wrong' about his faith.
    You're sensationalism is nothing but trolling and is beneath a reputable news organization.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Kelly

    Personally I think Obama deserves this scrutiny, he has caused this confusion and should answer to people. His behavior on the world's stage – would easily cause me to believe he is a muslim

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Matt

      Shouldn't you be at your megachurch right now? It's 11:30 in Oklahoma..

      October 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • PA86

      And all Muslims are satanic people who need to never be in any position of leadership in our country, right? So if an American born Muslim wants to run for office . . . I know, I know, it was a plot from day one.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  8. Mary Francis

    CNN.....Holy cow.....Wrong kind of Christian?

    How much water does TeaNN have to carry for Romney?

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  9. regina

    Its high time you'all "accept the word of God(the bible)for what it is and not just some mere human thinking" period

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  10. G.D America


    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • LivinginVA

      Except, of course, you're wrong about the ring. Snopes did a very good job researching (they generally do) and came up with "probably false". The only places I've seen that support it have far less evidence to support their belief than snopes does discounting it.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Matt

      Ignorant putz..

      October 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  11. Evangelist: Jose Beltran

    Ho ever is free of guilt let them cast out the first Stone.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  12. jwcamp

    Is there a right kind of Christian?

    October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • JM


      9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

      13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

      14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

      October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • calmncool

      Many thanks for that, JM. I wonder why that verse isn't quoted more often.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  13. BurntOutBaptistinSaginaw

    The way I look at what some people call the POTUS like: Anti-Christ, etc., they have the right to free speech but the Bible is clear about JUDGING others. Whether we believe Obama is our kind of Christian is not for US to determine, that is between Him and his Saviour- not even The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham has the ordained right to judge "Obama's kind of Christianity". If he says he a Christian, we have no right to take that away- that is for the Lord to determine. Here's something to ponder, when I was a little boy in the 60s and 70s Christianity used to mean love thy neighbors (poor, black, brown, gay, other religions; essentially Love not Judge). Now Christianity mostly segregates themselves and blames eveything on the world on others instead of taking responsibilty and stepping up. Too many even if 1 too many examples of Christians using others, blaming the minorities and calling eveyone evil...well why not be an example- you'd deffinately lead more to Christ that way! Shame on all of us!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  14. tolajn

    The Christian RIGHT wants all of the preferencial treatment of flollowing Jesus with NONE of the heart of the Gospels being lived out socially. Bathing in the redeeming blood of Christ is their focus and Jesus did not dwell on his life being sacrificed, rather being a man iwth a mission to feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the orphan and widow and those imprisoned. The Christian right is motivated by fear that what they have will be taken away rather trusting that God is far more abundant than their little box they have created for God. God is far less concerned with sin than with caring for our neighbor! Christianity is not a morality check.....it is a faith of action in loving our neighbor, even when they don't think and act just like us.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  15. yevettej

    CNN, let;s make sure we look at the teachings of Mormonism past and present. Also, make sure you looking at how Mr. Romney's views have changed and how what he did in the past was sometimes in conflict with what he believes.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  16. splassher6

    Poor CNN still banging the liberal rag....Barry is a poser and a Muslin

    October 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • JM

      And you sound like Satan.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • == o ==

      The only kind of "trickle-down" that actually works:

      "splassher6" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert" degenerates to:
      "Taskmaster" degenerates to:
      "Ronald Regonzo" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      and many other names, but of course I prefer to refer to this extreme homophobe as
      the disgruntled Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. writer boot camp flunkie.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • PevanB

      DING DING DING! give the man prize

      October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • e

      Muslin? He is a sheer cotton fabric?

      October 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • dbarber

      So according to you, Obama is unbleached cotton cloth? If you can't even manage to get your terminology right in making a ridiculous accusation that has been absolutely, undeniably, time and time again- proven false and incorrect...maybe you should keep your ignorant mouth shut.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  17. John

    JEREMIAH WRIGHT!!!! Obama's pastor for twenty years!!! Come on people!!!! Anti- American is his religion

    October 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • 7Pillars




      October 22, 2012 at 4:41 am |
  18. barry Bell

    Putrid CNN take on Christianity.
    A network in the tank.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  19. lily

    Not only the wrong type of Christian-the wrong kind of human-consumed with his own narcissistic view of himself-thinks he's a God that can tell us what our moral values are when he wouldn't know a moral value if it smacked him in the face.-Lies–kill lists–coveting your neighbors goods-if someone has more than you–take it(stealing) just an ego consumed idiot!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • calmncool

      How do you look at yourself in the mirror?

      October 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • 7Pillars




      October 22, 2012 at 4:42 am |
  20. Believer

    You could even write your own bible from scratch. Does that make you a Christian? You are either a Christian or you are not! There is no 'other kind' of Christian.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
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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.