It’s not surprising then that the President would be a bit wary about joining a new church. As Republican candidates have discovered during this presidential campaign, they are now questioned about sermons their pastors have given–even statements made by religious leaders who are associated with them–and positions that their churches hold. If Obama were to choose a new church, the congregation would be under a microscope about its beliefs and every sermon would be treated as a potential political statement.
Technology has only made this increased politicization of a candidate or president’s religion more acute and made it nearly impossible to worship in peace. Whenever the Obamas attend a historically-black church in Washington, people start lining up hours before the service, crowding out regular church members and jostling to get video of the First Family. Even at St. John’s, which is used to presidential visitors, gawkers have taken cellphone photos of Obama on his way up the aisle. That simply wasn’t a problem the Clintons had to deal with in the 1990s. Congregants might stop by to shake Bill Clinton’s hand as they filed back from communion, but no one would have had the nerve to whip out an old-school camcorder.
As recently as the 1990s, it was possible for a President to maintain a regular, low-key presence in a local congregation with minimal inconvenience to church members and no political downside. During his eight years in office, Bill Clinton and his family were fixtures at Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, a church that his 1996 opponent Bob Dole once attended frequently as well. Neither Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush were affiliated with a local church as President. However Jimmy Carter not only attended but taught Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of DC throughout his presidency.