Easter Sunday in Washington

People enjoy the warm weather in Washington

I’m extremely nervous about how the media covers the religious life of presidents. Sometimes I wonder how one of my congregation’s services would be written about in the Washington Post if we had a president worship with us. I suspect it would be difficult for a random reporter to understand the liturgy, the sermon and the context in which they are received.

And then when you think of the history of how the media covers presidential visits to houses of worship, much less actual membership in a congregation, I think it would be very difficult to worship under that spotlight. Of all the ways that being president might be difficult, that topic makes me feel the worst for the men who’ve inhabited the office.

All that to say that the first family was able to worship on Easter Sunday. TMatt already noted some of the press coverage leading up to this visit. And whenever President Barack Obama goes somewhere, it’s going to be covered. The first story I read came from Politico. It reported that President Obama and his family came to my quadrant of Washington to attend services at an African Methodist Episcopal congregation.:

The other worshippers stood, clapped and sang “Alleilua” when the first family entered via a side door at 11:05 a.m., according to the pool report.

Last Tuesday, four people were slain in a drive-by shooting close by the congregation, located in one of the poorest parts of the city.

Bell referred to the president as the “most intelligent, most anointed, most charismatic president of America,” and called Mrs. Obama “his beautiful wife — TV cameras don’t do her justice.”

“God has His hand all over you,” Pastor Bell said, referring to the president. “Anyone would be foolish to come up against him.”

That’s not how you spell “Alleluia,” of course. But a few other thoughts, too. On the one hand, it’s interesting to contemplate how much the media might have flipped out over some evangelical megachurch pastor saying that President George W. Bush’s opponents would be coming up against God. On the other, I wonder if this is really the most newsworthy part of the sermon. It’s Easter Sunday and one wonders whether these comments were related in some fashion to a larger message about the Resurrection. Or, if they weren’t, that’s interesting too.

Unsurprisingly, the Washington Post had a better story about the visit, with many more details. Authored by Eli Saslow and Hamil Harris, the piece is just nicely written. It discusses some of the local context, such as that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Member Marion Barry were also in attendance. We get the always-important (to me, at least!) fashion report and a description of the service:

The president clapped and stomped his foot to the beat. Michelle Obama, wearing a scooped-back beige dress, danced next to him. When the song finished, a woman from the choir grabbed the microphone and pointed to the Obama family, telling them that Allen’s congregation liked to get up and move during the service.

“If you came in here to sit and be still, I’m sorry. Move down the street,” said one associate minister, drawing a loud cheer. “Excuse me, first family, but we like to get crazy up in here. You might see shoes flying, hair flying. But we are praising the Lord.”

Earlier, the reporters flat out say that President Obama was made a focal point of the service. In fact, many different people during the service made a point of discussing him. I would still like to know if there was any other focus — say, on Jesus’ resurrection, perhaps? It’s newsworthy that the Obamas were made a focal point but to not cover any actual religious content makes this read a bit like a quick political write-up of a campaign stop. I mean, if you have time for the fashion report, you should have time for the religious content. We also get this context:

It was the kind of spirited service Obama attended for years as a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and he did his best to blend into the crowd. He read along during the hymns, nodded his head repeatedly during the sermon and spent a few minutes bouncing the pastor’s grandchild on his lap.

During one song, Obama nudged his older daughter, Malia, and tried to persuade her to dance. “Come on,” he said. Then he swayed his shoulders and clapped his hands with exaggerated enthusiasm until Malia started to laugh.

Few who sat behind Obama looked as relaxed. Two Secret Service officers occupied the pew behind the first family and acted as a moving shield, standing when they stood, swaying when the Obamas swayed, sitting when they sat. Ten ushers stood in the center aisle, wearing black suits and white gloves. Secret Service agents wore headsets and kept lookout from the church balcony. Some parishioners held cellphone cameras above their heads to take pictures of the president.

Most speakers also focused, at least momentarily, on Obama’s attendance. Bell, the pastor, called him “the most intelligent, most anointed, most charismatic president this country has ever seen.” Then he looked at Obama and said: “God has his hands all over you.”

We also get a description of President Obama’s reception of communion.

I do find it fascinating that the Post doesn’t include the full quote that Politico had. It gives a completely different feel to the pastor’s remarks and serves as a good reminder of how much power journalists have to shape stories and our impression of events.

But while I still wish we learned a bit more about the actual sermon President Obama heard and what the non-Obama-focused parts of the service were like, this story effectively paints a picture of what this worship service was like. It’s clear that this was not these reporters’ first visit to a church. I only wish more stories about presidential visits to houses of worship were similarly non-hostile.

It wouldn’t hurt to have this story explained in terms of the larger story about the first family’s religious life. For instance, President Obama told an interviewer last week that his family had decided not to join a church — but that news isn’t even mentioned in this story. And I know that President Obama missed Christmas services and has attended a few others, but it would be interesting to explore the transition from church membership into “Christmas and Easter” worshipers.

With those quibbles, though, I can’t say I mind a friendly write-up of a presidential Easter.

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  • Dave

    it’s interesting to contemplate how much the media might have flipped out over some evangelical megachurch pastor saying that President George W. Bush’s opponents would be coming up against God.

    This kind of comment in GR is getting a bit old. It almost might be mistaken for nostalgia. Obama will eventually have to give up blaming Bush for the economy, and I wish comparisons with imaginary media might-have-beens would fade on the same schedule.

  • Peggy

    This ABC headline was rather annoying. It claimed that Obama attended a “mass.” Any reader would think that Obama, definitely not a Catholic, crashed a Catholic Easter Sunday mass. I am unaware of any western protestant denomination that calls its worship a “mass.” Why on earth would the headline writer say “mass”?

    http://abcnews.go.com/WN/president-obama-takes-easter-mass-church-regular/story?id=10283263

  • Bern

    Thanks for this post mollie–I agree it would have been good to hear more about the service/sermon and maybe more context about why the President and his family, who feel, like other First Families before them, that they cannot join a church, would yet make the effort to attend Easter Sunday services (not Mass!!). And, don’t worry about the outrage re Pastor Bell’s remarks: it’ll come!

  • Jerry

    I’m sorry, Mollie, but I’m getting tired of celebrity gossip pieces, even if the celebrity is the President. The media is so focused on celebrity that they can’t allow a President to be a human being at all and have to fixate on every last detail including church to the point that a President can’t attend church services without disrupting the service and having the focus be on him rather than on God. Maybe those who practice Lent could give up such reporting, even for only a short time.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    I totally disagree.

    You honestly think the coverage would be the same? So Bush walks into a political significant Protestant megachurch in the Bible Belt and the choir sings hosannas and it wouldn’t draw (justifiably so) some strange comments in the press? On the comedy shows?

  • Peter

    I’m with Dave. It’s a lazy rhetorical device that is impossible to prove or disprove. We don’t know how the MSM would have reacted. It’s true that partisans’ reactions could be predicted to act the same way partisans are reacting now. But that’s not the same as dragging out the “just imagine how W would be treated by the press” trope.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Has anyone ever done a “meta-story” about reporters’ inability to attend Easter services because they’re too busy following the President around on Easter morning? :)

  • Dave

    TERRY:

    I have no doubt the coverage would not be the same. But it has nothing to do with whether the press gets religion, and it comes off as a bit whiney. Not good for GR, imho.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    Again, I totally disagree.

    The ability to cover competing sides of a religious issue fairly and equally is at the heart of American journalism. You are saying, “Sure, the media is biased against some religious groups more than others. But, hey, what the heck. It doesn’t matter.”

    Fairness and accuracy are part of “getting” religion in the press.

  • Heather

    I agree with tmatt. It’s important information and the press should pick it up and run with it, regarding of which party is in office. An office that journalists need to remember owes its power to us, the electorate.

    And – happy Easter Week to all you hard-working GR contributors and to us, your grateful and interested readers.

  • Dave

    TERRY

    Once again I am amazed at your ability to read into my comments something that was never there.

    Bias is not OK. But whining about an imaginary past offense is not redolent of adulthood.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    The mainstream media’s disparate treatment of certain folks isn’t imaginary even if you refuse to acknowledge it.

    And it is a major problem point.

    I don’t think anyone could credibly disagree that the MSM would treat wildly differently the same comments noted above if they came from a right-leaning preacher to a right-leaning political figure.

    There are years of evidence that suggest otherwise.

    That’s not imaginary nor whining, just acknowledgment of reality.

    I happen to prefer the treatment we’re seeing now. I want it to extend to all coverage of politicians.

    And I will note that I raised concerns also during some of the Jeremiah Wright feeding frenzy.

    It really says something how defensive folks get over pointing out the disparate treatment. I mean, if the post above is considered whining, I wonder how an actual discussion of unfair treatment on the other side of the aisle might be characterized.


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