September 17, 2009
Dear Mr. President,
Remember all the analysis immediately after your election this past November regarding where you and your family would attend church? Newspapers and websites were filled with stories about where you would go, and numerous congregations in Washington invited you, your wife, and children to attend their Sunday morning services. Although Americans have usually displayed substantial interest in where their presidents attended church while in office, never before had there been such fascination with this issue before a president was inaugurated. At present, this focus seems ironic because you and your family have attended church in Washington only once—on Easter Sunday—since you took office (although you have attended a few services at Camp David).
Americans acknowledge that you are a very busy man with incredibly important responsibilities. We also recognize the typical reasons some of your predecessors have given for not attending church regularly and you have sometimes used: they did not want to divert other worshippers' attention from God to themselves, they did not want to subject other congregants to metal detectors and security concerns, they found it difficult to worship when others appeared to being watching them, or they wanted to use Sunday morning for other activities such as golf or stamp collecting. However, these reasons have not deterred several of your recent predecessors, and the benefits of attending more than compensate for the problems they involve.
As you know, attending Sunday morning worship enables you to worship God, which for Christians is both a responsibility and privilege. These services help supply you with moral inspiration and spiritual strength, which are vital to your work as president. Attending habitually will also enable your wife and children to receive biblical instruction and Christian nurture. You have repeatedly claimed that your faith is important to you and helps guide your political priorities, policies, and work. You have frequently used religious rhetoric and scriptural principles and passages to support legislation you are promoting. You have also sought to enlist clergy, committed lay Christians, and religious organizations to work to achieve causes in which you believe strongly. Moreover, attending church faithfully would testify to your professed values and help you gain greater credibility with religious Americans.
Equally important, your regular attendance would set a good example for our nation. In other ways your actions have been exemplary. Through White House initiatives, commercials, and magazine interviews you have exhorted men to be good fathers and spend time with their children. Addressing the NAACP this summer, you challenged African Americans not to accept the sense of limitation that discrimination has tried to force upon them and to stop expecting "so little from the world and from themselves." You instructed parents to take responsibility for their children, help them learn, and encourage them to aspire to be scientists, engineers, doctors, and teachers rather than athletes and rappers. Your recent speech to schoolchildren urged them to develop their "talents, skills and intellect," set high goals, work hard, and persevere when they fail. You pushed them to do all their homework, pay attention in class, and read a book every day.
As our nation's first African-American president, you obviously care about being a positive role model. You often use your own experiences, struggles, and accomplishments to prod and inspire others. You invite others to look at your life as an example. Thus, it is especially important to support your profession of Christian faith by fellowshipping and worshipping with other believers.
Before your inauguration, a reporter asked me if you might choose not to attend church. I responded that this was very unlikely because you frequently claimed that your faith is genuine and that you derived insight and direction from worship and prayer. Moreover, you appeared to want to provide a church home and experience for your family. I added that your desire to set a good example and maintain positive relations with religious conservatives, many of whom criticize your positions on various moral and political issues, also made your regular church attendance likely. So far, Mr. President, I have been wrong.
Many of your predecessors attended church faithfully, including several (most notably George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower) who went only sporadically before taking office. They did so in large part to help them deal more effectively with the burdens of their role, gain spiritual strength, and supply a positive example.
In an ABC interview in January, you said, "I've got a wonderful community of people who are praying for me every day … but it's not the same as going to church" and hearing a choral anthem and "a good sermon." One excellent way to demonstrate your Christian commitment, which some Americans question, and provide spiritual nurture for yourself and for your family, is to attend church consistently.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is also a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values.