NYT: The Obamas and Christmas (no church)

Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes. It’s a federal holiday as well as a religious observance, so it’s understandable that any president of the United States, regardless of faith, would take the day off. At the same time, most every POTUS has been a Christian of one stripe or another (questions exist about Jefferson and Lincoln, but that’s for another time).

President Barack Obama professes Christian faith as well, something noted here just the other day.

But personal faith and public (or semi-public) practice are often two different things. Ronald Reagan’s non-attendance at church (not to mention his wife’s reported dabblings in astrology) drew barbs from some political opponents and pundits. George W. Bush often hosted worship services at Camp David but was not a frequent churchgoer when in Washington. (That said, Bush averaged 15 visits to churches each year, versus 3.6 per annum for Obama.)

The New York Times caught this, and jumps in on what the president did — and didn’t — do during his current, Christmastide sojourn in Hawaii:

HONOLULU — President Obama celebrated a low-key Christmas in Hawaii this year. He sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base to wish the troops “Mele Kalikimaka” — the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.”

But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.

“He has not gone to church, hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.

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Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era

No one on the national religion-news scenes writes with more vigor and enthusiasm about America’s sharp turn away from religious doctrine and traditional religious institutions than veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today. Her journalistic glee is completely justified, in my opinion, because this is one of the most important religion-beat stories of our age, especially on the religious left.

On one level, her latest piece on this topic — the headline is “Relationships are the new religion for many” — is best seen as part of the wave of mainstream coverage following the “Nones on the Rise” survey about the surging number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, research that grew out of a partnership between the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Toss in new research numbers from a number of other sources, such as the LifeWay team linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, and you have yet another chapter in the important story of do-it-yourself spirituality in postmodern America. The holy days hook at the top of the story, fleshed out with some name-specific anecdotes, is perfectly natural:

Emily Hilliard will cook a festive brunch with friends on Easter Sunday. But none in her Washington, D.C., social circle of foodies, folklorists and fiddlers will go to church that day.

In Denver, Ambra Vibran will enjoy an Italian feast with cousins that Sunday. But she says, “My spiritual life is in hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying God’s creation.” It’s a stretch to recall when Vibran last went to church.

Eleanor Drey plans a Jewish traditional meal where family and friends will talk about freedom. But it won’t be on Passover, Monday night this year. Folks are tied up with their kids’ spring vacations. They’ll gather at Drey’s San Francisco home in April instead.

The new data kicks in at the summary paragraph, where the line between the religiously devout and the new American normal is made quite clear. This is long, but you need to read it in order to get Grossman’s main point:

This week, most Americans will celebrate essential stories of Christianity and Judaism: God freeing the enslaved is a key Passover theme. Easter’s core is Jesus’ resurrection, offering a doorway to salvation.

But many will celebrate with a twist. While 73% of Americans call themselves Christian, only 41% say they plan to attend Easter worship services, according to a March 13 survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency. Passover is a home-centered celebration, but it’s not known how many Jews plan to recite the prayers and serve symbolic foods at their Seder meal.

In the gap between faith and practice are millions of people who will delight in Easter and Passover as “holidays,” not “holy days.” They’re just as Christian, just as Jewish, in their own eyes as people who follow traditional scripts — church on Sunday before carving the ham or the Seder rituals before slurping the matzoh ball soup. They’ve simply redefined their spirituality to center on the people at the table — shared time, shared values with their nearest-and-dearest.

“Relationships have replaced religion for many Millennials,” says Esther Fleece, who spent three years specializing in outreach to young adult Christians for the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Now, the only part of that I would question is Grossman’s summary judgment that these believers consider themselves “just as Christian, just as Jewish” as traditional believers. To be more specific, the only words in that summary that I want to question are “just as” — as opposed to millions of Americans still calling themselves Christian or Jewish, but then turning around and saying, something like “but I choose not to sit in a pew” like those who are still affiliated with traditional religious institutions.

They consider themselves “just as” Christian, “just as” Jewish as the orthodox? I’m reading the same surveys, but I don’t see that judgment in the numbers — although it’s in a few of the anecdotes. I see numbers suggesting that the unaffiliated people are saying, “but I still consider myself Christian” or “I still consider myself Jewish.”

So here is the key question. How does one interpret the personal identity being articulated in the following quote:

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