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.