WASHINGTON — In 2004, Barack Obama cited his Christian faith while explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage. "What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it's not simply the two persons who are meeting," he said.
Eight years later, he cited his faith again when he became the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality.
"When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know? Treat others the way you'd want to be treated," Obama said.
What changed in Obama's understanding of the Bible and Christianity between 2004 and 2012 is one of the last mysteries of his transformation from opponent to champion of marriage equality. While the president has explained this evolution in personal and political terms — citing conversations with gay friends, and the changing attitudes of the public — he has never directly explained how he came to believe that God approves of same-sex marriage.
The unexplained shift in Obama's religious worldview — and its neat tracking of public opinion polls — has led many to see his election-year marriage equality endorsement as a cynical flip-flop — a political calculation on an issue that, for him, never really had anything to do with faith.
The White House declined to speak on the record about the religious element to the president's evolution on this issue. But in a range of interviews with BuzzFeed, Christian leaders said that Obama's journey is not unique, and that a growing number of believers are successfully reconciling Biblical teachings with modern-day acceptance of homosexuality and marriage rights for gay couples. And sincere or not, the president's evolution represents a faith journey being taken by millions of Christians across the country, as a broad section of American Protestantism move from Old Testament stringency to New Testament tolerance.
Rev. Delman Coates is a pastor in Maryland, where he starred in ads supporting marriage equality in that state in 2012. He was also among the first African-American preachers Obama reached out to after making his public shift on marriage equality last May. Back then, most of the talk about Obama and faith related to how the president's new stance on marriage equality might alienate him from his African-American base. Coates told BuzzFeed he didn't recall Obama talking about the Bible at all on that call.
"No, only to say that he respected people's personal beliefs and practices and respected the rights of any religious institution to define marriage in accordance with their beliefs and practices, but that after talking to staff, talking to family, [and] his daughters, he had arrived at the conclusion that every American should be treated equally under the law," Coates said. "I'm under the belief that that was the right decision. Because Barack Obama was elected as president of the United States and not pastor of the United States."
Coates is a Biblical scholar and said his own views on marriage equality came from studying his faith's holy book. Just as Obama's change on same-sex marriage actually had the effect of changing African-American poll numbers on the issue, Coates said his belief that Christianity actually teaches tolerance toward the LGBT community has led his Clinton, Maryland, mega-church to its best year ever in 2012, with over 1,000 new members joining the congregation.
He said his understanding of Christian faith has always required flexibility and open-mindedness.
"We are evolving. Not just in our understanding of civil marriage, but we're also evolving in our understanding of what the scripture is affirming and what it is condemning," Coates said. "I think as more reasoned Christians take a look at scripture, it's pretty clear."
Coates also said the stories in Leviticus and other Old Testament books cited by opponents of homosexuality have been misconstrued for years, and that fresh views of what they teach have emerged through "progressive evangelical" scholarship.
"For example, saying that the infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is often used as, you know, 'Sodom and Gomorrah was condemned because of homosexuality.' Well, no," Coates said. "The request in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis is a request to rape the guests of Lot... which is not the same as a consensual relationship. So, the so-called wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with same-gender loving relationships. It's dealing with something totally different."
This new reading has led to faith-based changes in the views of same-sex marriage, and it could help explain how Obama cited Christian teachings while arguing both sides of the marriage issue.
"Yes, I think Christians can evolve as we reassess the meaning of these texts," Coates said. "And if scripture is our source of authority, then we don't want to be found guilty of misreading scripture."
Other Christians, meanwhile, are distancing themselves from the Old Testament altogether — rather than reinterpreting it — as they seek to emphasize Christ's words in the New Testament. And some speculate that this could be the tack Obama has taken.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, is a practicing pastor, former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, and supporter of same-sex marriage. His position astride both the political and faith worlds has given him unique insight into how Christian politicians can cite the Bible when opposing same-sex marriage and then turn around and cite it again after changing their minds.
"Actually, they're right on both counts," Cleaver told BuzzFeed when asked how a politician can cite the Bible to defend both sides of the marriage equality argument. "And I say that because it is important when discussing or considering same-sex marriage to acknowledge that it is as complex a theological and Bible issue as there is in at least two of the monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism."
Obama, Cleaver said, is now espousing a view of Christianity more focused on the teachings of Jesus, and not the more black-and-white demands of the Law of Moses that came before him.
The Old Testament, or "Hebrew Testament," as Cleaver prefers to call it, "does speak with great condemnation to the subject of a man laying with a man," he said. "[Leviticus] is not only anti-gay, it is violently anti-gay. And many people who have expressed over the years great intolerance on the issue of same-sex marriage, homosexuality and so forth were doing so from the Hebrew Testament only."
"What the president said ... that comes only, exclusively from the New Testament, or the Christian Testament," Cleaver said. "And by that I mean Jesus Christ, who we believe to be Lord, never one single time addressed the issue of LGBT issues. Not once. I was trained in Seminary that the main thing is the plain thing and the plain thing is main thing. And so Jesus is very clear. He never stumbled over the issue, he never condemned anybody for it, never praised anybody for it."
"What he did do," Cleaver said, "and I can say this without fear of contradiction, is to preach love."
Cleaver said it may seem strange that Jesus' words, which of course are as old as Christianity itself, are only now driving large numbers of Christians to support marriage equality.
"People now say, 'I used to be against it, but now I've thought about it and now I'm informed by love, I'm embracing the teachings of Jesus now,'" Cleaver said. "To be sure, the Christian Testament has been around for almost 2,000 years, so it's not like somebody just gave them a new document. But I'm OK with people who want to come to the conclusion that Jesus was not homophobic. There's no evidence, not even a piece of evidence, that that was the case."
The reality is that the church has been well behind cultural progress on this issue for decades, Cleaver said, and that as gay rights become mainstream, Christians are looking to their faith to reconcile the tolerance they yearn to show.
"The tragedy of this is that we're supposed to change society as opposed to society changing us," Cleaver said of the church. "And so what many people are doing is changing as society changes. And the justifications that they've known [are changing.] And I don't think anybody did it consciously, it's just that the voters are way ahead of the politicians on this."
The president is a good example of that dynamic. In 2004, he sounded like a modern conservative Republican when it came to marriage and faith — though he was always a proponent of other gay rights. (He was open to civil unions, which many current marriage proponents oppose, and he ran for president supporting the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and other expansions of LGBT rights.)
In early 2008, Obama gave one of his first hints that his reading of the Christian scripture was starting to change when it comes to marriage. At a speech from the altar of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the home church of MLK, Obama told the mostly African-American audience the Bible was telling them to be more tolerant of the LGBT community.
"If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community," he said. "We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."
Scripture, Obama went on to say, "tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed." The speech was viewed at the time as an attempt by the then-senator to send a message to the black community, which polls showed was still deeply skeptical of expanding gay rights.
In a May 2012 interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama again said faith was helping to drive him to his new position.
"When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know? Treat others the way you'd want to be treated," Obama told Roberts. "And I think that's what we try to impart to our kids. And that's what motivates me as president. And I figure the more consistent I can be in being true to those precepts the better I'll be as a dad and a husband, and hopefully the better I'll be as a president."
To conservative Christians, Catholic and Protestant, this argument from faith is, at best, a stretch, one that ignores millennia of tradition and the plain language of the Old Testament. And to those who see the president as a political operator, these shifts are not a surprise. Some on both sides of the marriage debate believe Obama has followed the political winds on the topic, first supporting same-sex marriage in 1996 as a liberal Chicago community organizer before opposing it as his profile rose, and then finally supporting it again after Vice President Biden boxed him into a corner ahead of the 2012 elections.
But Obama hasn't only said that faith and marriage equality can coexist — he's said that his Christianity is part of the reason he supports expanded marriage rights at all.
It's a view many Christians are coming to these days, Coates said.
"To define faith as fixed is not what faith is about. That's science," he said. "Faith is a journey. It is a process. ... I haven't talked to him about his faith journey; he can only speak to that, but there's no better example of what the mystery of faith is about than one that is evolving. What you believe when you're 10 ought to be different by the time you're 20. We grow. We mature. We evolve."