Tonight NBC Nightly News aired a clip from Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama, in which he asked the President why he has not chosen a church to attend. He was told that so doing would create too much of a distraction for fellow parishioners, and that the President, instead, receives a daily “devotional” email from a group of pastors nationwide.
Presidents Clinton and Carter managed to choose and attend church while serving in the White House. Given that this Sunday is Easter, one of the most important, if not the most important, days of Christians’ liturgical calendar, this choice, or lack of one, strikes me as odd and evasive.
I began attending a local Episcopal church in 1998 after a personal crisis, being victimized by a criminal, made me deeply question my values, my decisions and my lack of a larger community. I don’t attend every week, but when I do it’s with immense gratitude for a place I’m thoughtfully reminded of deeper and wider values than my own petty personal concerns. I also appreciate being part of a larger community that has warmly welcomed me and my partner, a Buddhist, and helped nurture our spiritual growth. Many of our ministers and assistants, much to my surprise — not having been a “cradle Christian”, attending church faithfully since birth — have become beloved friends.
If Obama truly wants to participate in Christian life, being visible in this specific, chosen, sacred place is part of that commitment, as he knows. He and his wife and two daughters may arrive by limousine surrounded and protected by the Secret Service, but the unyielding hardness of a wooden pew, the Bible and the sermons based on it he would hear there each week, usefully remind us all that’s not how he — or any of us, regardless of our temporal wealth and power — will be leaving.
A good church (or mosque, temple, synagogue or any public place of worship) — and there are many that are not nourishing — is a plot of deep, rich, fertile soil, a place to put down some roots and see what blossoms. When you publicly and collectively meditate and pray for others, it reminds us of our larger humanity and our connection to those, as our service says every week, who are ill, dying, sick or in need.
As you know, attending Sunday morning worship enables you to worship God, which for Christians is both a responsibility and privilege. These services help supply you with moral inspiration and spiritual strength, which are vital to your work as president. Attending habitually will also enable your wife and children to receive biblical instruction and Christian nurture. You have repeatedly claimed that your faith is important to you and helps guide your political priorities, policies, and work. You have frequently used religious rhetoric and scriptural principles and passages to support legislation you are promoting. You have also sought to enlist clergy, committed lay Christians, and religious organizations to work to achieve causes in which you believe strongly. Moreover, attending church faithfully would testify to your professed values and help you gain greater credibility with religious Americans.
Equally important, your regular attendance would set a good example for our nation.
Church, in fact, has been a surprisingly tough issue for the Obamas. They resigned their membership with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008 after Obama renounced the church’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. And while the First Family intended to find a local church to attend when they moved to Washington, concerns about crowds and displacing regular worshippers has prevented them from finding a new religious home during their first year here.
The Obamas have attended Sunday services in Washington three times this year — once at the predominantly African-American 19th Street Baptist Church, and twice at St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Asked at Tuesday’s White House briefing whether the First Family is still searching for a local church to join, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded: “The President has attended fairly regularly up at Camp David a church that he’s comfortable in and has enjoyed attending.”
What do you think? Does it matter to you if he chooses a church and becomes a part of that larger community?
Or is he avoiding controversy and further political divisiveness by keeping his prayer life confined to the White House?