The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sure is Easier Being a Catholic

One of the more interesting questions bouncing around DC these days relates to where the Obama family will end up going to church on Sundays. It would seem that the new president will have many options, and it will be interesting to see which he selects. The pundants are all waiting for him to decide so they can speculate on the "political" reasons behind his decision.

That's the nice thing about being a Catholic. Canon Law tells us to worship at our local parish, the one whose boundaries we live within. This, of course, is a law not often followed these days as many Catholics prefer to shop around for a parish that "better addresses their needs."

Anyway, here's the text of a column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal on January 16, 2009. It was written by Mark Tooley who directs the United Methodist program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington.


Where Will the Obamas Worship?

By Mark Tooley

Where will President Barack Obama attend church in Washington? Thanks to revelations about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC) in Chicago, Mr. Obama's church shopping requires more careful political contemplation than a new president typically needs. But his ultimate choice likely will be a noncontroversial church, suitable for young children, with a brief commute and tightly scheduled worship that gets the president back home early on Sunday mornings.

Even so, Washington provides such a wealth of opportunities that more factors than those will come into play. Mr. Obama's own background could point him in several possible directions. His mother, Ann Dunham, was a spiritual seeker drawn to many religions. Both of her husbands were nominal Muslims. Mr. Obama's maternal grandparents were Unitarians.

Mr. Obama's early Chicago activism took him to Trinity. At an altar call, he professed faith in Christ. Trinity is a black congregation within the nearly all white 1.2 million United Church of Christ. Although it originated with New England's Puritans, the UCC has mostly shed its strict Calvinism of past centuries and arguably is America's most liberal mainline Protestant denomination.

A UCC church in Washington could be a comfortable fit for a former member of Chicago's Trinity. Trinity's social liberalism -- on issues of gay rights and abortion rights, for instance -- is more like that of other UCC congregations than of historically black denominations, which typically are theologically conservative. The 2.5 million member African Methodist Episcopal Church, for instance, voted unanimously in 2004 to prohibit same-sex unions. Pastor Wright's flamboyant preaching style echoes that seen in many black churches. But his radicalized Social Gospel more resembles that of white mainline Protestants.

Mr. Obama seems to share the cool rationalism of the UCC's liberal New England roots more than the evangelistic and emotive black church tradition. Talking to the Chicago Sun-Times about his faith in 2004, he cited his "suspicion of dogma" and "too much certainty," and said he preferred a "dose of doubt" in religion. Somewhat deflecting questions about prayer, Jesus and the afterlife, Mr. Obama defined sin as "being out of alignment with my values."

In 2007, Mr. Obama addressed the UCC's governing synod. "Doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning," he told an enthusiastic audience of 9,000. Despite Mr. Obama's resignation from Trinity after the Wright controversy, John Thomas, president of the UCC, wrote to him after his November win, speaking of the denomination's pride and hope in the president-elect and offering him the "hospitality" of its congregations in Washington.

All this suggests that Mr. Obama could choose one of the UCC's seven churches in the nation's capital, two of which are predominantly black. Or, will he gravitate instead to one of the city's historically black denominations in a majority black city? Whatever denomination attracts him, will he choose a white or racially diverse church?

The guessing game has been going on for a while now, but it often ignores the importance of location and duration. Presidential churches usually lie within one short mile of the White House, and have short, one-hour services. Typical black-church worship is longer. Newly inaugurated George W. Bush learned this when he attended an exuberant two-hour service at a black congregation on Capitol Hill. Though he is a Methodist, Bush settled on convenient St. John's Episcopal, one block from the White House.

Time magazine has suggested that President Obama might attend the multiracial Church of the Epiphany, only three blocks away, noting that several members of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet worshiped there. But perhaps Time forgot that Confederate President Jefferson Davis was also a regular at Epiphany in the days before the Civil War. Now liberal and socially progressive, Church of the Epiphany nevertheless uses a liturgy that may seem too formal for Mr. Obama, accustomed to the UCC's minimal use of ritual.

So, how about First Congregational UCC, where Calvin Coolidge worshiped? Only six blocks from the White House, it was founded by abolitionists, is liberal politically, and has a multiracial congregation. But the old sanctuary is being replaced with a glass office building, whose ground floor will house worship in the future. President Obama may prefer a more settled venue.

If so, he could worship at Grace Reformed UCC, where Teddy Roosevelt attended services, just seven blocks away. The stately original sanctuary is now surrounded by a neighborhood of hip, condo-owning yuppies. A special room displays Roosevelt relics, and undoubtedly the church would like to add some artifacts of a more recent president to its collection.

A few blocks closer to the White House stands the imposing Washington City Church, which Lyndon Johnson frequented. Part of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), its nonritualistic, low-church worship resembles the UCC's. The church hosts annual rallies by liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, a strong Obama promoter.

Mr. Obama probably is not likely to attend Foundry United Methodist, where the Clintons worshiped (and whose then-pastor defended Bill during Monicagate). But nearby is First Baptist, where Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter prayed. More liberal than most Baptist churches, it has a female interim pastor.

If Mr. Obama prefers a black congregation, Asbury United Methodist Church, just seven blocks from the White House, promises a 55-minute, 8:30 a.m. service. Like Chicago's Trinity, Asbury is a black church in a 90% white denomination. But Asbury's clergy are traditional black preachers who mostly avoid controversy. And it touts a popular Sunday school that might suit Mr. Obama's daughters well.My prediction? Even closer to the White House is New York Avenue Presbyterian, where Abraham Lincoln's original pew still sits. In Lincoln's day, the church was nonpolitical and traditionalist. Today, its liberal perspective might suit Mr. Obama well. And sitting where the Great Emancipator often sat might provide symbolism and inspiration that are impossible for the new president to resist.


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