President Barack Obama did something on Sept. 19th that caught many in the national press off guard. He went to church.
The First Family walked across Lafayette Square Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a parish so close to the White House that many call it the “Church of the Presidents.” The Obamas set down front and received Holy Communion.
Was this really an important news story?
Timing was everything. The Obama family had not occupied a public pew — as opposed to attending services at Camp David — since Easter. And this church visit came shortly after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans insist on believing that Obama is a Muslim, a stunning number that was up from 11 percent in March 2009.
Obama has, in numerous speeches and his two memoirs, offered detailed testimonies about his progressive faith and why he feels at home in the United Church of Christ, a freewheeling flock that has long helped define the left wing of Protestantism. Nevertheless, only 34 percent of Pew poll participants said the president is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent could not identify his current religion. Only 46 percent of Democrats, and 43 percent of African-Americans, said Obama is a Christian.
Like it or not, 2010 was that kind of year.
One Baptist progressive was blunt. While the president must continue to defend the “American principle of religious freedom for all, including Muslims and non-believers,” it wouldn’t hurt for Obama to join a local church, said the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.
“His recent Democratic predecessors did just that,” noted Walker. “The public remembers pictures of President Clinton leaving Foundry Memorial United Methodist Church with Bible in hand during his presidency. President Carter taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C. … President Obama should not do this simply for show; but an active, visible practice of his Christianity would help counter misunderstandings and lies about his faith.”
It was that kind of year, with many of the most vital news stories and trends rooted in confusing clashes about religious liberty, law, history and tradition.
Debates about Obama’s faith didn’t top the Religion Newswriters Association list of the year’s top stories, after figuring so prominently in 2008 and 2009. However, this year’s No. 1 story — fierce debates nationwide about a planned mosque and community center near New York’s Ground Zero — once again forced the president out onto a painfully familiar religious tightrope. The White House even became involved in efforts to convince an obscure Florida pastor to cancel his “International Burn a Koran Day” media event on, of course, Sept. 11.
(2) The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti sparks relief efforts by many different kinds of faith-based groups. An independent group of Baptists from Idaho spends some time in a Haitian jail after accusations of child smuggling.
(3) Pope Benedict XVI is accused of helping to delay actions against pedophile priests in Ireland, Germany, the United States and other countries while, as a cardinal, he led a key Vatican office between 1981 and 2005. Several bishops resign.
(4) The Tea Party — Religious Right believers or talk-radio fans attacking government spending? Mormon Glenn Beck pushes both buttons on the National Mall.
(5) The nation’s Catholic bishops oppose the White House health-care reform bill, in yet another clash over public funding for abortion. The bill passes, with strong support from many liberal Catholics and other religious progressives.
(6) The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes — for the fourth time — to ordain noncelibate gay clergy. Once again, regional presbyteries still have the option to say “no.”
(7) Hard times force cuts in many religious headquarters, from the long-suffering world of old-line Protestantism to conservative groups, such as Focus on the Family.
(8) Religious groups debate whether links exist between traditional forms of many faiths and the suicides of gay young people who have been bullied by peers.
(9) The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey finds that people with intense views about religion — whether pro or con — know the most correct answers.
(10) The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the first time ever without a Protestant justice in its ranks — with six Catholics and three Jews.