The Obama Watch

A No-Obama Christmas

Why doesn’t our president go to church?

By 1.6.14

UPI/Mr. Obama visits Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with Palestinian Pres. Abbas, March 22, 2013
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There’s a good chance you didn’t hear about it, given the media’s devoted protection of Barack Obama, but our president didn’t attend church this Christmas. He did manage a family vacation in Hawaii, during which he attended a golf course three times and a basketball game once, but he couldn’t manage to attend an hour-long Christmas service.

I’ve studied the issue of faith and the presidency for a long time. I’ve written books on the faith of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and even Hillary Clinton. I’ve spoken on the subject numerous times around the country, at colleges as diverse as William & Mary and Franciscan University of Steubenville, at prayer breakfasts, and even at presidential libraries. I recount those facts here merely to affirm my credibility on the subject for you, dear reader, as I assure you that it’s quite rare for a president not to go to church at Christmas time. Even the most unfaithful among us manage to get to church on December 25.

To be sure, I can’t say for certain that other presidents haven’t previously missed church at Christmas, though I don’t know of any such cases. I asked my esteemed colleague, Dr. Gary Scott Smith, Grove City College professor and author of the acclaimed Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, published by Oxford University Press. Smith conceded that while it’s possible that some presidents might have skipped Christmas services, “I do not know of any specifically. The media was not omnipresent before the 1960s, so it was easier for presidents’ non-attendance to go unnoticed. However, most presidents have attended church faithfully while in office.”

Smith was the lead authority quoted in a New York Times piece on Obama’s Christmas no-show. I was shocked that the Times dared to report this negative on this man it blatantly covers for, but a quick read revealed its predictable motivation. The story was, as usual, an apology for Obama.

The Times quoted an “unofficial White House historian” who calculates that Obama has attended church only 18 times during his five years in the White House, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, attended 120 times during his eight years in office. (That number for Bush seems very conservative to me. I’m almost certain it’s higher.) In other words, Obama is averaging about three to four visits to a church per year. My Uncle Nick did better than that.

But that’s no big deal to the New York Times. Take this spin:

“Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual,” noted the Times. “Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.”

Ah, yes. Obama’s “faith” is the best kind of all: an inclusive faith. (Albeit one that excludes a visit to church at Christmas.) So sayeth the Times.

Here we have on display one leg of the progressive left’s holy trinity: inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. Or, more accurately, selective inclusion, selective tolerance, and selective diversity. The left includes and tolerates only what it wants to include and tolerate. Christian bakers and florists and photographers who decline to serve gay weddings are not tolerated by the diversity-preaching left. They are harassed, demonized, and literally sued into compliance.

If you want to see religious “inclusion” by Obama, just look at his HHS mandate and its total intolerance of conscientious-objecting religious believers, from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods to the Catholic Church and the Little Sisters of the Poor. As I write, Team Obama is hellbent on forcing the Little Sisters to pay for abortions.

Draconian contradictions like these, however, don’t register in the liberal mind. Sticking to the “Obama-inclusive-faith theme,” the New York Times quotes Randall Balmer, a liberal scholar, chair of Dartmouth College’s religion department, and author of God in the White House. Balmer says of Obama: “He’s very conscious of the fact that this is a pluralistic nation.”

The Little Sisters would beg to differ.

But back to Obama’s lack of church attendance. How does any of this typical liberal double-speak address the matter of Obama missing church at Christmas time plus another 48 Sundays throughout the year?

Professor Balmer had an answer for that as well: “If the calculus is, ‘Do I spend two hours going to church Sunday morning or do I get to watch college basketball Sunday afternoon?’ If he had to choose between the two, and knowing Obama, he’d probably choose college basketball.” The good-natured Times found this cute, noting that Balmer added, “with a laugh”: “And that’s a calculation many Americans make on a weekly basis.”

Really? I didn’t know that basketball games conflicted with church-going. I’ve watched the NBA and NCAA for 40 years. I’ve never had to miss Sunday services because of a hoops game. And I’d certainly be willing to at least DVR the (at best) one live basketball game that perhaps ESPN happened to broadcast at the same moment as a Christmas Eve service.

Balmer and the Times also addressed the remarkable fact that Barack Obama not only lacked a Christmas service this year but lacks a church at all and even a denomination. Yes, that’s correct, the current president of the United States not only has no church but not even a denomination. He no longer has a formal religious affiliation of any sort. During the 2008 campaign, he was forced to throw under the bus the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, the Trinity United Church of Christ Church in Chicago, which had made Obama a Christian, married him and his wife, baptized his daughters, and provided the inspiration for the title of one of his two pre-presidential memoirs.

Professor Balmer also had an explanation for that curiosity: “I think part of the reason he’s been wary of affiliating with a church in Washington is that he got so burned by the Jeremiah Wright situation, and he’s kind of backed away from that.”

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense to me. If anything, the best way for Obama to back away from the Wright conflagration would be to attend non-Wright-like churches — i.e., to attend regular, normal religious services that don’t feature a screaming, blaspheming, hip-gyrating, pelvic-thrusting, unhinged preacher yapping about Bill Clinton getting “down and dirty” with Monica Lewinsky and preaching “God damn America.” Is Balmer suggesting that if Obama went back to church again it would be another Jeremiah Wright kind of place?

Since becoming president, Obama has occasionally attended St. John’s Episcopal Church and 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington. Gary Smith says that Obama has primarily decided to worship at the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David. “However,” noted Smith, “he rarely spends weekends at Camp David.”

Indeed, he does not — which conveniently doesn’t alter his Sunday morning routine.

Alas, the Times piece further defended Obama by trotting out one of the left’s favorite defenses of Obama’s lack of church attendance: “Part of Mr. Obama’s decision to largely opt out of religious services reflects a desire to avoid disruptions by his Secret Service detail and security requirements, echoing concerns of Ronald Reagan, who presidential historians say rarely went to church.”

This Reagan example is extremely bothersome. Liberal sources reference it all the time, and reference me in the process. I’m one of the “presidential historians” the reporter is likely referring to, but not referring to in full. I have explained the unusual Reagan situation in great deal elsewhere, but here’s a quick summary:

Ronald Reagan stopped attending church regularly (but not always) after the assassination attempt in March 1981. Reagan gave a host of reasons for this. Among them, the age of terrorism and the Secret Service’s newness to the threat made Reagan’s attendance at church an extraordinary fiasco. There were SWAT guys stationed all over the roof of the church, helicopters swirled overhead, people were frisked and “wanded” at the doors, just for starters. I could go on. Believe me, there’s much more to it. (See my God and Ronald Reagan, chapter 11.)

That said, Reagan hated missing church and said so constantly. It troubled him terribly. The presidency was the only time in his life when he didn’t attend on a regular basis. In fact, when he ultimately returned to church regularly again immediately after the presidency, he even insisted on joining his church’s “new members” class because of his long absence.

And here’s an especially key point: Ronald Reagan was incessantly pressed to justify his infrequent church attendance, and did. In one high-profile and politically charged environment, Reagan was asked about the subject during a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale. The media hounded Reagan on the issue, and he was forced to clarify it again and again.

The media has not, by contrast, hounded Barack Obama on the issue.

And most significant, Reagan’s lack of church attendance as president was in no way an indicator of a lack of faith.

As for Barack Obama, I’ll leave that particular judgment to others and to God. But it’s interesting that now, with re-election no longer a concern, Obama decided not to attend Christmas services this year. I’m not surprised.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.