Does the President Need Churching?

I go to church every Sunday – but, being a pastor, that’s sort of a hazard of the job. It’s not like I can simply decide one Sunday to just ignore the alarm, roll over, and not show up. More than a few people would take note – and I don’t think I’d be in the pulpit for very long after being AWOL a few times.

Conservative Christians are beginning to take note that President Barack Obama is AWOL from church on Sunday mornings – since he has not yet chosen any church to be “officially” affiliated with during his term in office. At least one rightwing columnist has issued “A plea to the president to attend church” and expressed his disappointment that the president has not yet chosen a regular house of worship:

Before your inauguration, a reporter asked me if you might choose not to attend church. I responded that this was very unlikely because you frequently claimed that your faith is genuine and that you derived insight and direction from worship and prayer. Moreover, you appeared to want to provide a church home and experience for your family. I added that your desire to set a good example and maintain positive relations with religious conservatives, many of whom criticize your positions on various moral and political issues, also made your regular church attendance likely. So far, Mr. President, I have been wrong.

Gary Scott Smith, in addition to smarting a bit over being wrong about his predictions about Obama, believes the president would not only benefit from a sermon and some singing each week, but would also serve as a national role model and encourage others to warm a pew each week themselves. Perhaps. But, is that the real agenda behind encouraging this particular president to get thee to church?

I don’t remember anyone issuing a call to President Ronald Reagan to hurry up and pick a home church. Reagan hardly darkened the door of a church building, yet is lauded by religious conservatives as a holy man after God’s own heart. George W. Bush was an infrequent guest at a house of worship but was applauded by the religious right for his strong faith. Oddly, two of the presidents most vilified by the right wing – Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were both regular church goers during their terms.

But, President Obama has far more to prove to the right wing base than Clinton, Carter, Reagan, or the younger Bush. As recently as last April, eleven percent of Americans persist in believing that Obama is not a Christian at all but is, in fact, a Muslim, according to a Pew Center Research poll. The percentages are, of course higher among Republicans (17%), white evangelical Protestants (19%), and frighteningly a full 10 percent of mainline Protestants continue to buy the lie about Obama’s religion.

Seeing President Obama go to a Christian church each week could put some minds at ease about his true religious preference, or, knowing the right wing, could actually pour more gas on the fire and leave Obama open to charges of “faking it” to fool us into believing he’s a Christian and not a secret Muslim plotting the overthrow of democracy in favor of Sharia law.

Personally, I don’t care if President Obama goes to church. As a pastor I know first-hand that church attendance and personal values or morality rarely go hand-in-hand. I know many regular church goers who will still turn their back on a neighbor, kick their dogs, cheat on their spouses, and rob their own grandmother blind if it meant they’d profit in some way. As the old saw goes, “Being in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.” I’d rather judge President Obama on Jesus’ standard of morality than on the frequency with which his butt hits a pew.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the harrowing story about how God (represented as a king) will separate the sheep from the goats – those who knew the right thing and did it and those who profited off the backs of the poor and outcast.

He will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:33-40 (NRSV)

A gander at the poverty rates in our country gives you an idea of which president, churchgoing or not, did the most for “the least of these.” Under George W. Bush’s tenure in office, poverty rates soared from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 13.2 percent in 2008. Nearly 40 million people live in poverty in one of the richest nations in the world and their numbers grew significantly during on Bush’s watch. In addition, 43.6 million people under the age of 65 are without health insurance, leaving them open to financial ruin if they become ill.

These are just two indicators of how the “least of these” are faring in our country, and the picture looks bleak. Presidents who talked a good game on faith like Reagan and Bush, saw poverty rates climb during their administrations (the poverty rate hit a whopping 15.2 percent in 1983 under Reagan), proving that “the least of these” were the least on their minds as they brought profits to the captains of industry and made the gap between rich and poor into a yawning chasm.

Obama made a big show out of consulting pastors from diverse backgrounds like Rick Warren and Bishop Gene Robinson early in his tenure. These sorts of public displays of piety seem to have receded a bit in recent months. That makes me wonder if religion is just for show or if Obama might truly have a moral base that favors “the least of these.”

I, for one, won’t be judging Obama on his church attendance or how many pastors he surrounds himself with. What matters is if steps up and works tirelessly to implement real policies that help “the least of these.” If Obama’s efforts raise people out of poverty, gives them the health coverage they need to withstand a health crisis both financially and physically, and brings this country to a better understanding of what it means to live in true harmony with one another, then he will have accomplished more than any other president who regularly sat in a pew.