Tuesday, November 25, 2008

So, Barack Obama hasn't been to church lately

President-elect Barack Obama has yet to attend church services since winning the White House earlier this month, a departure from the example of his two immediate predecessors.

On the three Sundays since his election, Obama has instead used his free time to get in workouts at a Chicago gym.

Asked about the president-elect's decision to not attend church, a transition aide noted that the Obamas valued their faith experience in Chicago but were concerned about the impact their large retinue may have on other parishioners.

"Because they have a great deal of respect for places of worship, they do not want to draw unwelcome or inappropriate attention to a church not used to the attention their attendance would draw," said the aide.

Both President-elect George W. Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton managed to attend church in the weeks after they were elected. Read more on Politico...

Even though the Constitution that Americans claim to revere explicitly states:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

...we continue to demand that politicians make a show of religiousness--allowing cameras to catch them at church and making bold pronouncements about their faith in a mainstream Christian God. It's as if we think the phrase "My faith is very important to me," voiced robotically by a candidate for office, acts as some sort of talisman, assuring that the speaker is a good and worthy person, and that the public good will be safe under his or her stewardship. And though the disastrous reign of born-again George Bush should have taught us that executive effectiveness is not necessarily next to Godliness, still we want our leaders not just to demonstrate strong values or even a spiritual life, but to talk about God and demonstrate their faith by affiliation with a church.

But here's what's really curious. The average American doesn't attend church regularly:

Did you go to church this week? That's the question that Gallup pollsters have been asking Americans for more than 75 years. And each year since 1939, about 40 percent of those polled have said yes. (The actual question: "Did you yourself happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?")

That doesn't mean that, on any given Sunday, 118 million Americans (40 percent of the population) will actually be in church. According to sociologists who study religion, the actual number of people in church each week in the United States is significantly lower than the Gallup Poll indicates. Just how low is a matter of some debate.

"We ask the question because George Gallup did, so it's helpful to follow the trend," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. But the results "should not be taken as a precise indicator of actual churchgoing behavior." Newport says that while polls can accurately track opinions, using them to ascertain behavior—like weekly church attendance is much more difficult.

Kirk Hadaway, an Episcopal Church researcher, argues that the actual attendance rate is 20.4 percent, about half the Gallup figure. Read more...

Hadaway's estimate sounds accurate from where I sit. Forty percent sounds too high to me and I live in the Midwest among church-going folk. God may be a big part of Americans' lives, but church generally isn't, no matter what we say. The hypocrisy, it is thick.

For each of us, spiritual nourishment is private and personal. Some folks are in church every Sunday and prayer service every Wednesday and choir rehearsal every Friday. But some others pray five times daily at work and at home...and others go to Temple on Saturday...and others enjoy contemplative practice and reading Sutras...and others see God in nature...and others chant...and others take a little from several religious traditions...and others are moved by the writings of great poets and thinkers...and others hear the Divine in the wail of Jimmy Hendrix's guitar.

Americans' spiritual lives include many ways of worship that don't include church attendance. But we'd rather a potential president pretend to be "churchy" than to admit the truth--that he or she is just like most of us: We believe in a higher power, but Sunday mornings are likely to find us at the church of the NFL or, as Gina at What About Our Daughters so wittily puts it, Bedside Baptist Church presided over by Pastor A. Larm Clock. It is a shame that Americans want the spiritual lives of our political leaders to be public and one-size-fits-all, even if it means we force our elected officials to be hypocrites spouting platitudes about faith.

Barack Obama hasn't been to church in the last three weeks. I say, save the faux outrage. Most of us weren't there either.


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