Come Easter Sunday, President Barack Obama will attend a local church for the first time since taking office, but aides say that won’t necessarily be the church he and his family join.
The White House wouldn’t say where Obama will be on Sunday – but did say that the Obamas search for a more lasting spiritual home in the capital has been going on for some time.
Friends have been quietly checking out churches in the Washington, D.C., area to see which might be a good fit for the family, one aide familiar with the process said.
That reflects in part the difficulty and politically charged nature of Obama’s choice nearly a year after he broke from his controversial Chicago church over statements by his former pastor.
But the White House rejected the notion that the churches underwent some kind of formal scrutiny, with the aide saying, “It’s not an all-out vetting of every church in DC.”
“I think that some members of staff have checked out some churches and worshiped in a quiet way but there is not extensive questioning of churches or pastors,” this aide said. "Any decision that the president is engaged in we certainly check it out carefully and that would certainly be the same with this."
At the same time, many congregations have reached out the White House, hoping to be chosen as the president’s church. Gail Anderson Holness, president of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, said more than 100 churches signed a letter early on welcoming Obama as president and inviting him to attend.
“Since he is going to be in the area, I think he would be in worship and have his children involved in the process of worship too. But my belief is that that decision solely rests with him and Michelle. It’s not a decision for America to make. It’s a personal decision, but the time is nigh, and it’s going to come,” she said.
The White House has not offered any clues where Obama is looking, but the aide signaled that Obama is leaning toward an African-American church. This aide noted that in Obama’s first book, he said that there is "something that was compelling to him about the African-American worship tradition and that remains the same. He has made his perspective pretty clear."
A handful of churches have been the focus of media speculation about Obama’s choice, including the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church; Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, and the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, where Obama attended the Sunday before the inauguration.
Prior to Obama attending service there, aides interviewed Rev. Derrick Harkins, the pastor at Nineteenth Street Baptist. Harkins described the interactions as casual and said they largely centered on his church’s social activism and relationship to the larger community.
“The conversations that we had prior to them coming to be with us were about the overall sense of history and mission and purpose and vision of the church. I wouldn’t call it vetting, they were trying to gather a fuller sense of any church that the first family would be in,” Harkins said. “But we haven’t had any official direction from anybody in direct in connection to them coming to the Nineteenth Street in a permanent way.”
Randall Balmer, author of God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, said he can understand why Obama is moving so carefully to pick a church – because of the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama ultimately left the church in last year amid the controversy over anti-American statements by Wright.
“He got cautious. It’s a difficult thing for him because people are going to scrutinize the church,” Balmer said of Obama.
Indeed, after he broke ties with Trinity in May 2008, Obama said that “every time something is said in church by anyone associated with Trinity…the remarks will be imputed to me even if they totally conflict with my long-held views, statements and principles.”
As president, Obama can certainly expect the same scrutiny. Anderson Holness also said Obama will hear fiery words coming from the pulpits in many black churches.
“They will find that all African-American pastors have said something prophetic that might be controversial, at least the majority might have, and for some it poses a problem. But I don’t think that voice of speaking truth to power should be muffled, even if it is something that some people might not want to hear,” she said.