Barack Obama and the Church

The question of where Barack Obama and his family will go to church after he takes office is attracting a lot of media attention. As the author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush," I was recently interviewed by the "Washington Post" and the "Times of London" to help provide historical context for articles. While Americans have displayed a great deal of interest in where their presidents have attended church while in office, never before has there been such fascination with this issue before a president’s inauguration.

Three major reasons account for this. The first is Obama’s charisma and personal charm. During the campaign, John McCain disparagingly compared his rival’s celebrity status to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Few presidents-elects have enjoyed such extensive and positive media coverage as Obama.

The second reason is that during the campaign, Obama both emphasized his Christian faith and severed ties with a church he had belonged to for 20 years—Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago—because of inflammatory statements by one of its pastors, Jeremiah Wright. While campaigning, Obama repeatedly stressed that his faith affects his policies and appealed much more effectively to evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics than did Al Gore or John Kerry. Obama participated in several faith forums during the Democratic primaries and, along with McCain, in one hosted by megachurch pastor Rick Warren in August.

The third reason that Obama’s potential church choice has been so newsworthy is that numerous churches in Washington have been actively trying to recruit the president-elect and his family. United Church of Christ, Methodist, nondenominational, and historic black congregations have all extended invitations to the Obamas to attend their services. In "The Faith of Barack Obama," Stephen Mansfield describes him as an "Everyman in a heroic tale of spiritual seeking," who many Americans find to be either "a fellow traveler" or a leader in "a new era of American spirituality." The eclectic nature of Obama’s spiritual pilgrimage, coupled with his coming to Washington unaffiliated with a denomination, has increased the competition among congregations for the involvement of the president-elect and his family.

One reporter asked me whether Obama might choose not to attend any church. This seems highly unlikely for several reasons. Most importantly, he claims that his faith is genuine and that he gains insight and direction from worship and prayer. Moreover, although his record of church attendance has been irregular at times, he appears to want to provide a church home and experience for his family. Obama’s desire to set a good example and his need to maintain positive relations with religious conservatives, many of whom dislike his stances on various moral and political issues, also make his regular church attendance likely.

Many presidents have attended church regularly while in office. George Washington, who attended only sporadically before becoming president, rarely missed a Sunday in either New York or Philadelphia. John Quincy Adams worshipped at Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Unitarian congregations in Washington, often attending the services of different denominations in the morning and evening. Although he first joined a church two weeks after becoming president, Dwight Eisenhower’s faithful attendance at National Presbyterian Church received much media attention. Jimmy Carter worshipped almost every Sunday no matter where he was—traveling abroad or at home, at Camp David, or at First Baptist Church in Washington, where, continuing a life-long pattern, he often taught Sunday school. Bill Clinton provided many photo ops with his Bible at Foundry United Methodist Church.

On the other hand, some presidents, most notably Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, rarely attended church. Roosevelt served as the senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park, New York the entire time he was president and devoted a significant amount of time and energy to this position. Nevertheless, he only worshipped about once a month, usually at St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the "church of the presidents," because many of the early chief executives beginning with James Madison worshipped there. Roosevelt claimed it was difficult to worship God with so many people staring at him. "I can do almost everything in the ‘Goldfish Bowl’ of the president’s life," he declared, "but I’ll be hanged if I can say my prayers in it."

Reagan attended church regularly as governor of California and after leaving the presidency. He frequently spoke about his personal faith, and enjoyed strong support from the religious right. However, after being shot on March 30, 1981, Reagan rarely attended church during the remainder of his two terms. Reagan claimed that he yearned to go to church but did not want to endanger and inconvenience other worshipers. He feared that his entourage of Secret Service agents, police, SWAT teams, and reporters would distract others from worshiping. Both Roosevelt and Reagan claimed they often felt ill at ease in church, worrying that their presence made it hard for others to worship.

The competition among congregations for the Obamas will likely continue until they choose a church. They probably will attend either a church that has a racially mixed congregation and/or emphasizes social-justice issues. While Christians hope that the Obamas will worship regularly, they are equally concerned that the new president faithfully reads the Bible, seeks God’s strength and guidance through prayer, and strives to base his policies on biblical principles.

Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College, is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).