Worship under the bright lights

U.S. President Obama and family attend church in Washington

Among the stories looking back at President Barack Obama's first year in office, we've seen a few revisiting his worship life. More than a few readers sent in this story from ABC News, headlined "Holy BlackBerry! Obama Finds Ways to Keep the Faith During First Year in Office: Has the First Family's D.C. Church Search Come to a Close?" Here's the lede:

If church attendance is one measure of a man's faith, then President Obama may appear to have lost some of his. The first family, once regular churchgoers, have publicly attended services in Washington just three times in the past year, by ABC News' count, even bypassing the pews on Christmas Day.

Obama quit Chicago's embattled Trinity United Church of Christ months before taking office in 2008 and has not formally joined a new one in his new hometown.

But sources familiar with the president's personal life say Obama remains a faithful Christian while in the White House, practicing his beliefs regularly in private with family and the aid of his BlackBerry.

The story is actually quite charitable toward the president, citing the heavy burden on taxpayers and fellow churchgoers due to security concerns. One of the readers who sent in this story thought the reporters could have done a better job of exploring why the Obamas continue to engage in social outings (such as attending basketball games, going golfing or having dinner at local restaurants) while not attending church. There were a few points in the story where such a comparison should have been noted. However, the story hinted at what I believe is the biggest burden for presidents:

Incessant media attention is also distracting for any president trying to commune with God, exposing what is traditionally a private practice to public scrutiny, [Rev. Jim Wallis, an Obama friend and spiritual adviser,] said.

We pray for President Obama every week at my church. This isn't a partisan thing -- like many other liturgical Christians, the prayer of the church includes the country's leader regardless of political affiliation. And when we pray for President Obama, I think of how grateful I am that I may attend my church's Divine Services without having to have the media come in and exploit any parts of the liturgy or of my pastor's excellent sermons. My pastor's sermons are very concise but they still require a complete listen from start to finish. If you take any given line without the full context, you could get the wrong idea. The existence of this blog is a testament to the struggles the mainstream media have in understanding religious nuance. I am in no way defending the words of President Obama's previous pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but the legacy of the mainstream media reaction to his sermons makes it even more difficult for presidents to become members of a church during their time in office.

The ABC story is a good overview of the Obamas' worship situation but it doesn't exactly dig deep. For an exploration of the headline, it reverts to an old statement from the president that Joshua Dubois, who heads up the president's faith-based office, sends him a devotional and quotes from other faiths to reflect on. There is no further discussion of this. On the other hand, the story does a good job of putting the Obama worship situation in some context of former presidents. The Obamas aren't the first First Family to have trouble finding a church home.

I rather liked a story from a couple weeks ago on the same issue. It was published on the brand-new Daily Caller web site by White House reporter Jon Ward. Here's how it handled the nut of the problem:

White House aides say privately that the president faces a problem: his presence at just about any church in D.C. is such a distraction that it turns what should be a personal and private experience - for the president, his family and every other worshiper - into a circus.

"I don't think it's disingenuous to say it creates a lot of havoc for the church," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Sure, security is a problem. But it's a problem wherever the president goes. I rarely think media navel-gazing is a worthwhile task, but in this case I wish the media would be a bit more reflective about how they have contributed to the problem of presidential worship life. We hear all the time about how the media used to let politicos chase skirts with immunity. I hope that permitting politicians to worship in peace isn't also a relic of the past.

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