Presidents and Church Attendance

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • JohnM

    Are the Obama’s interested in the Episcopal church? If so, that’s their business. If not, I’m not sure why they were attending but I’m also not sure any of us should particularly care why they were attending. People going to church is not news. When/where presidents, or presidential candidates go to church is only significant to the rest when we bother to pay attention.

    Actually, why are we paying attention here, I hadn’t heard anything? :)

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I believe we all know why the press is paying attention. A significant number of people in the US still believe he is a muslim.

  • http://www.missbiblehere.blogspot.com Miss

    A community of worship shouldn’t be a freedom that any President should have to give up….however, Pastor Wright was a little bit more than colorful.

    Didn’t he say a curse word?

    What God fearing pastor does that?

  • Lived in Wien!

    I echo JohnM’s comments.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    I don’t doubt that Pres. Obama is a Christian. But the dirty little secret of the 2008 campaign was that he is really lousy at church attendance. The reason Rev. Wright caught him so by surprise was because of how seldom he was in church. He didn’t know his pastor well enough to not be blindsided by some comments that, honestly, any regular attendee would have known about.

    So when people comment about how hard it is for the Obamas to find a church in Washington… well, it has nothing do do with finding a church. It has everything to do with the President being the go-it-alone sort of Christian. And I’ll leave the discussion on that for another time.

  • casey zachary

    I am not a fan of his politics, but I think he is cool for building houses and now I think Jimmy Carter is totally boss for teaching Sunday school while president.

  • Ken Ritchey

    Considering the tremendous emphasis in the Epistles on the importance of interacting with a local people of faith, which we normally do in the context of a “church,” it seems to me that the inability of a President to have the opportunity to attend church is very unfortunate.

  • Robin

    I’ll accept that it is probably not practical for Obama to attend church because of his rock-star status among those on the left (and the security requirements any such church would face).

    But I do think future Presidents will be able to attend worship. If Mitt is our next President I fully expect him to be able to attend his local congregation, and if we get one of the protestant Republican contenders none of them have the persona that would cause mobs of people to storm whatever church they were attending.

    This President is unique in that aspect, having him in your congregation is more like having Lady GaGa than having President Carter.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Security alone would prevent presidents from attending a church regularly. I used to live in Obama’s Chicago neighborhood. I moved just before he became president. When he is in town you can’t get within two block of his home without showing id to prove you live there.

    When I graduate from Grad school, Clinton spoke at the undergrad graduation. The students had to show up 4 hours before graduation for security and the attenders spent about 90 minutes getting through security.

    It is possible if the president chose a very small congregation that things could be simplified but a congregation would have to put up with security every week, would not be friendly to visitors.

    Even Carter after he was president when teaching sunday school at a small church would have 200-300 weekly visitors that came just to see him at his Sunday school class. There were often more visitors every week than regular attenders.

    That would have a lot of implications for a church to actually be a church.

  • DLS

    It makes no sense for a sitting president to attend a public church. The logistics and security are far too cumbersome to pull it off effectively. Add to that the fact that their presence would probably be distracting to the rest of the attendees. Just have your own White House service.

  • RobS

    What security detail is needed when he plays golf…?

    I saw one count saying he had played 88 times since inauguration. Many times he plays Andrews Air Force base, so maybe I should ask why he doesn’t attend church there since it seems secure enough for golf?

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    RobS,

    He does attend at Camp David, which is secure as a military base would be, and smaller.

    I believe the President still normally flies a helicopter to Andrews because of traffic.

    But in Golf the whole course is closed. That would not be the case for church. Still would need to be security because families and other non-military can attend chapel services. Easier yes, convenient still no.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    I agree with the author of the Time article. Forfeiting healthy and grounded spiritual community doesn’t seem in the best interests of our leaders or our country. The job isolates one enough from normal interactions, and we should protect our Presidents from being publicity targets in worship. 24/7 media frenzy contributed to this problem at least as much as 9/11, imho.


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