The Common Good

Obama heads to church for Easter Sunday

Date: April 12, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and his family are looking for a new church, but his decision represents more than merely settling on a pew.

The Obamas plan to attend church services for Easter Sunday, marking the president's first visit to a Washington church since taking office in January. Aides, however, have been secretive about which church the first family will attend, citing security and the desire not to disrupt services for other worshippers. They also caution that the church Obama visits might not signal that the president has decided on a permanent place of worship.

Obama's choice of a permanent pastor is sure to draw scrutiny, given his history with a pastor in Chicago whose bombastic sermons almost destroyed Obama's presidential bid.

"On one level, I think he's just getting acclimated to DC. He's still feeling things out. Easter is a very important day in the Christian calendar; he's a Christian," said J. Kameron Carter, who teaches theology and black church studies at Duke University. "But you are the president. Whatever decision he makes is going to be analyzed with a fine-tooth comb against the backdrop of the Rev. Wright."

Obama's presidential campaign was blind-sided last year when video surfaced of his friend and pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, condemning the United States and suggesting the government was to blame for the HIV/AIDS scourge on black communities. Wright's sermons forced the then-senator to deliver two speeches: the first, a tempered defense of the pastor whose rhetoric inspired the name of Obama's memoir; later, a speech about Obama's views on race that has been viewed almost 6 million times online.

Wright followed up with a media tour that personally frustrated Obama and politically enraged his aides. Obama left Trinity United Church of Christ and has been without an official house of worship since then, instead relying on a close circle of advisers and pastors to help him in private.

"What the president should do — and I believe would do — is find a church home that's good for his family," said Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical who speaks with White House aides several times each day and Obama frequently.

"In the post-Jeremiah world, he can't just do that," Wallis said.

But Obama has told his advisers he needs a church, and he faces choice.

He could join a historically African-American church in the nation's capital, where 55 percent of the population is black. It would be a nod to his family's roots on the South Side of Chicago, a signal to his black supporters who helped fuel his rapid rise and a cue to his two young daughters. It could also be a danger if a message from the pulpit comes anywhere close to Wright's heated rhetoric.

Aides say he could just as easily select an integrated church, similar to the one his visited immediately after his South Carolina Democratic primary win last year. Obama made his first appearance after the victory at an interracial and interdenominational church in Macon, Ga. The move helped him with whites concerned Obama was merely a candidate for black voters and helped him win that state's nominating contest.

Experts caution reading too much into what Obama does on Sunday and beyond to address his personal faith.

"At the end of the day, whatever way he finally goes is going to be dissected," said Carter of Duke's divinity school. "I think it gets in the way on some level."

So far, Obama hasn't really needed a church to call his own; he spent last Easter in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Christmas in Hawaii.

But for his first major Christian holiday as president, Obama is publicly marking the celebration. Obama enlisted aides, friends and advisers to scout out more than a dozen churches in the Washington area.

Since the New Year, the Obamas have only attended church services twice in Washington. Two days before the inauguration, Obama visited 19th Street Baptist Church where worshippers lined up three hours before the service.

"Just another typical Sunday," deadpanned the Rev. Derrick Harkins of 19th Street, one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington.

Aides this week said the Obamas would not be visiting 19th Street for Easter.

Obama and his family attended a private service at St. John's Church on Inauguration Day, a tradition for those about to become president. The Rev. Luis Leon welcomed the Obamas to the Episcopalian church and noted every president since James Madison has worshipped at the church at least once, "some of them kicking and screaming."

White House aides note the Obamas have spent several weekends at the presidential retreat at Camp David, where there is a chapel. Aides say there would be no way to know if the Obamas visited the chapel for private prayer with a guest pastor.