Barack Obama, secret Episcopalian?

It's so easy to make mistakes on the religion beat, especially when covering someone as complicated as President Barack Obama. The following Haaretz newspaper story is rather old, but it has just come to our attention (care of that lurker named Douglas LeBlanc). The fact that it is several months old, for me, only makes it more interesting -- because the editors of this influential Israeli publication have not run a correction. The error in it is rather jarring, almost spit out one's morning coffee level.

However, before you read the top of the report you need to look at the video with this post and realize the number of times videos and photos such as this have appeared in news reports of various kinds around the globe.

Now, here we go.

The Anglican bishop in Israel, Suheil Dawani, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court ... demanding that Interior Minister Eli Yishai return his visa, which was confiscated after it was discovered that he sold land to Palestinians.

Six months ago, Dawani, who has served as the top Anglican official in Israel since 2007, was informed that the Interior Ministry had canceled his visa and that he would be deported from the country. In the lawsuit, Dawani’s attorneys note that the Anglican Church has 90 million followers, among them U.S. President Barack Obama, former president George H.W. Bush, and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Dawani is also an official emissary of the queen of England, who holds the official title of head of the Anglican Church. By dint of his position, Dawani is a frequent guest at official state ceremonies, according to the lawsuit.

Spot the error? Yes, I know that former Vice President Dick Cheney is a United Methodist, not an Episcopalian (in the context of the United States). I mean the other error -- the reference stating that President Obama is an Episcopalian. According to the story, this error was included in documents filed at the Jerusalem District Court. That makes it official?

As I hinted earlier, I assume that many journalists around the world have simply seen too many pictures of Obama and his family visiting St. John's Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the White House. Thus, it is often called the "church of the presidents."

However, this error does raise an interesting journalistic question, one that I was discussing with a Washington Post reporter just the other day.

The question is rather simple: Is it still accurate to say that Obama is a member of the freewheeling, at times iconoclastic denomination called the United Church of Christ? After all, it has been a long time since Obama broke his ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and resigned his membership at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago.

Here inside the Beltway, Obama has visited St. John's, as well as a few major African-American congregations. However, his family has never joined a church -- citing security concerns. They are reported to attend frequent services at the Camp David chapel.

So, what is Obama, in terms of denominational affiliation? The UCC is -- by heritage and history -- a very congregational flock, even though it has a highly outspoken leadership squad at the national level. Obama is no longer a member of a UCC congregation. He has not joined another. Thus, for reporters, is it accurate to say that he remains a member of that trailblazing denomination on the left wing of mainline Protestantism?

One more question, asked with tongue in cheek: Has Obama ever met with Bishop Dawani? I mean, face to face? Just asking. Maybe the president confided his inner Anglicanism, which led to the inaccurate reference in the court document?

Stranger things have happened on the religion beat.

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