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Tilting at Windmills

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September 20, 2010

PRESIDENTIAL CHURCH ATTENDANCE REPORTS.... Are we really back to presidential church attendance reports? Apparently so.

President Obama publicly attended church Sunday morning for the first time in nearly six months, and shortly after a major survey showed that only a third of Americans can correctly identify Obama's faith as Christian.

The first family attended the 9 a.m. service at St. John's Church Lafayette Square, an Episcopal congregation about a block from the White House.

The Obamas -- the president, first lady Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha -- made the trip on foot.

The family sat a few rows from the altar, among roughly 40 worshippers. Each family member received communion, led by the president.

I found these reports unnecessary when they first started popping up nearly two years ago, and they seem no more appropriate now.

Ben Smith, who seems to have an ongoing interest in the subject, wrote yesterday that the president's Christianity "was a key part of his pitch and distinguished him from more secular Democrats, and the notion that he only went to church very occasionally -- which has been true since anyone started paying attention to him -- would have undercut that. He is, on the other hand, reluctant to ostentatiously fake a devotion to organized religion that he's never had before. It's a difficult political situation because the contradiction isn't resolved, or really soluble."

I look at this very differently. Indeed, I see no inherent "contradiction," and find no reason to believe the president's commitment to his faith is "undercut" by his irregular church attendance. Theologically, a person can be devout without regularly visiting houses of worship. This is especially true of presidents, who are all-too aware of the logistical burdens placed on churches when they visit.

What's especially irksome about all of this coverage is what strikes me as a partisan double standard. Reagan used religiosity as part of his message to voters, but rarely, if ever, bothered to attend services during his two terms. George W. Bush incorporate faith heavily into his political life, but Bush rarely went to church and never became a formal member of a congregation during his eight years in Washington.

And yet, I think it's fair to say neither of these Republican presidents faced the kind of scrutiny Obama is receiving. Maybe that's because there was no unhinged campaign to convince Americans that Reagan and Bush were secretly members of some other faith, but that's hardly an excuse for credible media outlets to care.

If Obama had pledged as a candidate to attend weekly services, I could see his Sunday schedules being of interest. But since that isn't the case, coverage of the president's worship routine continues to seem out of place.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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Organized religion is a crutch for those who cannot deal with reality.

Posted by: DAY on September 20, 2010 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

Calling Politico a credible media outlet assumes facts not in evidence.

Posted by: Emma on September 20, 2010 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

Obama could have built a church, be hung on the cross with blood dripping from his hands and feet, and have a gay person in one arm and a muslim fundamentalist in the other, and the media and mouth-breathing segment of the population would still find something inherently wrong with his faith.

Posted by: terraformer on September 20, 2010 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised FOX hasn't turned this into a report on how "we may have new evidence that president Obama and his family are cannibals. This morning they reportedly drank the blood and ate the body of a man who has been dead for two thousand years!"

Posted by: chrenson on September 20, 2010 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Good post, Steve.

Smith also errs in writing that Obama's faith "distinguished him from more secular Democrats". Which secular Democrats? Hillary Clinton, John Edwards (both Methodists), Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd (both Catholics)?

The dominant political media's assumption that Republicans are religious and Democrats are not is about as accurate as their assumption that Republicans are deficit hawks and Democrats are not.

The last three Democratic presidents (Carter, Clinton and Obama) are by almost any available measure more "religious" (for what it's worth) than the last three Republican presidents (Reagan, Bush I and Bush II).

Posted by: massappeal on September 20, 2010 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

This is another facet of Obama's real messaging problem. Instead of fully inhabiting his post-modern persona, he tries blurring distinctions in order to make himself appealing to Christianists and media jackals. This only serves, however, to sharpen their attacks since its his inauthenticity that rouses their contempt. Ultimately, it's not his Otherness that they despise. It's his willingness to play the chameleon.

Posted by: walt on September 20, 2010 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

The fact alone that anybody cares about this shows how deeply rotten the political discourse is.

Religious freedom my arse...

You think anybody in Europe, Asia or Africa even bothers whether their prime minister/president/chancellor attends church?

If the USA were a person, I would tell her to get a life!

Posted by: Vokoban on September 20, 2010 at 8:54 AM | PERMALINK

A double standard from Republicans? Say it isn't so!

Posted by: a different phil on September 20, 2010 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

I like that Obama is sticking it to the righties so publicly. I find it neat. The Obamas are such a handsome family. It is great to see them rather than the facial closeups of smug, self satisfied righties.

It made my day more pleasant.

Posted by: Bob M on September 20, 2010 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

"If the USA were a person, I would tell her to get a life!"

Uh... The USA unlike Mother Russia is a Him not a Her. Next, you will be telling me God is a black woman and is very angry.

This is why the General Population hates Obama, he's black and Jesus was white, and because the public expects the President to have an aura of martyrdom about them ... A black martyr President is just unacceptable. So any black President has to be Muslim.

It's all perfectly clear if you think about it logically.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on September 20, 2010 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

[Obama] is, on the other hand, reluctant to ostentatiously fake a devotion to organized religion

Well, there's his problem, right there.

If only Jesus had given any advice on the subject...

Posted by: Gregory on September 20, 2010 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

"Uh... The USA unlike Mother Russia is a Him not a Her. Next, you will be telling me God is a black woman and is very angry."

Sorry for mixing up the gender of your country. My home country, Germany, considers itself a neutrum. Historic machism notwithstanding.

Still I don't think it devaluates my point. Or yours.

Posted by: Vokoban on September 20, 2010 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

As John Cole points out, the "infrequent Church going" framing is primarily to bolster the "secret Muslim" conspiracy theories.

Posted by: Walker on September 20, 2010 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

Being from the middle east part of the world Jesus was hardly a white man. But to fulfill the USA's obsessive need to keep all things christian white and pure we do not allow the thought that He was a brown skinned man who belived in love, peace and forgiveness, not to mention hanging out with the "undesirables" of His day to get in our way. I figure we would just nail him up if he came down again.

Posted by: nodak on September 20, 2010 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, well, see, Steve, your problem is you are lumping Politico in with "credible media outlets."

In fact, I'd be hard pressed to name a single credible media outlet at this point, but Politico is definitely not one.

Posted by: karen marie on September 20, 2010 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

The Obamas received communion at an Episcopal Church? But only baptized Christians are supposed to do that! Sure, he says he's baptized, but where's the President's baptismal certificate? NO, NO, the long form!

Posted by: Tom Allen on September 20, 2010 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

Of course, the real question is did he have his birth certificate with him at church? Because if he didn't, he's clearly not a real Christian.

Posted by: doubtful on September 20, 2010 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

"Sorry for mixing up the gender of your country. My home country, Germany, considers itself a neutrum. Historic machism notwithstanding."

Don't even think about apologizing. My whole comment was intended to be satire... On the muscular racial Christianity of the kooky right christians cum tea partiers. if it came across as such, it's the fault of my ability to write clearly.

That said, I do not think of the US as having a gender... Not even neuter. To me that would be like giving a rock or a car a gender a form of anthropomorphism which dates from an animistic view of the world... Whether conscious or not.

my view may be a result of the English language which unlike many languages does not give nouns a gender.

So again... All is fine...

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on September 20, 2010 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK


What about "der Vaterland"?

Actually, I would never know from your postings that English is not your native language. You put many of us "Amurcans" to shame.

Back to the thread topic. Obsessing over how often the President attends church (and God forbid that he attend a temple or a mosque) demonstrates the Right's usual confusion of form with substance. And of course, as others have mentioned, from a Constitutional standpoint, we don't really have the right to wonder about attendance or lack thereof. It really shouldn't be used as a criterion. I wish.

No President in recent years has been a frequent church-goer because of security issues. This needs to be pointed out over and over, anytime a Democrat can actually get on a show and present viewpoints through the right-wing noise machine.

Posted by: Wolfdaughter on September 20, 2010 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

The Obamas attend services the way the Reagans did -- privately and at Camp David when they are there for weekends. The fact that the Obamas do not consider every facet of their lives available for consumption by Politico or the fake Christianists of the world is one of the appealing things about them. And someone should ask Politico -- would you be chasing down Ronald Reagan for his churchgoing habits?

Posted by: cassandra m on September 20, 2010 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

Matthew 6:5-6

Posted by: matt on September 20, 2010 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

The Obamas were members of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which is not an Episcopal church.

For them to take Communion now at an Episcopal church signifies a change of denomination.

Posted by: Raven on September 21, 2010 at 2:50 AM | PERMALINK

The Christmas travel plans of thousands of are in disarray after snow left Heathrow Airport all but shut. Thousands have been forced to sleep overnight in airports and there is disruption to road and rail travel with the Met Office warning of more snow ...

Posted by: frozenBritains on December 19, 2010 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK



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