The worship life of presidents

spam_musubiMy Google News religion search included an interesting headline for a Los Angeles Times story: “Obama, family spend Christmas at vacation home, forgo church services.” But when I linked on the story, the actual headline was “Obama visits Hawaiian base.”

Having just been at the Marine base President-elect Barack Obama visited in Kailua, Hawaii — my father-in-law was stationed there when my husband was born — I was excited to read the story anyway. Of course, I was excited to read something about Obama dining on musubi, a Spam sushi roll that my husband made me try during my visit there. Delicious. Anyway, there was a brief tidbit that referenced the Google News headline:

Their Christmas did not include attending church. “The president-elect didn’t want to disrupt a church community on Christmas with the burdens that come with a presidential visit,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said Thursday.

It’s a good and important detail in a story covering the Hawaii trip in general. For those looking for more information about the Obama’s long-term church plans, John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune had an entire story on the topic, “Between Churches And Worried About Security, Obama Misses Out On Religious Services“:

Barack Obama has long stressed the importance of religion in his life.

But as his fellow Christians around the world attended Christmas services on Wednesday and Thursday, the president-elect and his family remained sequestered at their vacation compound on the windward coast of Oahu.

His lack of attendance at formal religious services showcased a dilemma faced by Obama, who is between churches and often also expresses concern about bringing the disruption of his security detail into the lives of others.

Still, he has not attended a public church service since before being elected.

The article goes on to use the same LaBolt statement quoted above. It’s so odd — and perfectly understandable, when it’s the president-elect — to have the church attendance decisions of any individual discussed in national news. This story did a good job of balancing the Obamas’ stated belief in the importance of church attendance with the challenges of making that decision under their new circumstances.

Here’s Obama talking about the issue with the newspaper:

“Michelle and I have not found a home church since we left Trinity [United Church of Christ]. And it didn’t make sense for us to join one now, right before we’re about to move,” he said. “So, I’m reliant on the pastors who are friends of mine and who I talk to for support and my own prayer life at home.”

The article mentions that churchgoing is not a regular habit of many recent presidents and that context is most helpful. The one question that I’m curious about is sacramental life. These stories never seem to mention how the sacraments are handled for presidents who don’t worship regularly. As someone who receives Holy Communion weekly, I can’t imagine going for any length of time without it. I believe there is some variance in how Holy Communion is administered in the United Church of Christ, which is what Obama’s only previous congregation is, but the church body does recognize two sacraments — “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

The story spends a lot of time discussing the politics of Obama’s religious decisions, including his choice of Pastor Rick Warren to pray the invocation at the inauguration, but it would be nice to have a bit more focus on the religious aspects of presidential worship.

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  • Chuck

    The question of sacramental life of the UCC is very simple to answer–there isn’t any. Communion is usually only give once a month at most, and at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. It is a commemoration with no mystical content implied.

  • FrGregACCA

    Maybe the Obama family will take a page from the Nixon playbook and invite clergy to the White House on a regular basis to conduct Sunday services for them.

  • Dana

    All of our presidents so far have claimed to be Christian, from one denomination or another, but regular church attendance never seemed to be very important to them. Jimmy Carter was a Sunday School teacher for a while in Georgia — and we’d probably have been better off if he’d stayed a Sunday School teacher in Georgia! Bill Clinton was often photographed entering or leaving church, but somehow we usually saw those pictures when he had some personal foible in the news. Has the current President Bush ever been seen attending church?

  • Dana

    Oh, and “spam musubi” is sacrilege all by itself!

  • Jill C.

    I say, let him (Barack Obama) eat spam!

  • FW Ken

    Early on, Pres. Bush stated that due to security concerns, he would not join a congregation in Washington. If they attend church, it’s done without publicity. Or much. A quick google search found one reference to attendance at a congregation near the Crawford ranch, plus his attendance at a service in China (obviously political in nature).

  • http://contracts jh

    “Has the current President Bush ever been seen attending church?”

    I think he and the family attend St John’s right across the Street from the WHite House (the unoffical Church of PResidents) on a very regular basis. I often see a clip of them leaving on SUnday Mornings

    Obama might take thi soption in the future too

  • Kevin

    Mollie’s post reminded me of this AP article from earlier this year, where Mr. Obama indicated that he had conducted an impromptu Easter “service”–in a resort swimming pool–because his family “coudn’t” go to church. The oddness of that scene–and of that rationale–stuck with me.;_ylt=AgPRX0vsjoC6TUPoR7os7Lms0NUE

  • Dana

    FW Ken wrote:

    Early on, Pres. Bush stated that due to security concerns, he would not join a congregation in Washington.

    A statement which would have made little sense. Bill and Hillary Clinton were at least somewhat frequent attendees at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, about a mile from the White House. George Bush is a Methodist.

    So, what do you have? A church of the denomination that the president of the United States claims to be a member of, and a church that is used to presidential attendance, and a church with which the Secret Service is familiar and already has the security plans made for.

  • R.S.Newark

    The real reason he failed to attend or failed to have someone come past is it would interupt his smoking time….right?

  • Kevin J Jones

    Which Christian denominations hold that Sunday attendance is mandatory? Which don’t?

    These are relevant questions. Often I think media impose half-remembered standards on denominations where they are not applicable. Some write like it is expected that Protestant clergy, or even secular Catholic priests, live in poverty like monks. The same with Sunday attendance. Haven’t “churchless” home prayer sessions on Sunday long been a part of some denominations’ religious practice?

  • Joel

    I seem to recall that Reagan stopped attending church during his presidency as well, because he didn’t want to endanger other worshippers. So far as I know, Kennedy was the only president we’ve had for whom sacraments were mandatory. I’d have to look it up, but I’ll bet he had a priest come to the White House and celebrate a private Mass for the family.

  • Dana

    To answer Mr Jones question, as far as I know, only Catholics have a mandatory obligation to attend Mass every possible Sunday. But there’s a difference between saying that you are, for example, Methodist, and missing church occasionally, and missing church almost every Sunday.

  • FW Ken

    #7 suggests that the Bushes do, in fact, attend services on some sort of regular basis. And Joel, I have a vague memory of news clips of the Kennedy’s coming out of Mass while he was president, and think I remember them being regular Sunday attenders. Of course, I was apparently wrong about the Bushes, so there you go.

    To be honest, I don’t pay that much attention to the president’s beliefs or practice. There were some interesting religious riffs in the last campaign, it’s true: Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a novelty for about 35 minutes, then I wanted to know the sincerity of his conservative beliefs. The Baptist McCains were interesting because the family money came from a beer distributorship. That tickled me because some of my family got run out of the Baptist church when my uncle got a job driving a beer truck. The business with Trinity UCC and the Obamas was interesting because that’s when it became clear that the country would have to deal with “black” as something cultural and religious, and not just ethnic. I’d argue the discussion was sidetracked by the pro-Obama media, but what did you expect?

    Here’s the point: I’m old enough to remember that liberals sneered at Reagan about not attending church while enjoying support from Christians. So what? Liberals sneered at Reagan about everything for 8 long years, just as they have sneered at Bush these last 8 years. To be fair, conservatives lambasted Clinton for his 8 years, and are gearing up to trash talk Obama for the next 4 to 8. But liberals do it with a distinctive smug, self-righteous superiority conservatives can’t quite match.

    Oh, yes, the point I was aiming at: talk about the president’s religion belongs in the features section, what used to be called “Women’s News” and now called, variously, “Living”, “Life”, “Today”, and the like. I suppose there is something to be learned about a president from whether he (or she eventually) attends Church (unless attendance is a calculated political thing), teaches Sunday School, or whatever. But giving the propensity of contemporary journalism to turn everything into a Big Deal, I’d just as soon religious practice be left to the president’s privacy.

  • Fowler

    When President Clinton was photographed entering a church, he always held the Bible in such a way that the title “Holy Bible” could be easily seen!