Sunday, April 12, 2009

The President's Church

Americans do impose a religious litmus test on our presidents, and there is a tradition that proves it. President Obama and his family attended Easter service at St John's Episcopal Church. Just across from the White House, it is known as the "Church of the Presidents," the unofficial White House Chapel. Almost every president since James Madison has found occasion to worship in this church and in particular at pew 54, the presidential pew.

The selective presidential need to prove a religious point proves my point. Consider the case of President Eisenhower, who was raised a Jehovah's Witness and whose home served as the local meeting hall for Witnesses for 19 years. Twelve days after inauguration his first inauguration, Eisenhower was baptized, confirmed, and became a communicant in the Presbyterian Church. No president before or after him has ever had to perform such rites while in office. The religious litmus test was so powerful in this case that it was voluntarily taken by a president who had already been endorsed by the people and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution.

Contrast Eisenhower to President Reagan or Bush, neither of whom belonged to a congregation or attended church regularly (or even sporadically) while in Washington, justifying their decision on the basis that the security requirements would be too onerous and disruptive to the congregations they joined. Faith is a personal thing only if the public aleady believes that a president possesses it. If not, no security arrangement is too onerous to trump the need to publicize it. This is true of President Clinton when he attended Foundry United Methodist Church while in Washington (one of the candidates for the Obamas' new home church by the way), and it is also true of presidential candidate John Kerry when he made much public display of his Sunday church attendances.

The speculation about which church the Obamas will ultimately settle on as a home church in DC has been fuelled, in part, by his past association with the controversial Jeremiah Wright and his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ. The speculation about where the Obamas will end up has taken on more than normal political significance because there is a greater need for this president, unless others who didn't even have to attend church, to demonstrate that his religious views are squarely in the mainstream.

So on this Easter weekend, to those who bemoan the secularization of America, take heart, because presidents who appear godless know that they will be judged on earth before they are judged in heaven; to those who believe the separation of church and state is not yet complete, take stock, because where and whether or not President Obama ends up worshipping every Sunday has become a topic of paramount political importance to the administration. So much so that White House aides reportedly considered over a dozen churches before deciding on St John's as the safest place for a president to go to observe Easter Sunday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Professor Lim,

I think you're absolutely right in your central point of the need for the President to physically and demonstratively prove his commitment to religion. However, I think the real issue goes much deeper than a physical expression of religion, such as going to church. Presidents have taken the role as the moral leader of the country (some more successfully than others), and in America morality is inexorably tied to religion. As a result, both Democratic and Republican Presidents alike have had their guiding morality infused with religious motivations. Even the more liberal of recent Presidents - Carter, Clinton, Obama - have never taken steps to sharply distinguish their religiosity from their roles as public officials. Presidents who enjoyed support from the religious right flaunted it.

A conversation about Presidents going to church is no doubt worthwhile, but it would be fascinating to explore how deeply the personal religiosity of the President is infused into the expectations of the office.

Mike Pernick