I really had my hopes up when I saw this "Acts of Faith" headline in the Washington Post: "Will D.C. churches invite Donald Trump to come worship?"
As someone who worked in Washington, D.C., during much of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama era, I heard quite a bit of chatter related to the whole issue of presidents trying to go to church "for real," as opposed to occasionally finding a pew as a media event. There are, after all, legitimate security issues involved in a president going to the same sanctuary at the same time over and over. Plus, the security teams can be an inconvenience for other worshipers.
But people do talk. Washington is an amazingly small town, when it comes to people chatting about these kinds of symbolic issues (and my old office was only a few blocks from Obama's apartment during his short U.S. Senate stay).
Now we have Donald "Baby Christian" Trump coming to D.C., with a very photogenic family. What's the plan? Here is the overture of the Post story:
Every four or eight years, after the nation goes through the ritual of picking a president, some of Washington’s churches go through another ritual -- getting a president to pick them.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton came to town in 1993, preachers from Baptist (his denomination) and Methodist (hers) churches across town picked up their phones and their pens to invite the new first couple to their pews. After hearing from at least half a dozen congregations, the Clintons picked Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street NW, where they became active members.
George W. Bush, like Ronald Reagan before him, opted for the convenience of St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across from the White House. Ministers from numerous denominations tried to woo the Obamas, but the first family never picked one church, instead visiting many churches over the course of their eight years in the White House.
Hidden inside those summary paragraphs are some interesting news stories that never really got covered. Thus, I was disappointed that this report left things at the "surface level," in some of those cases.
Take George W. Bush, for example. Post 9/11 security was a major issue there, but Bush had other church issues. To be blunt, he was a Texas United Methodist (which can be pretty evangelical) in a D.C. United Methodist town (which is, well, Hillary Clinton territory).
The irony was that the Beltway churches in his denomination that tended to back George W. on matters of doctrine and moral theology were predominantly African-American. If Bush went to one of those churches, some people said it would look like he was making a political statement. Thus, Bush held regular services, with guest preachers, at Camp David.
The Obama family, as you could imagine, was intensely courted by prestigious African-American churches in greater D.C., and there are plenty of churches that fit the bill. But Obama is a sincere liberal mainline Protestant and the local churches in his denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- were, to be candid, rather white. Plus, what would the city's black preachers think if the Obamas frequented only one of their sanctuaries?
So now there is Trump. As the story notes:
Trump has previously been affiliated with Presbyterian churches, and he identifies as a mainline Protestant, but he is not a regular churchgoer.
Also, there is this:
(The) Presbyterian Church (USA) is a liberal-leaning denomination that has embraced same-sex marriage. Several of these churches in the District are led by female clergy, and several have black clergy and predominantly black communities as well as members from other racial minorities. Some are located in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia where Washington’s politicians rarely venture. And of course, all of them are located in the District, where more than 92 percent of voters last week voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Trump.
So the Post asked PCUSA pastors whether they would welcome Trump. That's appropriate and, as you could imagine, some of the responses were rather loaded when it came to theological signals. For example:
Fifteenth Street Presbyterian’s Rev. Robert Bell: “I think Mr Trump would be welcome at any Presbyterian Church USA in the city. I know he, like everyone is, would be welcome at ours. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy that finds the gospel challenging and meaningful or likes to rub elbows with a diverse group, not all [of whom] are materially successful. But God works in mysterious ways.”
New York Avenue Presbyterian’s Rev. Roger Gench: “We would, of course, invite the President-Elect to worship with us. Our logo declares that we are a ‘just-seeking and inclusive church,’ so we welcome people from varied points of view, race, and sexual orientation.”
Contrast the tone of most of these reluctant "invites" with this one, from the local PCUSA church that is known as a rather safe zone for evangelicals still affiliated with the oldline denomination.
National Presbyterian’s Rev. David Renwick: “National Presbyterian has a long legacy of serving presidents, appointed officials, and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, as well as those who serve our nation in both military and civilian capacities. This is clearly a tradition we want to honor and carry forward -- and therefore we warmly welcome our president-elect to join with us in worship. … With regard to membership -- membership is open to any person who knows their need of a savior, who places their trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, and who commits to be faithful in worshiping and serving God together.”
And so forth and so on. National Presbyterian is used to handling presidents in its pews.
But here is where there is a problem, in this day and age. When it comes to Presbyterians, the PCUSA is not -- by any means -- the only game in Beltway town. There is the conservative, very evangelical, Presbyterian Church in America. In fact, it's hard to talk about churches in D.C. without mentioning the whole Grace Presbyterian Church multi-site network of congregations.
There are lots of evangelicals in those pews, or more likely folding chairs. Trump might even encounter some people there who voted for him or, more likely, against Clinton. If you see Presbyterian banners in the annual March for Life in D.C., most of them are from PCA churches.
Did members of the Post team -- after all the press attention given to Trump and evangelicals -- consider contacting the clergy in their city's conservative Presbyterian congregations as well as those in the PCUSA?
Yes, Trump has a history of connections to the old mainline Presbyterian world. I get that and that angle is central to this story. But, well, some things have -- supposedly -- changed in his life. There are other Presbyterians with pulpits and pews, in Washington. Why not talk to them, too?