Chicken soup for the presidential soul

President And Mrs. Obama Attend Sunday Church Services

In conjunction with yesterday's annual prayer breakfast in Washington D.C., everybody's got politics and religion on their mind. Or perhaps more appropriately, the religion of our politicians. The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut saw it as a fitting occasion to reexamine the religiosity of the President. The headline on the piece, "Obama's spirituality is largely private, but it's influential, advisers say" seemed to appropriately reflect the complexity of the issue, so I had high hopes for the story.

Those hopes were misplaced. A colleague of mine at the newspaper where I work described the piece as "Chicken soup for the presidential soul." He was deriding the piece, but I don't think that tart summation is altogether inaccurate:

When Obama appears at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday morning -- a regular presidential ritual -- it will mark the rare occasion when he puts religion in the foreground. In that appearance, he will discuss "the need for civility in the public square, and how Americans can work together in a spirit of goodwill," a senior administration official said.

Yet close advisers to the president said the role of faith, while subtle, has been noticeable in and around the Obama White House. One senior official described the president as "a prayerful guy." Another said that Obama has consulted religious leaders less often for his own personal guidance than for help walking through major public decisions -- such as during the Afghanistan review process, when he sought advice on the ethical implications of war.

I realize that the delicate tango the White House press corps dances with its West Wing sources has been problematic long before Obama assumed office, but you can't get "a senior official" to go record as describing the President as a "prayerful guy"? Yeesh.

It would also be interesting to know more details about how the president relies on religious leaders to puzzle out decisions, as that Afghan review process tidbit hints at. But no such luck. I was hungering for more detail throughout the piece:

At other moments, Obama prays privately, his advisers said. And when he takes his family to Camp David on the weekends, a Navy chaplain ministers to them, with the daughters attending a form of Sunday school there.

More than a year into his presidency, Obama has not chosen a church in Washington, and has attended services just four times. No single figure has assumed the role of spiritual adviser -- publicly, at least -- or filled the vacancy created when Obama disavowed his former Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Okay, so Obama has not chosen a church yet -- but he has a Navy chaplain minister to them on the weekends at Camp David and gives his daughters religious instruction. I'm interested in knowing more about who that chaplain is. Does he come from a specific denomination or tradition? (Yes.) How exactly are the Obamas going about their worship life and religious instruction (other than with the aid of Blackberries)? I'm sure I'm not the only one curious about this.

That said, religion is a private matter to some people and I respect that. Certainly, even the President shouldn't feel compelled to broadcast every aspect of his faith. But if Obama is now keeping his religion under wraps, I think that should be critically explored. He wasn't exactly private about his faith on the campaign trail and was previously not shy about offering his opinions on the subject of religion in his books and in other settings. If he's suddenly private about his faith now, doesn't that require some critical examination? For instance, did the Jeremiah Wright debacle have anything to do with the sudden desire privacy?

But instead of looking at some of those questions, we get a series of softballs floated across the plate for various administration officials to hit out of the park:

A third senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, said Obama's private religious beliefs have helped sustain his temperament during trying times in office. "Part of that even temperament comes from his faith which is an important component," Jarrett said. Asked why the public did not hear much about his faith during his first year in office, she nodded and said, "He's had a lot on his plate."

Also another small nit pick, the article refers to "Joshua Dubois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships." DuBois spells his name with capital B. Not exactly a major error, but worth noting. All in all, I have to say this article is a major coup for the White House press office, but I don't think it exactly burnishes Anne Kornblut's escutcheon. She's done much more thoughtful work than this.

I'm not alone in thinking this story is wanting -- the typically anodyne Ben Smith over at Politico observed that "comments [in the Kornblut story] feel a bit like overcompensation." Smith also notes that there's a one heck of an interesting nugget about the President and religion in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change, the mildly salacious book about the 2008 campaign that's had tongues in Washington wagging for the last month. Smith observes that during the Jeremiah Wright controversy, "the Obamas had a great argument that they decided they couldn't use: Obama hadn't heard the controversial remarks because he almost never went to church." Here's the relevant passage:

Michelle made it clear that she'd never much liked Wright. And that since the births of Malia and Sasha, in 1998 and 2001, the Obamas had rarely attended services.

Still, Obama had said that Wright "brought me to Jesus." He had declared himself a proud Christian. To admit that his religiosity was, in practice, limited, would have made Obama look craven at best, and like a liar at worst.

Instead of accepting blase insistences from the White House aides about the president being "prayerful" and whatnot, perhaps somebody should ask the president about that revelation.

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