Amy Sullivan, at Time, explores the ups and downs of church attendance by Presidents.
What do you think?
The new internet era of politics has changed a lot of things about the way Presidents go about their daily lives. A stray comment captured on tape can instantly ricochet and cause havoc. Post-9/11 security concerns combined with the ability to find detailed information about virtually any location has made the already challenging job of protecting the President and his family even tougher. But the freedom to attend church and be part of a congregation while living at the White House may be the first true casualty of our new political age.
Last Sunday, the Obamas held hands to cross Lafayette Park and attended the 11 a.m. worship service at St. John’s, a small Episcopal church that is famous for hosting Presidents. It was just their third visit to a local church this year, and one of a handful of church services they’ve attended in Washington since moving into the White House. More often, Obama and his family have followed the lead of the Bush family, joining the congregation at Camp David when they spend the weekend at the presidential retreat in Maryland, but staying home on Sunday mornings when in Washington….
As recently as the 1990s, it was possible for a President to maintain a regular, low-key presence in a local congregation with minimal inconvenience to church members and no political downside. During his eight years in office, Bill Clinton and his family were fixtures at Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, a church that his 1996 opponent Bob Dole once attended frequently as well. Neither Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush were affiliated with a local church as President. However Jimmy Carter not only attended but taught Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of DC throughout his presidency. …
Likewise, Obama found out how political a presidential candidate’s choice of church can become in 2008 when recordings of his Chicago pastor’s sermons nearly brought down his candidacy. Jeremiah Wright, then-senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, was, like most pastors, not in the habit of biting his tongue. But when video of his more controversial and colorful statements hit Fox News, Obama was under immediate pressure to denounce Wright. By the time the episode was resolved, Obama had delivered a major national speech about the issue and resigned his family’s membership from the church he had attended for nearly 20 years….
It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.