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. integrals

    Next thing we know Obama will create a new religion named after him. How does this article help create or find ways to find jobs for the 23 million unemployed?

    October 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Don't worry about those 23 million, just focus on how Christ like Obama is. If America focuses on the economy the Democratic Party is in deep guano.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  2. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Godly many folks are not. Justice of or even from Godliness is not for the human conditioning. Such Godly conditionings cannot be made whole thru one's will alone. The patience' solutions of humaneness is a far cry away from God's grace. God gave His all to save this world. Humanity gives its' all to deny it from Godliness ideals. Treacherous villianies play upon the shoals parloring to substantialisms' demeanors. Seldom is found hopefulness yet hopeful remains upon those who hope. A presiding lamentation urges on those who vote without true rationalism's beckoning. Cast your vote meaninglessly for the decks are stacked accordingly toward affordability's nature.

    October 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  3. Mr Mark

    Like every other religion man has devised for himself, Christianity is based entirely on make believe.

    Pretty sad for people to be arguing over whose make believe god is whatever in the 21st century.

    Next time you read any article about Christianity/Jesus/God, just replace the same with "Zoroastrianism" or the name "Zeus" and you'll see just how silly Christianity is.

    October 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  4. george

    If we let TV evangelists define Christianity, it will be a pro rich and very close to the Republican claim of it. After all, all those folks are multimillionaires voting their pocket books!

    October 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  5. Dave

    He is not even "the wrong kind of Christian", not even that. He is a Muslim. We all know that!!!

    October 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Scotchguard

      Nobody knows that except those who live in a world of make believe. There's not one iota of evidence to support that claim, but a few folks who are prone to hallucinations keep touting it.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  6. give me a break! obama a christian? in his heart?

    I dont think so....

    he's got somethig else in his heart....lets be perfectly honest and stop the PC talk....

    October 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Scotchguard

      No, he's not the intolerant judgmental type of Christian that YOU are.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Layla

      And so do you, it is called evilness and hate, pure hatred!

      October 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • george

      @ give me a break! obama a christian? in his heart?
      I know what you have in your heart is pure hate and that is not Christian!

      October 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  7. Chris

    Are Mormons even Christian? Let's start the silly religious name-calling on Sunday.

    October 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The cross burners hate Mormon and anyone the devil worshippers hate is ok by me.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  8. hotairwarrior

    I was raised as a moderate Christian. I respect Obama for his personal moderate manifestation of his Christian faith. I am frustrated and turned off by some of the aggressive, insulting, snobby "Born Agains". If they succeed in forcing everyone into professing to a be a Christian, the religious right would still find a way to pick a fight.

    I will vote Vote Obama to insure my religious freedom.

    October 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • ddtrey

      Wow, if that is your biggest concern that is leading you to vote for a man (christian, atheist, white, or black) that has a sustained record of failure and taking the country on the brink of handing over the keys to China, then I am sorry, but I question that vote. Enjoy your rights though, four more years of this and you probably won't have them in 2016.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Scotchguard

      Religious freedom really IS what's at stake in this election. Employees are now being forced to donate to the campaigns that their employers designate and are given information packets informing them who they must vote for. Bible verses are now being displayed at public school sports events in an attempt to challenge separation of church and state. Politics are being preached from pulpits across the nation intentionally, in the hopes of challenging the loss of tax-exempt status for churches that promote a political agenda. Billboards have been erected in the poorer parts of cities across Ohio threatening people with prison for voter fraud in an attempt to intimidate them from voting. The religious right is trying desperately to take over the country. If the rest of us don't step up and stop them, evangelical Christianity will soon be a part of public school education and freedom of religion will soon become a thing of the past in America.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • george

      @ddtry: "Wow, if that is your biggest concern that is leading you to vote for a man (christian, atheist, white, or black) that has a sustained record of failure and taking the country on the brink of handing over the keys to China....",

      We are not re-electing GWB. Are we?

      October 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  9. Holly

    Why the negative headline on a positive article? Shame on you for practicing such lousy journalism...

    October 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Scotchguard

      Because to the funamentalist Christians. Obama IS the wrong kind of Christian, so wrong that because his emphasis is helping the poor rather than judging others, they claim he's not Christian at all.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • integrals

      He's simply the "wrong guy to be president"! As Herman Cain said Obama chooses whatever the flavor of the day is. In a room full of Christians he's a Christian, in a room full of Protestants, all of a sudden he's a Protestant. The guy simply can't take a stance on anything let alone make a decision.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  10. Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)®

    Obama contaminates their version of Christianity, goons too weak to challenge Obama, so cry.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  11. Evangelical

    We need to get back to that old time evangelical religion. Obama is not the right kind of Christian and he is going to lead many to hell.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Surthurfurd

      What is his error? Following the Sermon on the Mount?

      October 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • geladius

      I'll save you hypocrites a spot.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Layla

      Well, you see,,,,he is not Mitt Romney or Billy Graham. Both are "white" males. Now, if he were white, he would be a true Christian in your eyes and hate-filled heart! . However, per your comments Dave and give me a break! obama a christian? in his heart?, neither are you (do not fool yourselves....as a man thinketh is his heart...... You two will bust hell wide open with your racism, hate and lies to support it. And remember this, God sees all and knows all, you cannot fool him. He knows your heart before you even act. You may fool man, but you cannot fool God.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  12. Bigben2000

    "Taught to hate"

    October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • onestarman

      FOX NEWS – The BIBLE of those TAUGHT to HATE

      October 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  13. Barry

    As a Christian, I truly believe the greatest tragedy, miscalculation, distortion of the past 40 or so years has been the intrusion of Christianity into the worldly political system. The Church was not served by the Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity the state religion. Christianity is, at it's heart, an underground movement, changing hearts and minds one-on-one at the grassroots level. In fact, the church has thrived during times of persecution. It has no business pushing legislation and promoting public policy in the political sphere.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Peter

      Our country was founded on God and Jesus' principles. Why do you think everythings gone belly up since the atheists got their religion of no religion inserted into our everyday lives? Their way is a crap shoot. Any thing goes, just don't get caught. Blame it on someone/anyone else.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Barry

      Peter, If that's the way you see things going, then turn off your computer, get out there and build relationships, and let God start to change things from the ground up. At the end of the day, we are called upon to live quiet, productive lives, and let God be in charge.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  14. Surthurfurd

    "You cannot serve both God and Money. [Matthew 6:24.]" Something the so called Conservative Christians have ignored.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Peter

      John 2:13-16 is a must read.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  15. Nicholas


    October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Peter

      Nicholas, you are a liar. This country was founded on God, but, our government CAN NOT dictate which religion to practice.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  16. Planet Kolob

    I am not a christian, but Obama is a respectable man and his more tolerant, less insane version of religion is far better than that of, say, a Rick Santorum or a Michelle Bachmann.

    I always did find it odd that televangelists and megachurch right wingers harped on abortion or gays, but never once talked about charity (probably because for every dollar their followers give to charity, that's a dollar they don't give to the megachurch or televangelist.)

    October 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  17. akismet-cd57839d1ac1015d7f7ea72084e7f181

    Of course he's the wrong kind of Christian, he's not a Christian, he's the Anti-Chrsit(ian)!!!

    October 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • geladius

      Good job spelling, you uneducated zealot.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Peter

      Wow, judgmental.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Jerry

      Republicans are the anti-Christians. They are concerned only with worldly materialism and power. Republicans are the hypocrites who do the exact opposite of what Jesus taught. By some of the reasoning I have read here, Jesus would not be a Christian because he was born Jewish. Obama is more Christian than any Republican.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Brooks

    Unbelievable that such an interesting piece of writing sits below such an inflammatory headline.
    Shame on CNN.

    October 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      It is a bit schizophrenic of CNN to write a headline over an article refuting the headline. I think CNN is hoping we are gullible enough to buy thier nonsense. Any white preacher would lose his tax exempt status if they did what the Black church does every Sunday. Malcolm X (R) knew the slavery the Black Church was about to lead the congregation into.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  19. Al

    There is no wrong or right Christian.....you are or you are not. Obama is certianly not one!!!! His actions speak louder than his two faced mouth !!!

    October 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • visitor


      October 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Theen Allah Fat Mullah (the original hinduism source.....)®

      such as yours.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • wo

      Say that of yourself !

      October 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  20. george

    Mr. Blake, I challenge you to write your next article as "Is Romney the 'wrong' kind of Christian"?

    October 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • jon m

      Best reply of the bunch. Maybe CNN will see your reply and do a story about Romneys faith. All interesting, i think.

      October 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
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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.