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.
A Mormon can lead this country. Not an Atheist, and not a Muslim.
and a sociopath like romney can't lead it either
we need President Obama
If he is such a great mormon, why did the largest paper in Utah endorse Obama.
Read the endorsement, then you will question the stability of Romney as well as his commitment to his faith.
He is no mormon. Only for political purposes maybe but it stops there.
Fact check: the largest news paper in Utah (The Salt Lake Tribune) has from its conception been one of he most anti-Mormon newspapers ever. The real news would be if they ever did endorse a Mormon for anything. So, "that dog don't hunt"
ya, and im the freakin pope
Fool tell me what makes you or your parents a CHRISTAIN?
We have seen that his God is re-election money and that is at who's feet he worships.
There are certain people who call themselves Christians who are not at all possible of being Christians. They just can't do it. It's not our fault they can't be. It is our fault though if we don't stick to our values instead of letting others who don't represent us lead this country. We've let this happen for almost four years now. Time for a change.
sorry I couldn't help but bring this up. With God, ALL things are possible 😉
So basically Obama represents the resurrection of a main stream christianity that is aligned with science and government, and those whom practice traditional christianity based on biblical principles are underground and radical. Wow I've had it with CNN and their New World Order agenda. CNN has become trash journalism.
Thank you for reminding me WHY I'm voting for Obama as our president for a 2nd time.
what is the reason? I guess there are people who actually believe he's Christian....
No, I believe his point is having a leader who doesn't blindly follow a Christian Denomination that a PART of America and society believe to be the one and only truth. It disturbs me to think that it's been over 2000 years since he died for us, and nobody gets the message STILL. His message apparently died on the cross with him. I see no brotherly love, I see no action toward your neighbor as you would wish done unto you. The has been no expansion of our existence toward one where respect, love, and most of all compassion for others, especially when they are at their worst.
"My Jesus is better than your Jesus"... Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if He looks down upon us and realizes there is no point in returning. We didn't get his message, so just leave us to tear ourselves apart. Everybody is so blind....and I don't get it...how is EVERYBODY SO BLIND? We kill unborn babies, we kill wolves from helicopters, we kill each other, we kill truths, we kill respect. If He came to any town anywhere in the states w/o people knowing who He was, and offered up fish and loaves to people, He would feel empty inside when he sees the squabbling over who was in line first, who got more, how long it's taking.
I was raised Roman Catholic and that is my foundation. "Foundation" is the important part of that statement. In my Faith, Jesus is the core and I have added elements from Buddhism, Hinduism, Astrology, Darwinism, and just absorbing the world around me and conversations with others. "Darwinism?" Yes, of course, evolution is fact, you can see it in any museum or just looking at your pet dog, formerly known as wolf several millenia ago. I mean, for the love of all things good, it's right there in Genesis. What do you think the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was? It was us stepping into a boundary in which no other animal can say they have evolved to. Good and evil.... through Genesis we have the knowledge to perform both, and to recognize both. Well, which one are we doing more of? If you're not sure and you think yourself a Christian then think again; you don't believe in the bible, because Genesis says it...we have it...and how will we use it?
I give, and have always given, so much respect to those around me and it is getting harder and harder to do so. I don't care what your belief system is, I don't care if you want to get ahead of me at the grocery, I don't care if I have to wait a few seconds to let you into my lane. Existence isn't about futile yammering about your precious few minutes on lines, it's not about what others believe, it is about YOU and how YOU actually understand that you understand NOTHING. Only in the end will we find out. But if you aren't using the gifts we have been given by the "Universal I", then you aren't getting it. Him, He, It, The, I, We....whatever you want to call the collection of good energy that exists in the universe. That is life and the bringer of life. The darkness that we are driving ourselves into is so far from any faith for any religion...
We have become nothing but vendors in the Church..... and one day, our tables will be turned over....
mitch mcconnel and the entire republican congress should be tried for treason for stating at the beginning of Obamas presidency their main agenda was to deny Presiden Obama a second term.
And this article is pathetic....lame cnn
The difference is...Romney is a likable and competent man.
.. who was COMPLETELY WRONG about the makeup of Americans two weeks ago.
He was right.
Jessy you are another ignorant fool on here and I have no idea where people like you come from. You are so blind that you have no idea what is in front of you and the bad thing is that you call yourself christains and what do you think JESUS will be saying right now about ROMNEY who continue to lie to everybody since he enter this race.The whole world is laughing at US because of this a pure liar as a PRESIDENT you must be joking, now I see many of you have no morals anymore. If you can accept his lies, what will you tell your kids about lies, well I guess you say keep it up.Please may God forgive you that calls yourself a CHRISTAIN and yet cannot show it in you ways.
he's as christian as my testicle
The fact that Christians around the country are suddenly willing to throw out the long held belief that Momonism is a cult, just because the Republican candidate is a Mormon, is extremely telling. Fear for the future people.
I'm starting to believe that the Republican party has become an anti-Christ.
Jesus still sits on the throne, regardless of the Godlessness of people, and nations – they rage for nothing. He endures with great longsuffering vessels of wrath fitted for destruction, so that His power can be shown in vessels of mercy -Rom9:22
Most Christians I know care more about a person's qualifications than what religion they practice or what color their skin is- These Christians are against such ignorant bigotry!!!
btw, I don't have a problem voting for a Mormon. I have a problem with redefining what is a cult so that a mormon candidate can get elected. When people talk about not voting for Obama because they don't believe he is a real Christian and then at the same time support Romney they are illustrating hypocrisy in it's fullest sense.
You're just starting to see that now? I saw that before before Bush Jr. stole the presidency
I think this song sheds some light on things: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPTYkDVWaCk
I am the same John Tarver that uses the Global Geolocical record and Dr. Gould's work to prove evolution as a means to species is false. In fact, species occur rapidly following a mass extiction, the opposite of evolution; but don't confuse yourself with scietific facts in a religion discussion. Be that discussion about Christianity, or outdated racist science.
Oh OK, that's what I suspected. Then you are, in fact the same deluded Creationist fool. Thanks for clearing that up.
You are a creationist fool.
He sure is the wrong kind of Christian if he is even Christian at all. What kind of a Christian in a church for 20 years run by a reverend who preaches hate of Whites and hate of America??? Obama a Christian?? Don't think so, guys.
What did Rev. Wright say that was racist against whites?
Observer doesn't observe very well. Another one in denial.
I used to think he was a Christian, and I think the president thinks he is a Christian, but his actions of late are confusing.
If he believes human life is precious, why does he have a kill list?
If he wants to find common ground with pro-life Christians why are the fines for refusing to pay through premiums for abortive drugs (read the FDA label on Ella) double that of the fines for companies like Enron who destroyed the pensions of thousands of employees? It appears that he is trying to crush the groups who don't follow his brand of Christianity.
John Tarver keeps trying to avoid the fact that Mormons are NOT CHRISTIANS.
By DEFINITION, Mormons are NOT Christians. They DO NOT believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
How can you call the Mormons Christians when they believe that Jesus was "just a prophet"????
ROMNEY has gotten a pass.... President Obama has seen people who politicize faith attack him since he first ran for election.
Mormons do NOT believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and man's Redeemer.
THAT is a fact.
When you're willing to BETRAY God and lie to support your political positions, you need to take a step back.
The people constantly LYING about the President's faith are the same ones that DO NOT want to talk about Romney's REJECTION OF JESUS CHRIST AS THE SON OF GOD
Apparently you get your knowledge of Mormon beliefs off the back of cereal boxes. Of course Mormons belief Jesus is the Son of God. That goes directly to the First Vision of Joseph Smith – "This is my beloved Son, hear him.". I would be interested in whether you can point to one actual Mormon who thinks Jesus was just a prophet.
That should be 'Mormons believe', not 'Mormons belief'. Should have done a quick review. But, the point still stands – you do not understand Mormonism. And this is from someone who was raised Mormon, but no longer follows Religion.
Sorry, but you are wrong. Mormonism may be a cult, but they definitely do believe that Jesus is the "son" of God (but then again they believe that we're all sons and daughters of God). They also believe that their version of Jesus is the saviour of "this" world (of course they also believe all good mormons will become gods of their own worlds and populate them with spirit babies some day). What they don't believe is that Jesus is God Almight...the Creator who has always existed (without beginning or end)...as the Bible teaches. They don't believe in the Trinity in the same sense as Protestant Christians. Their version of Jesus is very different than the Christian Jesus. But Mormons do love their Jesus and believe he is their savior.
What a stupid article, the author is a total hack you people are pathetic, I guess CNN is trying to become FOX newsnow
More make believe from the Far Right. I will not enumerate, you know the crap that you believe.
Us pagans believe we are endowed with reason which allows us to judge whether or not someone can be trusted to deliver on their promises, if they are dangerous, or harmful –by watching their behavior -We judge–not some other being upstairs-Obama has shown his lack of human compassion and untruthfulness for 4 years, we have seen that his God is re-election money and that is at who's feet he worships.
LILY you are one of the biggest fool on here. Please read what you wrote again, I assume you are ROMNEY supporter and you call yourself a Christain. Romney have been lying for years and that is the person you suport and you think God does not see that you are very ignorant for calling others pagan. What did the BIBLE tell you about lies, and yet you support someone that lie in your face. Like the President said,you too must have ROMNISIA.
This article is well written, but full of stupid things from many preachers who calls themselves christains. Please I encourage everyone to go read their bible and then you will know you have no right to say someone is not a christian. Those so called evangelical pastors are not christians because they condemed people that do not believe what they say and look at JESUS life and see if it is the same.
A "Christian" who wants to redistribute wealth yet he himself gives so little to charity. I'm confused.
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, – Matthew 6:3
Republicans do the opposite... they're never going to give to someone without first making sure that someone hears about it. If you don't broadcast your charity giving publicly (i.e. try to follow what Jesus actually said) they attack you for it and accuse you of not giving at all.
Furthermore, though they make the disingenuous claim of giving more to liberals, what they call CHARITIES usually aren't charities at all as most people would think of them. I would think of a soup kitchen, mission, Salvation Army.. they typically donate to specific organizations and churches that advance a conservative agenda. They aren't out to help the general populace or the poor, just those that hold the same views that they do.
BEACHGURL you are one of those ignorant people in this country that have no idea whats giving and any other issues means. How much does he make and yet he gives almost half of that and yet you said it is not enough. What did romney give to his church, about 4million and I want to say that is very good but as a christain,when you give you do not expect anything back but do you know how much all these people that give get back from what they gave, Romney got more than half of that money back this last year and he would have got almost everything back and is that giving. No, they need to change the whole system because if you are getting that money back from taxes you did not give anything to me. How many of you that give your 10 percent are able to claim it your taxes, you cannot because they will tell you that you do not have enough dedcution to be able to get that money back but the rich get all theirs back. So people they just fooling you and grow up BEACHGURL.
Obama is just trying to make all of us 'Good Christians' by making sure we all give to the poor, under threat of arms.
Of course he's a Christian and a much better one than the Pharisees who seek to defame him.
is this statement based on any fact, or do we invoke the word pharasee- like we know what it means?
Hey kiki, how about you get your liberal head out of your liberal @ss?
Pharisee is a common word in Christendom and perfectly represents the 'preachers' in the article. Thanks flyboy for demonstrating that your ilk are bereft of ideas and values and have only juvenile insults.
You are so correct kiki. People like Franklin Graham and organizations like Focus On The Family are the modern day Pharisees.