• Politics

What Church Will President Obama Attend?

7 minute read
Amy Sullivan / Washington

Dear Mr. President-elect,

No doubt you have a lot of big decisions associated with your upcoming move to Washington. What school (public or private) should the girls go to? Who should be the new Secretary of State? Goldendoodle or corgi? But there’s also the little matter of finding a new church. When you resigned your membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in the spring, you said you would wait until after the election to worry about finding a new church home. But the moving vans will be pulling up to the White House before you know it, and I understand that with two wars and a crumbling economy to deal with, you may not have had time to focus on where to worship. So I’ve done some research to help you make this very important decision.

As you know, there are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a church. Finding a comfortable theological fit is key. Good music is important, as are activities for the kids. You don’t want to be stuck at a church with mediocre potluck fare. The old adage that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America is still largely true, but I’m guessing you’ll want to find a congregation that has at least some racial diversity. That will be difficult if you want to find another UCC church, which is, as you know, a predominantly white denomination. And let’s be honest: a top concern will be finding a pastor who is, shall we say, not Jeremiah Wright. (See pictures of Barack Obama’s family tree.)

Your predecessors dealt with church attendance in various ways. Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school at a Baptist church in Virginia while he was President. Ronald Reagan didn’t go to church at all, citing the hassle of making a church set up security screening for parishioners. The Clintons drove down the street every Sunday to Foundry United Methodist, where Chelsea sang in the youth choir. George W. Bush never became a regular member of any local church, preferring to worship most often at the chapel at Camp David.

I talked to a number of people who know the religious world here in Washington and solicited their church recommendations. At least two people thought that since home churches are a growing trend, you might want to start your own in the White House. A “Church of the Obamas,” however, might just fuel the messianic talk. But I think you’ll find some good options here, including a couple of intriguing — dare I say maverick — possibilities.

People’s Congregational Church

If you want to stay within the UCC denomination, the best bet might be this historic black church, says Ron Stief, the former director of the UCC’s Washington office and director of organizing strategy at Faith in Public Life. People’s is located in Petworth — a mixed-race, less-affluent neighborhood in northwest D.C. — and Stief says it’s very oriented to social justice: “They have a lot of international missions, sending members to Africa to do HIV work, for instance.” Though there is another black UCC church in town, Stief warns that its pastor might be too “far left” for the First Family — “I’m not sure Obama would go to that church after the experience with Jeremiah Wright.” The only downside to People’s: the well-respected senior minister is there on an interim basis, and there’s no way of knowing who will eventually take charge of the pulpit.

Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church

Burns Strider, founding partner of the Eleison Group and former religious outreach director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, says this church in Tenleytown might appeal to you. “Although it’s an old church in northwest D.C., the pastor — Rev. Charlie Parker — was once a community organizer. He brings years of not just talking about his faith from a pulpit but also doing it,” says Strider. The worship style and theology of Methodists isn’t terribly different from what you’re used to in the UCC denomination. And, Strider notes, there are a lot of children’s programs at Metropolitan for Sasha and Malia.

Metropolitan A.M.E. Church

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, starts from the position that whatever church you choose, it has to have a pastor who is the antithesis of Jeremiah Wright. “That would include finding a pastor who preaches on classical Biblical issues as well as contemporary issues. The trick is to find a thoughtful, measured, evenhanded big church. I suspect a place like Metropolitan would fit that description,” says Cromartie. The church is not far from the White House and calls itself “the cathedral of African Methodism.” As you would expect with an A.M.E. church, the congregation is almost entirely black. But more important, Cromartie says, it satisfies the goal of “just finding a noncontroversial, nondescript congregation and pastor.”

Church of the Epiphany

If you’re interested in branching out to an Episcopal church, Diana Butler Bass, author of five books on American Protestantism and an adjunct professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, invites you to try hers. “Epiphany is a downtown Episcopal church with a congregation that is fifty-fifty white and black,” she says, “and it has a full spectrum of social class diversity as well as a long history in Washington.” Indeed, several members of Lincoln’s Cabinet belonged to Epiphany, and it was also very active in supporting the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “It would be an interesting choice that appears to resonate with the new First Family’s politics and theology,” says Bass. “Plus, my 11-year-old daughter wants Malia in her Sunday school class.”

Washington Community Fellowship

Joseph Loconte, visiting professor at Pepperdine University and a former Heritage Foundation fellow, suggests that you find a church that is actively engaged with struggling local communities. That can be surprisingly hard to find here, where a number of affluent churches choose to remain somewhat isolated from their urban surroundings. Loconte thinks that the nondenominational Washington Community Fellowship on Capitol Hill has the right orientation. “It’s a church whose politics is difficult to tell and whose engagement to the community is real,” he says. Loconte also says you might look for a church that is involved with the STEP organization, which works with churches to allow their members to mentor at-risk public elementary school kids in Washington.

Memorial Chapel at Fort Myer

Flo McAfee, former religious liaison for the Clinton White House, may have the most original idea for you: the church at Fort Myer, the Army base just across the Potomac in Arlington, Va. “I grew up an Army brat,” she says, “and I think the Obamas could solve a lot of potential problems by going to a military chapel. They wouldn’t have to worry about security because it’s already on an Army base. It would fit in with Michelle Obama’s commitment to military families. The congregation is racially diverse, because it’s drawn from members of the military. There’s a special closeness because you’re with people who are focused on service. The preaching isn’t necessarily going to be T.D. Jakes, but you have some good chaplains. And they are people who are generally not controversial. They get and understand the challenge of public service.”

There are services for a large number of traditions on base throughout the weekend at both Memorial Chapel and the Old Post Chapel. On Sundays at noon there is a gospel service that precedes Sunday school. “There are always a lot of military kids who live on base,” says McAfee. “There would be plenty of activities for Sasha and Malia.” Given the number of churches in the city that are already lobbying you to join them, Memorial Chapel might give you the perfect excuse to avoid playing favorites.

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