One of the criticisms some Christians have leveled against President Obama is that he has been without a church home for more than nine months. After the fiasco at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Jeremiah Wright's very public rants about race, the Obama family has been without a settled place of worship and a spiritual home all year. President Obama promised that he would choose a new church after he became president. When this process took more than five months some used this delay to criticize Obama as disingenuous and lacking in any serious spiritual commitment to his Christian faith. I found this attack unfair and said so to some.
Now we know his choice, according to Amy Sullivan of Time, and we even know how he made it. On Monday Obama announced to White House aides, in what was described as an unexpected move by the writer who broke the story, that he would not have a church home in Washington, D.C. but will follow in the steps of President George W. Bush and make his primary place of worship Evergreen Chapel, a nondenominational church at Camp David. (This means he will not join this church formally since there is no membership there. The White House added, on Monday afternoon, that he would not close the door on doing this down the road.) Apparently aides visited a number of churches and sought a non-controversial place for the Obama family to attend. The president even sampled a few churches, including 19th Street Baptist on the weekend before his inauguration. He also visited St. John's Episcopal, the "Church of Presidents," on Easter.
The White House says a number of factors drove this decision. These included both political and personal concerns. For cynics from the Right, I would simply ask, "How could the political not impact this decision?" (It clearly does when the shoe is on the other foot if everyone is honest.) But more than any other issue the president desired to worship without being on display and without prompting trouble for a congregation. When Obama visited 19th Street Baptist in January crowds started forming three hours before the service began. The time and cost to the Secret Service is immense and a congregation is overwhelmed when the president attends. Obama rightly wanted to protect his family and not harm the integrity of a local congregation. His choice, from all accounts, seems to be an excellent one. (When Obama visited St. John's at Easter people snapped photos endlessly, using their cell phones.)
The difficulty of worshiping in public, and praying in peace, has long been a problem for presidents. Since 9/11 it has been an even bigger problem for the Secret Service. Obama is said to have avoided an African-American church because he worried that his presence would turn worshipers out of their pews for visitors who would be there as sightseers.
Evergreen Chapel has a 150-seat worship chapel with an average of 50-70 in worship each week. The rustic structure was built with private funds two decades ago and dedicated by President George H. W. Bush in 1991. At that dedication ceremony Sandi Patti sang and the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington delivered a sermon calling the chapel "a witness to our common belief that we need to seek divine guidance in the conduct of our national affairs."
Each week, whether the president is present or not, the congregation meets and provides services for the military personnel and staff at Camp David. Camp David's current chaplain, Lieut. Carey Cash, leads the services at Evergreen. Cash is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Southern Baptist minister. A native of Memphis he is a graduate of the Citadel and the great-nephew of Johnny Cash. He served a tour of duty as a Marine battalion chaplain in Iraq and baptized nearly 60 Marines during his tour of duty there. So, Obama's new pastor, assigned by the Navy to serve at Camp David, is a Southern Baptist. The last chaplain at Evergreen said that President Bush hardly ever had personal contact with him. Most expect this arrangement to be much the same.
So who does President Obama turn to for private spiritual counsel? Obama is doing what several other presidents have done. He seeks counsel from several ministers that he trusts. Two of his inner circle, to the surprise of some who do not follow this closely, were also confidants of President Bush; Kirbyjon Caldwell, a black Methodist minister from Houston, and T. D. Jakes, a black charismatic minister from Dallas. Caldwell, who offered prayer at Bush's first inaugural and officiated at Jenna's wedding, openly endorsed Obama. He even launched a Website when James Dobson accused Obama of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview." Caldwell, an atypical United Methodist, is committed to evangelism and compassion and preaches the Bible with confidence and moral earnestness. Obama chose T. D. Jakes, a very well-known television preacher, to preach at a private service the morning of the inauguration. The president has also called Jakes for private counsel. The other three leaders that Obama turns to are Otis Moss, Jr, a retired Baptist minister who once served with Martin Luther King, Sr. at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Moss's son followed Jeremiah Wright at Trinity but the father is called a "proper old school preacher and a father figure.") The other two spiritual advisers to Obama include Joel Hunter, a white evangelical who pastors a mega-church in the Orlando area, and Vashti McKenzie, the first female elected as a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That is a pretty interesting mix of Christian leaders, all of whom are people of faith and piety, if you know anything about them at all.
Again, I am again impressed that Barack Obama shows a growing spiritual hunger while he is engaged in the business of the country day-in and day-out. While some critics attacked him regarding his church relationship his public choice now seems to be both wise and rightly guarded. I think the best thing that we could do, as Christians, is to keep praying for him and his family. Regardless of your views of his leadership and policies he remains the president of the nation. What some Christians did to the Clintons was frankly despicable. We can hope this changes with regard to the Obamas. Everyone is entitled to worship as they choose and to pray without being analyzed by conservative Christians in the media. I strongly oppose this president on a whole host of issues but none of these should ever stand in the way of Christian love and prayer.