Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why Barack Obama Doesn't Go To Church

Of course, the title of this post is wrong on one pretty basic level.

The Obama family does go to church on occasion, perhaps on more frequent occasion than many American families.   They'll visit congregations now and again.   Every once in a while, they'll go to the convenient little Episcopalian church right across the street from their house.

But what they are not is a regular part of a faith community.   For all of the wondering and speculation that DC area congregations engaged in prior to the arrival of our now-not-new First Family, the reality is after four years that the Obamas don't have a church home.

The official rationale on this, as it's been presented, was that the White House did not want to inconvenience a congregation with the President's regular presence.   With all of the security requirements, it would just be too onerous a burden to inflict on a faith community.  So in deference to the well being of area churches, the POTUS has chosen not to be a part of a particular church.

In response to this line of reasoning, I can only say, "What, are you [fornicating][pooping] me?"

Faced with the prospect of the President of the United States of America worshipping in your faith community, what sane pastor/board/session/rectory/coven would say to the White House liaison, "Gosh, you know, I'm afraid that would be just too logistically complicated.  I'm not sure we want that inconvenience.  What about the ramifications for access?  And what about liability issues?"

Actually, I can imagine some Presbyterians saying that.   God help us.

In the case of my tiny little church, well, there are certain things I can't divulge.   But suffice it to say that we realized that once the President and his security detail were in the building, there'd be no room for anyone else.  So, sadly, my session was forced to abandon its plans to construct a helipad for Marine One on the empty plot next to the church.  Or so I've been told.

But c'mon.   For most churches, that'd be cause for rejoicing.   The official line is the kind of argument that might have resonance with The People Who Like To Make Everything Too Complicated, and there are plenty of those people in DC.   But it bears no resemblance to the actual response of a faith community to having the regular engagement of the First Family.

So there must be another reason, you know, the actual one.

It is unlikely that the reason is they can't find a simpatico congregational environment and pastor.   There are plenty of progressive and prophetic healthy-sized churches in DC, of every denominational and nondenominational flavor.   In those churches, there are plenty of inspiring, passionate, intelligent pastors who might quake a bit at the prospect of regular first family engagement, but would rise to the challenge.  That ain't it.

It is possible that it just doesn't matter.   If a President wants to attend church, they do.   Jimmy Carter, bless him, not only regularly attended First Baptist, but also taught Bible Study.  Bill Clinton regularly attended Foundry United Methodist, because Lord have mercy, did he need it.   Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at the congregation where I grew up, and to the best of my knowledge, security was kinda sorta an issue then, too.

Others, like Dubya, just sort of floated around.

A very few, notably Reagan, almost never darkened the door of a church.  Then again, he did have the counsel of an official White House astrologer, so I suppose having your own magi makes up for that.  Reagan, in fact, was the last president for whom church appears to have had the same draw it does for Obama.

But that just doesn't compute with Obama.  Conceptually, church should matter.   Obama, taken at face value, is all about the value of community and the importance of working together.   While not the full blown pinko that the yammerers at FoxNews make him out to be, the ethic he expresses in his political life is one of collective power and mutual accountability.   Taking him at his word on that front, and taking him at his word that Christianity is an important part of his life, choosing not to be part of a community that lives out those values is a significant dissonance.  His is not the path of the isolated spiritual individual.

Following on that, there's another possibility that's popped into my head now and again.   Obama is a community organizer, of the Alinskian school.  Saul Alinsky's writings form Obama's understanding of community, and his understanding of the dynamics of political power.

Within the Alinskian model, there is a place for communities of faith.   They are useful as pre-existent networks of social connection, which can, if engaged, prove remarkably helpful as a power base for influencing change in a local community.   So if you're an organizer, and you want to create change, you plant your behind in a pew and you get to know people.  That's certainly been the approach of the Alinskian folks at the IAF, through affiliates like the Washington Interfaith Network.

For both local and state-level politics, this reality holds.  Being an active and engaged part of a congregation means you have a power base, a network of social connections that you can leverage.  It is, practically speaking, a smart thing to do.

But that's organizing on the local level.

On the national level, that rationale breaks down.  The scope of national-level politics is simply too large for participation in one particular congregation to mean anything.  Sure, if it's DC, there might be one or two power-players there, and the regular attendance of a POTUS would bring in more.   But in the complex calculus of husbanding and directing one's energies as an organizer, engaging with a single church ceases to be part of the equation at that scale.

One would hope that it's a little less calculated than that.  Might it be a factor?  Hard to say.   I think whatever it is, the real rationale or rationales will remain behind hidden the veil.  And, after all, it's entirely up to the Obamas.  They're free to make that decision for whatsoever reason they choose, and are under no obligation to 'splain themselves, it being a free country and all.

Ah well.   Assuming this thing rolls the way it seems to be rolling, I suppose we DC church folk'll just have to get used to disappointment.