Barack Obama, secret Episcopalian?

It’s so easy to make mistakes on the religion beat, especially when covering someone as complicated as President Barack Obama.

The following Haaretz newspaper story is rather old, but it has just come to our attention (care of that lurker named Douglas LeBlanc). The fact that it is several months old, for me, only makes it more interesting — because the editors of this influential Israeli publication have not run a correction. The error in it is rather jarring, almost spit out one’s morning coffee level.

However, before you read the top of the report you need to look at the video with this post and realize the number of times videos and photos such as this have appeared in news reports of various kinds around the globe.

Now, here we go.

The Anglican bishop in Israel, Suheil Dawani, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court … demanding that Interior Minister Eli Yishai return his visa, which was confiscated after it was discovered that he sold land to Palestinians.

Six months ago, Dawani, who has served as the top Anglican official in Israel since 2007, was informed that the Interior Ministry had canceled his visa and that he would be deported from the country. In the lawsuit, Dawani’s attorneys note that the Anglican Church has 90 million followers, among them U.S. President Barack Obama, former president George H.W. Bush, and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Dawani is also an official emissary of the queen of England, who holds the official title of head of the Anglican Church. By dint of his position, Dawani is a frequent guest at official state ceremonies, according to the lawsuit.

Spot the error? Yes, I know that former Vice President Dick Cheney is a United Methodist, not an Episcopalian (in the context of the United States). I mean the other error — the reference stating that President Obama is an Episcopalian. According to the story, this error was included in documents filed at the Jerusalem District Court. That makes it official?

As I hinted earlier, I assume that many journalists around the world have simply seen too many pictures of Obama and his family visiting St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the White House. Thus, it is often called the “church of the presidents.”

However, this error does raise an interesting journalistic question, one that I was discussing with a Washington Post reporter just the other day.

The question is rather simple: Is it still accurate to say that Obama is a member of the freewheeling, at times iconoclastic denomination called the United Church of Christ? After all, it has been a long time since Obama broke his ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and resigned his membership at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago.

Here inside the Beltway, Obama has visited St. John’s, as well as a few major African-American congregations. However, his family has never joined a church — citing security concerns. They are reported to attend frequent services at the Camp David chapel.

So, what is Obama, in terms of denominational affiliation? The UCC is — by heritage and history — a very congregational flock, even though it has a highly outspoken leadership squad at the national level. Obama is no longer a member of a UCC congregation. He has not joined another. Thus, for reporters, is it accurate to say that he remains a member of that trailblazing denomination on the left wing of mainline Protestantism?

One more question, asked with tongue in cheek: Has Obama ever met with Bishop Dawani? I mean, face to face? Just asking. Maybe the president confided his inner Anglicanism, which led to the inaccurate reference in the court document?

Stranger things have happened on the religion beat.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Stranger things have happened on the religion beat.

    Maybe someday you’ll do a post “the 10 strangest things that I’ve ever seen on the religion beat”? :-)

  • Will

    Of course, Queen Elizabeth is only head of the Church of England (which does not include Scotland and Wales, another point frequently lost on the press), and there is no “head” of the Anglican Communion.

    The assertion of the Bishop’s diplomatic(?) status is puzzling. I thought the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East was autocephalous. The official site at says he “represents the Anglican Communion family” and “works with [NOT under] the Archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican and interfaith issues.” Further, he is both “Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem” and “Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem” … perhaps a gesture to PECUSA.

  • Bram

    Joining the Episcopal Church would be a very effective way for the President to put to rest the rumor that he’s an Afrocentric anti-colonialist … ; )

  • Fralupo

    It sounds like Bishop Dawani is claiming to be a nuncio of some sort. Does Anglicanism have nuncios?

  • Kelso

    “Freewheeling”; “left-wing”; “trailblazing denomination” are all adjectives more aptly describing The Episcopal Church. I went to St John’s back in the day when it was beautiful – now it’s just another Holy Roller Hootenanny Parish of the Episcopal Church.

  • Ira Rifkin

    As a former Washington correspondant for the Jerusalem Report magazine, a former oped contributor to the Jerusalem Post, a former oped ghost writer contributor to Haaretz, and a close follower of Israeli media, I feel qualified to say that Israeli journalists (whether they write in English or Hebrew) tend to know very little about American Christian denominations and Christianity in general.

    Moreover, Israeli media also tend to ignore their errors and rarely run corrections. I guess when you work in a place where virtually every day is a gangbuster news day, why bother looking backward.

  • Dan Crawford

    What intrigues me about this story is Obama’s adoption of the Reagan approach to church-going.

  • BJ Mora

    Obama (and his family) are not current members of a church and have not joined a church, so the answer to the first question is no, he’s not a member of the UCC. Unless, in their bylaws, it specifically states that one does not have to continue to belong to a local congregation to be considered a “church” member. Or, if the Trinity church (his last church) refused to recognize his membership resignation (both unusual moves but possible, the latter moreso than the former).

    I’m an old-school Presbyterian. Laity join local churches; ministers are generally members of the presbytery or regional body which oversee their local church (there are variations on this theme). So one cannot belong to a denomination without belonging to some sort of local body.

  • Chip

    Where is the link to the Haaretz story?

  • tmatt


    Well, DUH. I looked it up and forgot to paste it in.



  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Of course, Queen Elizabeth is only head of the Church of England (which does not include Scotland and Wales, another point frequently lost on the press), and there is no “head” of the Anglican Communion.

    Inasmuch as there is a “head” of the Anglican Communion, it would be Rowan Williams, though his headship is an honorary one as opposed to an administrative one. I certainly feel more loyalty to Rowan Williams then I do to the running joke which is the British Royal Family.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: What intrigues me about this story is Obama’s adoption of the Reagan approach to church-going.

    Supposedly Obama’s reason for not going to church regularly is that it would put whatever congregation he was to join at risk for terrorist attacks and such like. Whether that’s an excuse for an inner lack of religiosity is anybody’s guess.

  • Passing By

    If memory serves, the George W. and Laura Bush adopted the same policy. It’s arguably the wiser course of action for modern presidents.

  • Ruth Rathman

    We of the UCC would surely love to have President Obama and family be members ofthe UCC – but his faith is more important than a denomination. Hopefully as Christians we will pray for them and the USA.