Barack Obama promised change for the country, but one of the biggest changes for him as president was that he stopped going to church.
Obama and his family left the White House only twice in 2009 to attend worship services in Washington, raising questions about the role of faith in the life of the president who made Christianity a cornerstone of his political ascent but was also burned by his pastor of 20 years during the presidential campaign.
The White House said that the president’s lack of church attendance does not reflect any ambivalence on the Obamas’ part.
“Their faith continues to be an important part of their lives,” said Jen Psaki, the deputy White House communications director.
A White House official said that in addition to the president’s two Sundays spent at St. Johns Episcopal in Washington last year, he worshipped “about a half-dozen times” at the Camp David presidential retreat, where services at the nondenominational Evergreen Chapel are led by Navy* Lt. Carey Cash, Johnny Cash’s great-nephew, and a Southern Baptist chaplain.
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.
The Obamas visited one church in D.C. two days before the inauguration, worshiping at 19th Street Baptist – one of the city’s oldest historically black congregations. For months there was speculation that the president would choose 19th Street Baptist or another church in the city as his adopted home.
Such talk dissipated as Obama’s trip to St. John’s at Easter was the only Sunday he and his family worshiped publicly the entire year until Oct. 11, when they again visited St. John’s.
The first family did not go to church for Christmas. They arrived in Hawaii the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day, the president and first lady went to the gym early in the morning and visited U.S. military personnel in the afternoon.
The Rev. Nathan A. Harris, of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, near Howard University, said most D.C. residents and churchgoers understand that there is a political component to any president’s choice of a church.
“So we understand the Obamas are taking their time,” he said, but added that he has had “little rumblings here and there … from time to time” that the president may be coming to visit Lincoln Temple.
St. Johns, which is located a block from the White House, is known as “the church of the presidents,” having been attended occasionally or regularly by every single U.S. president. But even there, during at least one visit by Obama, congregants took cell-phone pictures of the president during communion as they passed him on their way down the aisle, according to media reports.
Balancing personal faith and the politics of being president — a tricky thing for every president — is arguably even more difficult for Obama than for most, given his history. He joined Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago as a community organizer looking for a home and a relational base. His account of conversion at Trinity was a highlight of his first book, “Dreams From My Father.”
But the church became a political liability when the pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, came under scrutiny in the press for statements in his sermons that included the now famous line, “God damn America,” which was part of a diatribe arguing that America deserved to suffer the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wright also said the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to kill black people. In May 2008, Obama resigned his membership in the church.
In June of last year, Time magazine reported that Obama had begun telling aides and friends he would make Camp David his regular place of worship and attend St. John’s occasionally, as President Bush did.
The White House pushed back, saying the Obamas were still looking for a church.
And the White House told The Daily Caller that Obama is still considering making one of the city’s congregations his church home.
“As they continue their search for a church in Washington, they have enjoyed worshiping at several churches in the area as well as the chapel at Camp David,” Psaki said.
The Obamas visited Camp David 11 times in 2009, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS radio reporter who is an unofficial record-keeper on many things pertaining to presidential history. Out of those 11 visits, the Obamas were at Camp David on Sunday morning for all but one, Knoller said.
The president, Mr. Cromartie, said, “should say I want my family to go church with me and pick one.”
“I think Camp David fulfills that,” he said. “I had a lot of people say that for being a Christian Bush didn’t go to church a lot and I said, ‘He goes to Camp David.’”
*Lt. Cash was originally listed incorrectly as a Marine officer.