Rev. Franklin Graham last week revealed that President Obama confided to him and his father during a recent visit to North Carolina: "I don't go to church."
Publicly, Obama insists he's a practicing Christian.
"I have no idea what he really believes," Graham said during an appearance on MSNBC.
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It's a deepening mystery. Pundits on both the left and right question the president's faith. The growing debate marks a turning point in American politics, where discussing the personal religious beliefs of an elected official or candidate is taboo.
Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time," doubts Obama is a practicing Christian.
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"I just don't believe it," he said recently.
Maher suspects the president is an atheist.
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GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum says Obama follows a "phony theology" not based on the Bible and preached by radicals.
"He went to Rev. Wright's church for 20 years," the former Pennsylvania senator pointed out this week in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Obama's longtime church, Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, preaches an Afrocentric, and at times anti-American, doctrine. Wright gave a sermon the Sunday after 9/11 in which he thundered, "America's chickens! Coming home! To roost!"
He also condemned America, using the phrase "God damn America!"
"It was there – at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago – that I met Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who took me on another journey and introduced me to a man named Jesus Christ," Obama told black preachers gathered in 2007 at the Hampton University Annual Ministers' Conference in Hampton, Va.
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"It was the best education I ever had," the then-Democratic presidential hopeful added.
The question is, ask skeptics, what kind of "journey" did he take? And which "Jesus Christ" did he meet?
Four years later, Obama still has never publicly shared details. And the few media who have asked for them have been stonewalled.
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As a result, recent polls show at least 4 in 10 Americans have no idea what Obama's religious beliefs are. The mystery surrounding his faith has led to growing interest in a subject normally considered too private to debate in politics.
What is known, though rarely covered by the Washington press, is that Obama's longtime pastor and "spiritual adviser," as he's called him, preached the radical doctrine of black liberation theology while Obama sat with his family in the pews.
Black liberation theology, according to Wright, has been at the "center" of Trinity's "theological perspective" since 1972. And the teachings and writings of the father of black liberation theology – Professor James H. Cone – were required reading at Trinity, which features stained-glass depictions of a black Jesus. This was true when Obama worshiped there over a period spanning two decades. Black theology was outlined in the church's new member packet and taught in its new member classes.
Cone said Wright was "really the one who took it from my books and brought it to the church."
Cone's doctrine is steeped in socialist ideology. He believes merging Marxism with the Gospel will liberate African-Americans from the supposed economic slavery of "white" capitalism.
"Together," he says, "black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society."
One of Cone's chief disciples, Dwight N. Hopkins, has taught classes on black liberation theology at Trinity and was one of Obama's teachers there.
Hopkins is a former community organizer, as well as a colleague of Obama from the University of Chicago. He gave his first recorded political donation to his friend and co-religionist in 2008, according to FEC records. Between February 2008 and October 2008, Hopkins contributed $1,538 to Obama's campaign.
He, too, favors socialism over capitalism.
"Dr. James Cone continues to envision the actuality of equality among people, challenging white and black churches alike to recognize U.S. capitalism's oppressive character throughout the world," Hopkins has written of his mentor.
Communist officials in China and Cuba have invited Hopkins to speak about liberation theology in their countries, according to his curriculum vitae.
Obama has not found another church since quitting Trinity in 2008, when video of Wright's anti-American sermons surfaced during the presidential campaign.
"This was a very dangerous scandal for Obama," said Hoover Institution research scholar Dinesh D'Souza. "It threatened to expose him as a radical masquerading as a mainstream centrist."
While Obama's relationship with his controversial Chicago church has been severed, his belief in its doctrine appears to remain intact. He has never denounced the church nor disavowed any tenet of black liberation theology.
"I am not denouncing the church," Obama said even after footage of its radical sermons aired. "I am not interested in people who want me to denounce the church, because it's not a church worthy of denouncing."
The president insists he's still religious in the absence of a home church and says his Christianity comforts him amid all the doubts surrounding his faith.
"My Christian faith has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years – all the more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time," Obama said last year.
While the White House press corps still avoid asking Obama about his black liberation theology beliefs, religious scholars contend it is a politically charged theology that distorts the biblical teachings of Christianity. They say it diverges from both Scripture and ancient Middle Eastern history.
"The goals of black liberation theology are to turn religion into sociology, Christianity into a political agenda, Jesus into a black Marxist rebel and the Gospel into violent revolution," said religious scholar Robert Morey, who holds a doctorate in ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. "They are more interested in politics than preaching the Gospel."
Among other things, black liberation theology espouses:
- Africans were "God's chosen people," not the Israelites.
- Ethiopia was the "promised land" instead of Israel.
- Adam and Eve, as well as Noah, were black.
- Abraham and Moses also were black.
- Jesus Christ himself was black. ("Jesus is a black man," Cone claims, explaining that white Christians "reinterpreted Jesus so he looked like them." Wright has preached in at least one videotaped sermon: "Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country and in a culture that was controlled by rich white people.").
- Christ wasn't a deity but a "black revolutionary," who rebelled against the oppression of "white Romans" and delivered a liberating message of social and political change.
- Christ was only for the poor, not for all mankind.
- Christ was a political liberator, not a personal redeemer.
- Christ wasn't crucified on the cross, but was lynched on a "lynching tree" (Cone explains this curious factual discrepancy as "transvaluation.")
- Heaven is "pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by slave mentality" – a white "fantasyland" – that ignores the plight of blacks and other oppressed people in the here and now. ("Don't tell me about Heaven," Wright fumed in a 2008 interview with PBS. "What about this life? ... We can change policy.")
- Repentance is something required exclusively of whites, who Cone demands "need to give back what you took – and white people took a lot from black people."
- Original sin is "whiteness," or being Caucasian.
- The epistles of Paul and other apostles are doctrinally insignificant and rejected, since they accept the institution of slavery that existed at the time. ("God who allows slavery, who allows murder of a people, lynching – that's not the God of the people being lynched and sodomized and raped, and carried away into a foreign country," Wright told PBS.)
- The Bible is "not the infallible word of God," according to Cone, and is therefore pliable.
Before campaigning for president, Obama expressed doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture. In a 2006 "Call to Renewal" keynote address in Washington, he said: "Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between scriptural edicts – sensing that some passages are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life."
Obama also is not sure there is an afterlife – a Heaven or a Hell – which also is in keeping with the beliefs of black liberation theology. He has confessed that he is not "sure what happens when we die."
In a 2008 interview defending his church, Obama suggested political activism and a "spirit of justice" is more important that a spirit of peace and a focus on salvation in the hereafter.
"I don't consider Christianity a place to avoid the real problems in the world," he said. "Now, my faith tells me that we have to engage in those real problems in the world. And, you know, sometimes, when you are engaging in the real problems that are out there, there is going to be some conflict and some controversy. And I would expect that I would have a pastor who would not shy away from speaking out on those issues."
In a 2007 speech, Obama explained his reasons for joining Trinity.
"Rev. Wright's sermons spoke directly to the social gospel – the need to act and not just to sit in the pews," he said. "And so I found that very attractive and ended up joining the church."
A more detailed explanation is found in his 1995 memoir.
"I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, the Christians in the Den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones," Obama said of the stories he heard at Trinity. "Those stories became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood."
Obama told Beliefnet.com in 2008 that Wright's sermons "about Scripture" were "right on target." He praised him as "one of the greatest preachers in the country."
Cone's teachings are as racially incendiary as some of the anti-white remarks that Wright has spewed from the pulpit.
A professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Cone has written that "black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy" and all its institutions.
"All white men are responsible of white oppression," he claims, and should not be forgiven for past slavery until they beg for forgiveness and offer full reparations.
Cone says, "Whiteness is the symbol of the Antichrist" and that "black theology seeks to analyze the Satanic nature of whiteness and by doing so prepare all nonwhites for revolutionary action.
"To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country loves and adores," he adds.
Cone told Bill Moyers in a 2007 PBS interview, "Loving white people is difficult."
Such racially exclusive – not to mention, hateful – theology contradicts the basic tenets of Christianity, evangelical leaders assert.
"He's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," said James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family.
Westminster scholar Morey agrees that Cone "rewrites history." He also notes the seemingly contradictory doctrine of black liberation theology, which denounces Christianity as predominantly white and racist.
"Then it turns around and claims that Jesus was black," he said. "If Jesus was a black man, then how can Christianity be the 'white man's religion'?"
He also points out what he calls the absurdity of black liberation theology's claim that Adam and Eve were black. "If this is true," he said, "then all men are black because they came from the first black parents."
Morey says black liberation theology is "really concerned with class struggle and not about black people, per se."
"The fundamental ideas of black liberation theology did not come from black thinkers but from such white European thinkers as (Karl) Marx," he explained.
How much has black liberation theology influenced Obama's thinking?
It's not clear where Obama's beliefs and Cone's diverge. But Cone suggests Obama privately follows his radical theology, while toning it down in public.
"I don't see anything in (Obama's) books or in the speech (he gave on race in Philadelphia in 2008) that contradicts black liberation theology," Cone said. Obama has just sanded over the "radical edge to it."
Cone writes a good deal about "hope theology" – which he says "places the Marxist emphasis on action and change in the Christian context (and) is compatible with black theology's concerns."
Likewise, Obama has suggested he would use his faith as "an active, palpable agent in the world," and a source of "hope" in overcoming "economic injustice."
"I still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change," Obama said in his 2006 speech at the Washington-based theo-socialist revival, Call to Renewal, which is co-sponsored by Sojourners, which includes Cone on its editorial board.
There is more consistency in their rhetoric.
Speaking of black revolution, Cone in his own memoir said, "Hope is the expectation of that which is not. It is the belief that the impossible is possible, the 'not yet' is coming in history."
And here's Obama in his 2004 DNC convention speech: "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope! In the end, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead."
There is additional evidence Cone has influenced Obama.
In his 1969 book, "Black Theology and Black Power," which Trinity uses as a second bible, Cone said: "When we look at what whiteness has done to the minds of men in this country, we can see clearly what the New Testament meant when it spoke of the principalities and powers."
Now here's Obama, in his 2006 Call to Renewal speech: "The black church understands in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked – and challenge powers and principalities."
Cone says his own inspiration comes from the writings of black Marxist Stokely Carmichael.
Obama in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father," says he "went to hear Kwame Toure" speak at Columbia University for "inspiration." Kwame Toure is the African name that Stokely Carmichael adopted later in life. At one speech attended by Obama, Carmichael damned America and the West for imposing "white capitalist imperialism" on Africa.
Obama in his senatorial memoir, "Audacity of Hope," says he believes in the macroevolution of man from primates, and does not believe, "as many evangelicals do," that the Bible is without error.
He says Christians routinely modify their doctrinal beliefs for personal or political reasons.
"Which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control," he explained, "and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a constitutional amendment banning it."
He adds that he views the biblical condemnation of homosexuality as confined to "an obscure line in Romans."