October 21st, 2012
06:59 AM ET
The Gospel according to Obama
By John Blake, CNN
President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals.
When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”
The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:
“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.
When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say.
“Barack Obama has referred to his faith more times than most presidents ever have, but for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,” says Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, an evangelical activist group based in Washington that focuses on poverty and social justice issues.
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“It is not the faith of the religious right. It’s about things that they don’t talk about. It’s about how the Bible is full of God’s clear instruction to care for the poor.”
Some see a 'different' kind of Christian
Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.
No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”
“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”
Some Christians, however, still see Obama as the “other.” He doesn’t act or talk like other Christians, says the Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian president of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission.
“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.
Cass says he’s never heard Obama say he’s “born-again.” There’s no emotional conversion story to hang onto.
Obama talks about his faith and attends church, but Cass says that doesn’t mean he’s a Christian.
“Joining a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian. “You can put me in the garage, but that doesn’t turn me into a car.”
The origins of Obama’s faith
The suspicion about Obama’s faith may seem odd at first because he’s written and spoken so much about his spiritual evolution in his two autobiographies, “Dreams of my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” Other books, like “The Faith of Obama” by Stephen Mansfield, also explore Obama’s beliefs.
Mansfield says Obama is the first president who wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Obama’s mother was an atheist and his grandparents were religious skeptics (Obama’s family has challenged the description of his mother as an atheist. Obama called her “the most spiritually awakened” person he’d ever known, and his sister called their mother an agnostic).
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Mansfield called Obama’s boyhood a “religious swirl. He was exposed to Catholicism, Islam, and strains of Hinduism and Buddhism while growing up in Indonesia during the 1960s.
“In our household, the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology,” Obama said in Mansfield’s book. “On Easter or Christmas Day, my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
Obama became a Christian while he was a community organizer in Chicago. He joined a predominantly black United Church of Christ. The UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to officially support same-sex marriage in 2005.
Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.
In a 2006 speech before a Sojourners meeting, Obama talked about his approach to the Bible:
“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”
When many people think of Obama’s religious experience in Chicago, though, they cite his exposure to the angry sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and “black liberation theology,” a movement that emerged in the late 1960s and blended the Social Gospel with the black power movement.
Bass, the church historian, says another black pastor shaped Obama’s theology more: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He attended liberal Protestant seminaries where he learned about the Social Gospel’s concern for the entire person, soul and body.
King once wrote that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them …is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
But King and the black church also fused the Social Gospel with an emotional fervor missing from white Protestant churches, Bass says. Other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were influenced by the Social Gospel, but they weren’t shaped by the black church.
“This is the first time we’re hearing the Social Gospel from the perspective of the black church from the Oval Office. It makes it warmer, more emotive, more communal," Bass says. "There is less fear of linking the Social Gospel with the stories of the Bible, especially the stories of Exodus and Jesus’ healings.”
The emphasis on community uplift - not individual attainment - may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.
King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”
“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”
Obama is not a Christian, some think
For some, Obama’s actions in the Oval Office seem to contradict Christianity.
Jesus was nonviolent. Obama has ramped up drone attacks in Afghanistan that have not only removed terrorists, but killed civilians.
The Bible talks about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. Obama invoked Jesus when he came out in support of same-sex marriage. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule," Obama told ABC News during his announcement.
Jesus talked about helping the poor. But he never said anything about creating a massive health care law that taxed the rich to help the poor, some Christians argue.
But Wallis of Sojourners says Obama’s push for health care was a supreme example of Christian faith.
A situation where 50 million Americans don’t have health insurance is “a fundamental Christian problem,” Wallis says.
“Health is such a Gospel issue. Jesus was involved in healing all the time, and to have some people excluded from health care because they lack wealth is a fundamental Christian contradiction.”
Wallis has been one of the most persistent defenders of Obama’s faith. But no matter how much Scripture he and others cite, doubts about Obama’s faith have followed him throughout his political career.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson once said that Obama distorted the traditional understanding of the Bible “to fit his own world, his own confused theology.” The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, publicly questioned Obama’s faith, then later apologized.
Conservative Christian books and websites are filled with stories of Obama allegedly trying to suppress the nation’s Christian heritage.
The Rev. Steven Andrew, author of “Making a Strong Nation,” says Obama is trying to change the national motto from “In God we Trust” to “Out of Many, One,” and he’s ordered the Pentagon to remove biblical verses from its daily report.
“That’s the most serious thing someone can do to a nation, trying to separate a nation from God,” he says. “He seems to be trying to change the Christian laws our Founding Fathers made.”
Andrew says Obama is actually an enemy of Christianity. In his book, Andrew argues that the Founding Fathers were Christians who created a “covenant Christian nation” and calls for a “national repentance.”
“I think he’s an anti-Christ,” Andrew says. Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity.
Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism,” Cass says.
“Do I believe in caring for the poor and oppressed? Yes. But you don’t do it along the lines of communistic redistributing.”
Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights also disqualifies him from being a Christian, Cass says.
“It’s the most pro-abortion administration in the history of America. On every social issue – the sanctity of life and of marriage between men and women – Obama is on the wrong side of every moral issue,” he says.
He says a progressive Christian is a contradiction.
“No Christian says I believe in Jesus Christ and I reject the Bible,” Cass says. “These progressives who say they’re Christians are liars. They’re using Christianity as a guise to advance their own agenda.”
Cass says he doesn’t know what Obama believes.
“He’s conflicted,” Cass says. “He has Muslim sympathies from his upbringing."
How progressive Christianity lost the public square
There was a time when Obama’s brand of Christianity would have been understood by millions of Americans, historians say.
The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.
The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.
Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.
“The notion that religious people should be about feeding the poor and helping the homeless is a carryover of the Social Gospel,” says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at Wooster College in Ohio. The Social Gospel was adopted by many Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, says Bass, the church historian. Some of the Social Gospel churches grew popular because they provided the poor with everything from English classes to sewing instructions and basketball leagues.
“The first American megachurches were liberal, Social Gospel urban churches,” Bass says.
The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.
But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.
Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”
The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.
That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.
“They have millions of adherents who believe in a literal six day creation and a literal Adam and Eve – so it’s not a stretch to believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born secret Muslim bent on destroying the country,” Felten says.
Progressive Christians eventually lost the messaging wars to this fundamentalist subculture, Bass says. Their nuanced view of faith couldn’t compete with the “spiritual triumphalism” of conservatives.
“If you get up and say we’re right and we have the truth, then you have a powerful public message,” she says. “They have a theological advantage in the public discourse. It’s comforting to have things clear, to have things black and white.”
The result today is that the Protestant tradition that shapes much of Obama’s Christianity is fading from public view.
The share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
White mainline Protestants make up only 15% of the nation’s population, the survey revealed. The study also found that the fastest growing "religious group" in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.
Another generation of Christians, though, may bring a new version of progressive Christianity back.
The lines between younger conservative Christians and progressives are blurring, says Marcia Pally, author of “The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.”
Pally spent six years traveling across America to interview evangelicals. She says her research revealed that more than 60% of young evangelicals support more governmental programs to aid the needy, as well as more emphasis on economic justice and environmental protection issues.
“What’s interesting is that these values, associated with Obama and the black Protestant tradition are now also the values of a growing number of white evangelicals,” she says.
Her perspective suggests that Obama’s faith may be treated by history in two ways:
He could be seen as the last embodiment of a progressive version of Christianity that went obsolete.
Or he could be seen as a leader who helped resurrect a dying brand of Christianity for a new generation.
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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.
Thank you – John Blake
Brought up in Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in the 30's and 40's. Never in all those years did I hear anyone say, "Are you born again". First time I heard it was from a Baptist girlfriend, and I didn't have the first inkling of what she was asking me. Lutheran Babies are given to the Lord in Christening and you are his forever. President Obama's Christianity is our Christianity, too. I've had fundamentalist religious people say I'm not a Christian. That's their problem, and they make problems for everyone by attacking and insulting other interpretations of Christianity, and other Religions.
Thank you !
Obama's Christianity is "liberation theology," a thoroughly Marxist theology imported from South America and preached as "Black liberation theology" by Reverend Wright, the person who baptized Obama, and mentored him in Christianity for 20 years. In 2007, Wright's church presented a "Lifetime Achievement Trumpeteer" award to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam.
Just got through reading an historical account of the first 200 years of Christianity after Jesus' life. There were many, many groups trying to figure out who Jesus was, what his teachings meant, and how to apply them in those early years. There were teachers and gospel writers whose writings came from eyewitnesses and disciples alive during Jesus' life on Earth who disagreed profoundly on these questions. In the process of sorting out who was a "true" Christian and who was a "heretic", many of those teachers and their followers were imprisoned, tortured and killed by other Christians. Is that what we want to do again? Any Christian today who even utters the thought that somebody else is not a "real" Christian should be censured by their leaders or by their followers. I am only hearing that kind of talk on the side of the Christian faith spectrum who support Republicans but if it is also happening on the other side, I condemn them equally.
Obama is a self proclaimed Muslim and the only Christan they like is a dead one, this is a known fact and the only thing Obama is preaching is Obamism.
" Obama is a self proclaimed Muslim "
Irrefutable-reputable solid evidence for this claim please ?
You are so right.
What are you talking about?
Are you an idiot?
therealpeace: Terry was referring to a speech by Obama where he said "I am one of them." However, the context was African, not Muslim. Republican spin at it's finest and only bigots will believe that he meant he was a Muslim.
Obama is the WRONG kind of EVERYTHING– It's time to end the ObaMISTAKE!!
http://1857massacre.com/ Rom-lie is not a christian, in fact all religions started out as CULTS.
Only the weak and feeble minded subscir
Republicans would choose a Scientologist over Obama.
Only the Word of God and the Spirit of God define the right kind of Christian. Obama does not fit the definition.
Neither the conservative Republicans do.
Obama is an atheist like me. He just hasn't come out yet.
They all with exception to Bush and Carter.
I am a sausage swallower
Obama is the RIGHT KING OF CHRISTIAN!!! You headline is disgusting. What do you think? Are you going with the idea that if you put up a rotten headline like that more Democrats and Republicans will read it.
Well, you probably got what you wanted but in a very nasty way. I won't be reading anything you write in the future. It doesn't matter what was actually in the article if the headline is about stirring up more conflict for your personal gain.
CNN – I've lost all respect for you. Even Fox New would have a hard time beating you on this one.
I don't see how Ayn Rand (an atheist) corporate, conservatives can even consider themselves Christians. How are their actions Christ-like?
The question s mute and CNN s tryng to distract from Obamas horrible record.
16 Trillion Debt
Obama was born a Muslim and s a Muslim!
You fundiots are so cute when you foam at the mouth – especially when you use the wrong word over and over.
That would be "moot". Based on your spelling and belief that our president is a Muslim you have little to no education. Believe in America believe in Obama. Don't be against your own country!
CNN has an Agenda, and they will post anything they can to further Obama. When Obama looses, and he will, they will suffer and they know it. Especially when Romney is successful. You see they are courting liberal fire, and are hoping the anti-Americanism they espouse continues, it keeps them relevant, but when that fades and there contrived Anti-American drama is over, they will have nothing else and wil lbe viewed much the same as MSNBC, only for the very disturbed.
Im actually calm and happy that the truth is gettng out to the Nave and il linformed.
Obama was born a Muslim and is a Muslim
Distraction and Big Brd wont distract me from Obamas horrible record.
16 Trillion Debt
Once agan distraction wont fade the TRUTH
16 Trillon Debt
Obama was born a Muslim and s a Muslim!
Thanks for helpoing me prove my point.
The question s moot!
"Obama was born a Muslim and s a Muslim!
Thanks for helpoing me prove my point. "
isnt your nonsense claim about Obama also a distraction?
" $4 Gas " Hey, Curt... you know what the price of gas was in much of 2008 under "W" Bush ? Over... $4.00 per gallon. In July of 2008 it was $4.10... the highest on record.
" 8% Unemployment. " Bush "W" went from 4.3% in 2001 after the Clinton years, and took it to 7.2% in December of 2008. Unemployment was steadily rising under Bush. Obama is at 7.8% and the number is going down after having to deal with the Bush debacle.
" Obama was born a Muslim and s a Muslim! "
You have no credibility.
Greed and corruption has been brewing in the good Ole USA long before this administration.
If the politically motivated "christian" right can declare the President, or any other individual for that matter, to not be Christian when that person says they have accepted Christ, they have reverted to the Catholic version of Christianity. Not that I have anything against the Catholic church, but all of Christianity owes its existence to the Roman Empire, not to God. It is a shame that American Christians as a group do not have a clue as to the origin of Christianity. Jesus was a practicing Jew, as were his early followers. The gospels were selected and edited by Rome in order to increase the power of Rome and push out the Jews.
As far as modern American Christians go, many on the "right" twist and pervert the bible for their own selfish ends. They would crucify Jesus again for being anti-rich and pro-poor, that defines Socialism or Communism in their eyes, not the true message of Jesus although that was a clear part of his message.
Wrong kind of PRESIDENT.
What an assinine headline. Sounds like it was written by Fox. Maybe you should ask whether Romney is the wrong kind of believer in a religion more idiotic than most.
Like FOX, CNN are anti-Obama ?
What a horrendously disgraceful headline intended for maximum impact. Very unprofessional this close to an election. Would you headline on the front page "Romney, the wrong kind of Mormon ?" I don't think so. Disgusting.
Yes, disgusting racism by CNN. They would never touch Romney's religion with a ten-foot pole. BECAUSE HE"S WHITE.
To the so called conservative christians their main concern is that Obama is a black. It is not kosher now a days to use the n word so they use other words to convey their disdain for his blackness. Here is a man, Obama, who goes to Christian church frequently,more frequently that many other presidents, who speaks about his faith more frequently than many other president since possible Jimmy Carter. Who stresses that Jesus central message , that is to take care of the poor ,the children,and those less fortunate than us, is his guiding principle. The so called conservative christian response is to shout, he is not a Christian. The proof that their objection to Obama christianity or lack there of is not the factor motivating their hate towards him is in who they choose to support, Mitt Romney.
There is no question that Romney is not a Christian by any stretch of the imagination. Romney believes that God was once a man of earth, then became a god and moved to a planet some where in the universe. If this is so then God did not create the heaven and the earth in six days,because remember he was just a regular man on earth,before becoming a God,who then created the heaven and the earth? Romney believes that when he dies he will also become a god, and be given a planet where he will rule over other intelligent beings. He believes all mormons men in good standing will be given their own planets, women will rule over these planet along side their husbands, But he will have to call her from the grave before she will have the privilege,what a powerful tool of control to have over your wife. Romney wears a magic under garment that is suppose to protect him from evil. When Romney was married his mother and father in law could not attend the ceremony in the mormon "church"because his mother in law was not a Mormon at the time, his wife father never became one. The fact that Romney and all mormons believe they will becomes gods when they die means that they believes in many gods,where by Christians only believe in one God,any things else heathenism.
How can these white so called conservative preachers convince you to vote for the true non Christian in the race, the white Mitt Romney, they have to tell lies about the black Obama, so that you may vote for the cultists Romney.
Not to mention that Romney is a BISHOP of a religion that refers to the "Lamanites" as the wicked people cursed with black skin". Crikey this article makes me ill.
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
That already puts spotlight on dumb GOP – following sheep, following wolves in shepherd's clothing who feed the fat cats of Corporate Mafia with the fat gathered off of their backs, while they bleat slogans programed to them by the hired media. The reason for that is that sheep has lost the sight of the True Shepherd, so it is no wonder they are blinded by media-blitz bought adn sponsored by dirty Corporate $$$$$$.
Pretty clear, isn't it? Why is it the teachings of Jesus that are so clear are the very ones that the fundamentalists ignore for their political purposes? "My kingdom is not of this world" means that Jesus did not come to install ANY government.
Jesus set the standard , e.i. fundamental principles by which the individuals AND governments are to guide themselves by. Any that don't are bound to self destruction. But those who claim to be Christians and claim God's righteousness as their guide as GOP does, are worse off than those who don't claim Him at all!
I just heard a judge is going to listen to OJ Simpson and he may be set free, did one of you guys pray for him? Tell the truth, lol, you did didn't you/!
I prayed for HIS VICTIMS!
BO does not have a valid social security number – his failed e-verify – it is from Connecticut – he has never lived there and was not born there. He has used other names besides the one that he is using now. He was signed in as Muslim at his elementary school in Indonesia. He was signed in as Islam for religion. He has had questionable associations with terrorists, and communists. His association with Tony Rezko in Chicago leaves many to question his real estate dealings there and the paper trail is very murky and Weinberg, his CPA knows that his home is held in trust by someone who gave money to his campaign – so isn't that real estate fraud right there??? He has used various socials, various passports, he bows to muslim kings, whispers to the Russians, lies about terrorism for the sake of NOT associating Islam and terrorism. He is a big fat un-Christian mess. The list goes on and on and on. What happened to Donad Young? What happened to Bill Gwaltney? For HEAVEN'S SAKE – WHAT HAPPENED TO CHRIS STEVENS AND THOSE GREAT SEAL HEROES? At least Romney is American, has one name, has a legal social, has no associations with – whatever you want to call them – pays his own way, makes his own money, gives abundantly to charity, and attends church. BO and MO don't even attend church. Get real about the thuggery in the wh.
your stupidity is alarming!!!! go educate yourself.
20 years as a Mormon has turned me into an Atheist!
thats because thats what " morons" deep down really ARE.
"Black Liberation Theology" masks the origins of the phrase, "liberation theology," which is South American, and through and through, a Marxist theology. This redistributionist Marxist theology is what Obama heard preached by Reverend Wright at his church for 20 years.
You bunch of confused hypocrites. Sir Romney, your fearless leader does not believe in Jesus or the Christian god and his set of beliefs does NOT fall in line with the Christian faith. He really does believe that when he dies; he will be a God (he may even think that he is a God now) and have his own planet and he will populate his special planet will spirit babies. WOW. How does that fit into our beliefs? Why does he deserve the support of even one Christian man or woman?
Right on – perfectly said – I cannot as a Christian vote for Romney. Republicans wake -up! Romney's beliefs are so goofy and we sit around calling Obama a muslim to justify our stupidity.
Though Mormons believe in eternal progression, no Mormon thinks they are going to be an instant 'god' when they die. The only people thought in LDS literature to have attained that status so far are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.