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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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.
I would trust Regan before I trust Romney. Mitt reminds of me of Nixon. Can we say "Tricky Mitt"???
Let's be honest. It has nothing to do with his religion. He is the wrong color for the "Whitehouse". Many of us Americans would have more respect for the Radical Christians if they would just come clean and say they don't want a black president. We all know what you've wanted since he took office. Your mouthpieces Limbaugh and Beck have stated it a 1000 times. Quit trying to veil your racism with lies.. we can see thru your white sheets!
Lets be honest?? Obama would not be in the White House if race was the issue!!! The race issue in America today – is that blacks are in big trouble if they don't vote for Obama...?!! Right!!?
It time our politicians stop pretending.
The Catholics don't think Evangelicals and other Protestants are true Christians, the Evangelicals don't think Catholics, other Protestants or Mormons are true Christians, the mainline Protestants acknowledge the others as Christians but think their Protestant sect follows the spirit and teachings of Jesus more closely than the rest. There seems to be an awful lot of disdain and in some cases, outright hate being practiced among people who claim to follow the teachings of one who preached love. I think the Evangelicals and the Catholics win the religious intolerance award among Christians by a wide margin. I think they have grown this way because they are the most political of the Christian sects and that the power seeking that comes with politicization is the cause of most of their intolerance. Sadly, the mixing of religion and politics results in a particularly poisonous brew that is best avoided.
There is only one gospel. So if you are a Christian there isn't different types of Christianity. The bible does not talk about Mormons, Jehovah's, or Catholics. Just Christians. The only name we have ever adopted. If you are a Christian, all you need is the bible. No books added to it, nothing else. Anything else is works based and takes you through levels that you have to achieve. Remember, Jesus was born in a barn and of no reputation. We should all be the same way if we are Christ followers.
The Prince of Judah and Ephraim Christ, with purchased Roman citizenship, from the book of Luke is very different from the poverty stricken family sold at Church. The catch in John 3:16 is whom you have believed in.
nothing worse than a bitter dried up drunk..
watching franklin graham pimp his elderly father for political gain
maybe the most unchristian act all
franklin needs to stop ruining his fathers legacy
Ambassador: http://www.snopes.com/politics/medical/exemptions.asp Another ridiculous lie. Look, the mandate was a Republican idea. There are lots of people out there who could have health insurance but choose not to. They're young and healthy and so they simply opt out – until they get cancer or have a bad accident. Then they quickly run through all their assets and qualify for medicaid or medically needy. Not a good situation for them, not a fair situation for the rest of us. Use your brain. Purge your mind of insane lies. Do some real research. Grow the hell up.
There is no "mandate", only a tax that will be challenged in 2014, after it is paid. This will of course lead to total healthcare chaos in 2015, when the tax is struck down; thanks to the Democratic Party.
"Cass, of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, says Obama’s emphasis on helping the poor through social justice isn’t Christianity" and "Christians who talk about “social justice” are often practicing “warmed-over Marxism.” Case is the type of person and his "religion's" beliefs that have pulled people from a church. "Protestant Christians in the United States has dropped below 50% of the population" You wonder why?
I'm not a christian and am not in the slightest bit interested in the discussion. Why are we even asking this question? What happened to separation of church and state? Christianity is responsible for more murder, torture, and oppression than any other dogma throughout history. There is NO difference between Christian Republicans and Islamic Sharia.
Are there other countries bickering over their established native religious affiliations? Do you not have to abide and conform to their estabished rules? Why all of the rhetoric about this issue in America? We are or we are not! We have created so many obstacles to progress in out country. We can't grow because of them! My prayer is God teach us to love!
This is a very, very well written and thought out article. But I'll make my response initially simple. Barack Obama has not created a "new" version of Christianity. As this article explains in many excerpts, he's distorted and confused the fundamentals and principles of the original version. In other words, Obama will use scripture verses wherever he wants, and twists it's meaning for political purposes.
When one does the actual comparison of Obama's personal views (what he actually says and does), vs his policies, he's wrong on every moral issue, and is using an "anti-biblical" approach.
The verse comes to mind "ye shall know them by their fruits". So if someone's words and behavior does not parallel those of the principles of the scripture, that tell you that they are not following the scripture.
Another way to view it this. If it's an apple tree, it will produce apples, not oranges. And visa versa. Obama is not producing and showing evidence of christian values, even though he talks about them.
I'll go one step further. Lucifer himself, the "son of the morning" was given total authority over the earth by God. He had a robe given to him with all of the most precious jewels of the world. But he became prideful. It was this selfish pride that led to his downfall, and eventually to being cast out of heaven and into the lake of fire. His name was also changed to satan, which is accuser of the brethren.
Satan himself knows bible verses, and constantly preverts and distorts them to confuse others into disobeying God's biblical laws. My point is that it's actions like this that show whats in one's heart, whether it is of God, or has another motive.
I have seen an overwhelming amount of evidence that Obama is not a Christian, and for political purposes, will not blink twice at using bible verses to accommodate his audience, even in a church. Thats an elaborate way to say he uses fancy wording to lie to you. Playing politics with the scripture.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
I didn't vote for him the first time. But for those who did, will you be fooled again, and want 4 more years of continued financial, moral and spiritual decline?
New York City
Jeff says: "IIn other words, Obama will use scripture verses wherever he wants, and twists it's meaning for political purposes."
You mean like the Talibangelicals do from the pulpit every week as they try to remake America into a Christian theocracy - but only their brand of Christianity?
You basically just proved the writter of the article right. Since Obama doesn't look or fit what YOU believe then he's not a Christian. You just proved your intolerence to the rest who have claimed people like you aren't Christian but intolerant. Also just so you know I may not be religious but I have read the entire bible, as I was raised a Catholic, and I believe your Christian views are selfish, intolerant, ignorant and completely void of any of Jesus' teachings. How one reads a book, misses all the parts that speak about helping your peers, feeding the hungry, not judging other (turn the other cheek) and the quote from Jesus "He said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven" is what call political distortion. You wouldn't believe how many "Pastors" will "tell" you what Jesus meant, I ask how they hell do they know? The mega church "pastors" who wear thousand dollar suits, hundred dollar shoes and drive a bentley to church are telling you what Jesus meant with "He said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven".. How delusional can you be, how moraly corrupt can you be.
On the basis of your above reasoning, I would therefore assume you would not be voting for Romney whose Mormon religion is considered a "cult" and not a true Christian religion.
OBAMA = MUSLIM
What is a Christian to begin with should not be a difficult thing to sort out. If it is, if there is confusion and blurring of truth, it will be because of either something is not true, or it is true, but not accepted as true.
Good article, revealing the "brand" of Obama's Christianity. It is not confusing to me that he is a deeply spiritual person, who wants to make a difference for good in this world. But being a Christian means being a Christ follower. Being a Christ follower means being broken, humble and totally given to Christ. It is realizing your own lack of power or "intelligence" and trading this for His wisdom and his power through you. The old testament is not the full gospel, it is history and relevant in context. Same as the New Testament, in context and through the Holy spirits revelation.
"Wrong kind of Christian" is probably a phrase that was being used a lot when the country was founded. Differing Christian sects were feuding and persecuting each other around the time of the formation of the U.S. government. Also Deism was popular and had strongly influenced the great thinkers of the day including many of the key founders.
Because the feuding between Christian sects annoyed our founders so greatly, it should be no surprise that the key founders had an immediate need for the separation of church and state (and to make it Amendment #1). This is also reflected in what some of the key founders had to say on the matter:
James Madison (our 4th President, was the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution):
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.
(A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785)
and then ten years later:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?
(A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of VA, 1795)
Thomas Jefferson (our 3rd President, was the key author of the Declaration of Independence)
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
(Letter (as POTUS) to the Virginia Baptists (1808))
and then of course we have clarifying moments in history such as:
President John Adams and the U.S. Senate on behalf of the U.S.
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;
(from Article 11 of the U.S. treaty ratified with Tripoli in 1797)
Senator John F Kennedy said on Sept. 12, 1960, just prior to his winning the Presidential election:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.
Obama is a Christian end of story what kind thats his own buisness. The saddening part is the black community now recoginizing another Christian when he entered another house of God. This shows blacks are the racists ones which is not being a Christian.
Hitler was a Christ too I suppose; according to you.
Are you kidding Debbie? I am black and been to church all my life and never have I seen anyone judge another race when entering church. Besides all religions are judgemental because if you do not believe in their god you are wrong and need to convert. Blks may be racist but don't act like whites and other ethnicities don't share the blame.
Horrible unfair headline good article
Wow! How inappropriate! The right kind of Christian? What are the qualifications? Who sets the standards? Ridiculous.
Political right wingers think they bought the Christian franchise.
Who, ultimately, has the right to say one is Christian or not? And why is it so important?
I don't know how a Christian can be the 'wrong' kind of Christian. A Christian believes that Jesus Christ washed us clean of our sins with his blood on the cross. If you believe other than that, you were never a Christian to begin with. The Apostle Paul made that crystal clear in his epistle to the Church at Ephesus, i.e. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." Ephesians 2:8-9 (KJV)
At one time Billy Graham was one of the greatest evangelists the world had ever known. In fact, for years people believed that Billy Graham may be one of the two witnesses John mentioned in Revelation chapter 11 since they were unnamed.
That all changed a number of years ago when Billy Graham accepted the 'new age religion' theology as the Gospel. At that point theologians and students of the Bible knew that Billy Graham was no longer Christian.
Only Barack Obama knows what is in his heart. If he has accepted Jesus Christ as his saviour then he is a Christian.
Finally a post that makes sense..who decides who is a christian...?
why doesn't cnn run a photo of romney wrapped in a gown of money....and question his faith....call romney the antichrist