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. Greg Olson

    Billy Graham has endorsed Romney though his website still identifies the Mormon faith as a cult. I can only take this as Billy Graham would rather have a lying white cult member as President than an African American Christian who, according to Graham's Southern values, doesn't know his place.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Dee Ambrosini

      Well said. Hypocrisy rules in some "born again" churches.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ting

      CNN had an article stating that Billy removed the Mormon Cult message from his website. If you go to his site and do a search on the word Mormon, there is a link to question about cults. This is part of Billy's response to a question about cults.

      "One characteristic of cults is that they strongly believe they alone are right in their beliefs, and everyone else is wrong. "


      October 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  2. MagicPanties

    "right" cult, "wrong" cult, who cares; it's all baloney

    Stop believing in fairy tales.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  3. Mark

    Christians remember before voting that Mitt Romney was an LDS bishop and taught the standard Mormon belief that God appeared to Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism and told him that all the Christian denominations were an abomination in His eyes. Fact.


    October 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Dee Ambrosini

      Any one who thinks Mormonism is the same as Christianity had better do some research before election day.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  4. drjmng

    Obama is not the wrong kind of Christian. No such thing. He is just the wrong kind of president because of his failed policies. Nothing more, nothing less.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  5. Dee Ambrosini

    I am anxiously awaiting an article on Mormonism. In the meantime, for all who are curious, read "Under the Banner of Heaven", it will make your blood curl. Crazy stuff, a religion founded by a lunatic pedaphile. And all less than two hundred years ago. Which was why Romney's father was born in Mexico. Because his family was running from the U.S. authorities. Yes, that would make a very interesting article indeed.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  6. lost boson

    Are Christians the wrong type of human beings?

    October 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  7. TJM07

    I don't really care if he is Christian or not...just stop lying to the American people.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • JM

      I don't think Romney can function if he doesn't lie to the American people. How else could he get people to like him?

      October 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Jeb

      If Romney couldn't lie, what would he talk about?

      October 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  8. volsocal

    The more it has to be explained, the higher the reading on the ole BS meter.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  9. Jeb

    Mormonism is a lunatic cult who's goal is to take over the world's governments.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • == o ==


      October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Ting

      Today's story is not about Romney. Keep up.

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


      October 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  10. G-Man

    One of the most inciteful pieces I've read in a very long time.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  11. Kathleen Abadi

    Headline is extremely mis leading.
    Ticker:Obama not voting on election day is misleading.
    For what is worth, changed my home page

    October 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. burghlady

    I would think that a man who wants to take care of the poor would find them jobs. Taking someone's else's money isn't charitable. How much did Obama take from his own pocket to care for his poverty-stricken brother in Kenya? Get over it, CNN. This man does not walk on water! You create a dependent society by constant hand-outs. This is a way of controlling the masses. You pick and choose what you want your viewers to see as christian in this man. Obama believes in killing. He takes pride in it. He still believes in partial birth abortion on the most innocent in life. You are nothing more than blind sheep.

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

      If Republicans were really pro life they would have protested the killing (abortion) of human life in Iraq.

      Wrong country. Thousands killed needlessly.

      These people spout that they are pro life but they pick and choose the life that they care about (and don't actually put their money where their big mouths are: how many are adopting un-aborted American kids who need a home)?

      Nope. Gotta buy another big-screen tv and then trot off to church piously.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Dee Ambrosini

      I have often wondered how someone can consider partial birth abortion to be murder, yet is perfectly alright with needless wars for oil, torture, and fellow citizens who don't have access to health care. Many times it seems to me that the loving care for the unborn child does not extend to that same child once it is born. Especially if it is not "christian" or white or middle class. I would have alot more respect for these types of "christians" if they would support the christian changes that our christian president has made to our messed up health care system. Because the people who are being helped by that are real, live, breathing people.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • burghlady

      I have wondered how those who do not believe in war or capital punishment have no problem killing a child in the third term of live. It works both ways. Now for me....I do not believe in abortion, capital punishment, of needless war. Yes ...sometimes war is necessary, Example..the rise of Hitler in WWII. The problem with many is that they ASSUME that all Christians believe in one set of rules. Not true...Not true!!!

      October 21, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  13. Mopery

    The real question is why won't this news organization(every time I try to use their name my post is auot-censored) print an opposing story called "To some, Romney is the 'wrong' kind of Christian"? This is right-wing bias at it's best.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  14. Mary

    I cannot tell you how angry that phrase "wrong ind of Christian" leaves me. Those who say it have no spiritual values what so ever.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  15. Kelly

    Sorry not even comparable to Obama. Romney has been open all the way about who he is. Obama had to hide his pastor of twenty years for damning America

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

      Ohhh Kelly, how I would love to see this can of worms opened!!! Yummy

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

      And Romney believes in extra books to the bible, golden plates, multiple wives, and Joe Smith.?

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

      I haven't heard Mitt discuss the planet Kolob yet or how will become an actual god when he dies and rule his own planet.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • zd

      You know nothing about Romney's religion.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • jb

      And most of the "damning" of America seems to be coming from evangelical right.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Mark

    Want to learn about the real differences between Christians and Mormons.


    October 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  17. JohnRJohnson

    Utterly useless article.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  18. micburke

    Awfully biased headline and opening sentence on the homepage: "He has been called the Antichrist". Shame on you CNN stating this perverse view as if it's a common and accepted perspective. You can find "some people" who have called others just about anything. Base yellow journalism!

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Charley Liberal Dog

      I couldn't agree more. I was taken aback that CNN would carry such a story with such a biased headline.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  19. sdfg

    obama is not a Christian;he is a communist athiest.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Todd in DC

      Says the man who couldn't define communist even at gun point.

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

      13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. [14] [b]

      15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  20. skarphace

    I truly feel that many white evangelicals are terrified by what Obama represents: a black Christian in a position of power. The election of a minority into the highest office in the land is the true end of White Supremacy.

    Therefore, they cannot accept him into their fold. It would be hypocritical for them to do so. Therefore, to them, he cannot be Christian. He must be Muslim or just a pretender. Or, and I have heard this claim more than once, the antichrist.

    However, their refusal to accept him as a fellow Christian is the reason they will eventually see their demise. They have now played their hand. They have embraced the concept that religion should be embedded within politics. This concept is foreign to Christianity, however, because Jesus taught the opposite.

    The result: eventually it is they, who want our civil laws to be based on their prejudiced version of God's Law, who will in the end be shown to be anti-Christian. In the end, they will lose.

    October 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Lyrical Timbre

      I agree with most of what you've said, but White Supremacy is not threatened by Mr. Obama's position. It will take much more for the system if white supremacy to be dismantled. Nothing in politics is by chance, everything has a purpose, including President Obama.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:45 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.