United Church of Christ wants Obama in D.C. flock

The United Church of Christ (UCC) invited President-elect Barack Obama to join a local congregation near the White House, anticipating the first family’s desire to worship in public despite risks to their image and safety.

The church, which is the same denomination that Obama and his family attended in Chicago, hand-delivered to Obama’s Senate office an invitation to join one of their many parishes in Washington.


Selecting the right church in Washington is another sign that routine decisions are about to get complicated for the Obamas. Just like choosing the right schools for Malia and Sasha and settling on the ideal dog to scamper on the White House lawn, the parish President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Biden administration breaks down climate finance roadmap Pelosi hilariously scolds media for not 'selling' .5T spending bill: 'Do a better job' MORE attends on Sunday is suddenly open to scrutiny.

There’s the question of protecting Obama, the nation’s first black president, when he ventures out of the White House and into a crowded church.

There’s also the potential for Obama, sitting in the pews, to be linked with remarks made at the pulpit.
Religion already created problems for Obama during the campaign, first with false rumors that he was secretly Muslim and then with the incendiary remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, prompting the Obamas to leave Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in May.

But the sudden departure from the Chicago church didn’t stop the national church from inviting the Obamas to try a new location.

“[The letter] invited him to consider finding a spiritual home for him and his family at one of the UCC churches in the Washington area,” said Sandy Sorenson, the UCC’s associate for communications and media advocacy in Washington.

“So the invitation has been extended, and I think some of the local churches themselves have extended an invitation. But I have not heard anything yet about where he’s thinking about attending.”

Obama could be the first regularly churchgoing president since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton on the mend after infection lands him in hospital Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization Appeals court allows Texas abortion law to stand MORE, according to religious and political experts, which has led them to speculate on the many factors the soon-to-be first family must consider in making their choice.

“I’m sure he’s got somebody on the case trying to find [a church] that’s moderately sane but a part of a tradition that he’s been a part of, and you can bet that he will not go somewhere with someone so overtly anti-American and political,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior adviser to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Dr. Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has written about the role of religion in politics, agreed that the pastor will factor into Obama’s decision. But security is also key, he said.

“[Obama is] going to be a little cautious; he’s going to look around and pick some pastor who will inspire him but not end up as a headline and then someplace where he and his kids feel comfortable and have appropriate facilities so the Secret Service can protect him,” Wilcox said.

Proximity and safety have to be at the top of Obama’s list of concerns, as the Secret Service must be able to deliver the first African-American first family safely to and from their place of worship.

{mospagebreak}There are four UCC churches in close enough proximity to the White House that Obama could consider, Sorenson said.

Obama is only one of a handful of lawmakers who subscribe to the United Church of Christ faith, which was formed in 1957 and has more than 1 million followers.

Though it is not likely to be the case with Obama, some presidents chose not to attend church while living in D.C.


President Bush is widely known for his religious beliefs, but for eight years has not frequented a local church, at times citing security concerns. Ronald Reagan also did not attend a church regularly, saying that after the attempt on his life it was too great a risk. And Richard Nixon opted to have Billy Graham come to the White House for private religious services.

“The logistics of a president going to a worship service are a nightmare,” Cromartie said.

But security does not make regular worship impossible. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for example, attended D.C.-area churches. Clinton’s church, Foundry Methodist Church, installed metal detectors because many tourists attended services on Sunday — some simply to catch a glimpse of the president.

Staying out of the public eye is highly improbable if Obama wants to go to church, though, and thus ground rules may have to be set to ensure his privacy is respected, according to John Deckenbach, the Central Atlantic Conference Minister of the UCC.

Political scientist Wilcox agreed.

“If presidents need a place of spiritual solace and a community of believers, these people should be free to worship without thinking that every single thing they say is going to be ridiculed on YouTube the next day,” Wilcox said. “In a moral sense, you kind of hope that everyone would step back and let him choose a church and not be taping everything that goes on, but in the real world that’s probably not going to happen.”

In addition to security and the political temperance of the church’s leadership, Obama is going to have to consider his wife and his daughters, ages 10 and 7, too.

“Irrespective of political bias, a person in that position, with the kinds of responsibilities and weight we’re putting on his shoulders, needs all the spiritual depth and grounding in the world,” Deckenbach said. “Not only for himself, but also for his family, for Michelle and the young children as they seek to mature and grow in their own faith in the middle of a very public fishbowl.”