Obama visits Fenty-friendly church

Surely it's a comment on the state of things in Washington, D.C., that the mainstream press considered it a big story that President Barack Obama decided to go to church. I mean, he went to church out in public, as opposed to attending a private service at Camp David. Here's the top of a typical Associated Press report:

President Barack Obama and his family attended an hourlong service Sunday morning at a church just across the street from the White House.

Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, Obama strolled across Lafayette Square to attend St. John's Church. Sasha held her father's hand as they crossed the park. Obama has attended the pale yellow Episcopal church three times previously, as well as other churches in the nation's capital.

A pew nine rows back from the altar at St. John's carries a brass plaque designating it as "The President's Pew."

Then the president headed to the golf course. Honest, that was the next part of the story. Other reports noted that all four members of the family took Holy Communion, which is normal in an Episcopal context, since that denomination practices open Communion (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches, for example).

Now, it is speculation on my part -- but educated speculation -- that this sudden appearance in a pew might have something to do with a muted religious theme in the recent mayoral race here in Washington, D.C. As you may know, this race was a collision between two very different approaches to politics in the African-American community. One of the candidates was very much an Obama-esque figure who appealed to the city's elites. The other candidate appealed to more traditional elements of the urban community.

Read the following carefully, a long chunk of one one of the many stories in the Washington Post dissecting this election, which shocked so many elite politicos inside the Beltway:

On the last weekend before the Democratic primary, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty competed in a triathlon, cut the ribbon at a dog park in Cleveland Park, shook hands in Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, and attended a premiere of a documentary about his controversial schools chancellor.

His chief rival, Vincent C. Gray, meanwhile, was dropping in at no fewer than three black churches, in the Mount Vernon, Shaw and Fort Lincoln neighborhoods.

The election wasn't lost or won in a weekend, but how the candidates spent that time says something about why Gray defeated a sitting mayor with a long list of accomplishments.

Four years ago, Fenty captured the mayoralty as an Obama-style, post-racial black politician, one whose candidacy was not defined by race but by talk of competence, government efficiency and "best practices." It was an approach that was embraced by a broad coalition of white and black voters alike.

As mayor, Fenty retained his overwhelming popularity among white voters, as a breakdown of last Tuesday's vote demonstrates. But he lost the support of vast numbers of black voters who derided him for ignoring their communities and slashing government jobs. Many of those jobs were held by African Americans, who since the advent of D.C. home rule have used city employment as a stepping stone to the middle class.

As Fenty's mayoralty unfolded, discontent among black voters spread across the city. ... A Washington Post analysis of Tuesday's primary shows the extent of that disaffection. Fenty won 53 of the city's majority-white census tracts but only 10 of those that are predominantly black. Gray, in contrast, captured 108 majority-black census tracts and just five that are majority-white.

Now, there is no question that the employment issue was central to this contest. And there is no question that this upset was -- as the story noted -- rooted in a kind of generational battle among black political camps.

What the story never asked was what all of this had to do with the tensions between an emerging upper class of gentrification and urban-planning friendly African American leaders and the black middle class, with its emphasis on older neighborhoods, schools, civic groups and -- yes -- the quiet leadership of matriarchs and patriarchs in pulpits and pews.

If Fenty had joined Obama in that Episcopal pew, he would have been surrounded by friends and allies. What if he had slipped into a pew in one of the major black Baptist churches? How about a Pentecostal megachurch?

Well, the folks in those humble pews just weren't his kind of people. Fenty people jog with their pure-bred dogs or, if they have a partner, while pushing their one child in an Olympic level stroller. The Gray voters hang out in barber shops and go to gospel concerts. They do not care as much about bike paths and running marathons.

Yes, these are harsh stereotypes, but there is content in these biting words and this is an example of the kind of sniping that has been common in analysis of this election.

What does religion have to do with all of this? Good question.

Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, said Fenty's defeat "suggests that the model of deracialization might not be sustainable" and presents an opportunity "for us to think about the direction of African American politics. What are we to make of this new class of post-racial black leaders? What challenges will they face, and who will follow in their wake?" ...

Andra Gillespie, a professor of African American politics at Emory University, said even candidates who position themselves as post-racial must find ways to "be real and human. It's not about learning to speak a certain way or telling stories or playing go-go music. It's being sensitive to your community. If you know that older black voters expect church visits and for you to go to funerals and you don't do that, you should expect some criticism."

This story is not over. Maybe the reporters need to visit some D.C. churches -- Gray churches as well as Fenty churches.

Photo: The historic St. John's Episcopal Church.

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