From working with churches in Chicago to enlisting religious leaders to help push immigration reform, President Obama’s ties to religious communities run deep, but analysts say he’s opened himself up to continued criticism by failing to find his own church after five years in Washington.
This week saw the president both showcase his religion at the White House’s annual Easter Prayer Breakfast and again use leaders from across the spectrum to make the case for immigration reform, a key policy goal of this administration and an effort that some in various churches see a key piece of a bigger “social justice” agenda.
While Mr. Obama hasn’t shied away from his beliefs nor hesitated to bring religious leaders into broader national conversations, he’s come under fire for rarely attending church during his time in Washington.
Never was that more apparent than this past Christmas, when the Obamas elected not to attend services.
Scholars say that decision was a curious one — one that runs counter to virtually everything else Americans have seen of the president.
One on hand, some political analysts view Mr. Obama as perhaps the “most explicit and outspoken” president on personal faith since Jimmy Carter; on the other, his lack of church attendance has created an opening which critics may exploit in an attempt to paint him as insincere, said Gary Scott Smith, chairman of the history department at Grove City College and author of the 2009 book “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush.”
“I think it’s a very bad move politically and I think it is probably, depending on one’s perspective, a bad move for his family in terms of spiritual nourishment,” he said.
“We’ve only had a couple other 20th-century president who didn’t go to church much, and that would be Reagan after the assassination attempt and FDR,” Mr. Smith said. “I understand he was burned by his association with Trinity Church in Chicago and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but a lot of churches have reached out to him.”
The president’s defense — a largely rational and fair one, Mr. Smith said — is that he doesn’t wish to make himself the center of attention at a church service. Reagan said something similar in the 1980s and in 2014, churchgoers would be even more prone to snap cellphone pictures of Mr. Obama and his family or otherwise disrupt the normal Sunday morning routine.
Church attendance aside, Mr. Obama certainly hasn’t tried to downplay his beliefs.
At Monday’s Easter Prayer Breakfast — started by Mr. Obama in 2010 — the president quoted scripture and spoke passionately about the inspiration he’s drawn from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“There’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God. We’re reminded of how he loves us, so deeply,” the president said. “And none of us are free from sin, but we look to his life and strive, knowing that ‘if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.’”
While never trying to hide his faith, some analysts say the president has talked about it less in the years since the furor over the inflammatory words of his former pastor, Mr. Wright.
“He’s very selective … unlike, for example, Bill Clinton. I remember iconic photos [of Clinton] coming out of church just about every Sunday with a Bible in one hand and Hillary Clinton’s hand in the other. There was a consistency, at least in the images, of him being connected with his faith,” said Joseph Prud’homme, a political science professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Culture at Washington College.
“With this White House, it seems to be much more selective when he chooses to emphasize his faith. That runs the risk of being perceived as political,” he said.