Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Unchurched President?

Should our President go to church more often?

Candidate Obama held his first presidential debate in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He worshiped regularly with his family at Chicago’s Trinity Church, until his fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright started sounding like an angry radical. But a recent news story on Boston.com headlines the President’s religion taking a private turn, reporting the family has attended church just four times in the year he’s held office.

The retreat from visible, public piety is drawing fire from some who voted for Obama on the basis of his Christian credentials. The Gallup Poll shows Americans becoming more tolerant in some respects, with larger numbers than in the past saying they might vote for a woman, an Hispanic, or a divorcee for President. But the majority still indicate they could not abide an atheist in the White House.

Apparently, voters want their Chief Executive to believe in God, or at least pretend to believe by warming a pew each week.

But one wonders whether the Founding Fathers would have ever been elected, had this standard been enforced. George Washington’s diaries, for example, indicate that in 1748, he spent 15 Sundays going to church, recording 49 days spent fox hunting, attending two balls, one play and receiving a reprimand from a Scotch Presbyterian acquaintance for spending too much time at the card table. In January the following year, he hunted on twelve days and went to church just once.

Shortly after being elected, President Washington was virtually “arrested” for not attending church, apparently detained by the local tithing man responsible for enforcing New England’s blue laws prohibiting travel on the Sabbath. Delayed and anxious to reach his destination in New York, he was intercepted on Sunday morning in the Connecticut village of Ashford and forced to halt. The President’s diary indicates that he used the interlude to rest his horses, but he found the tavern where he cooled his heels “not a good one” and the sermon of Mr. Pond, the parson of a nearby church, “very lame discourses.”

Some Presidents, like John Adams, attended church almost every Sunday of their lives. Others, like Jefferson and Madison, rarely bothered. But all of the nation’s first half dozen Presidents were enormously discreet about their personal spiritual lives. None would have engaged in the kind of “media spirituality” that voters seem to demand now.

Voters should judge their President on the basis of his economic policies, his ability to work with Congress to pass important legislation, and his strength in protecting America’s interests around the world. Obama’s church attendance (or lack thereof) is just not the public’s business.


yoshi said...

One forgets that Reagan was also not an avid church-goer rarely attending service while in office.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The historical facts as offered in this post don't exactly hold:

From Franklin Steiner's very unsentimental consideration of Washington's religiosity [1936]


and apparently part of respected Washington scholar Peter Henriques' class materials:

In 1789, he became President, during which time the Diary is incomplete, and it is impossible to account for all the Sundays. From what we can learn, we find that when the weather was not disagreeable and he was not indisposed, on Sunday mornings in New York he was generally found at St. Paul's Chapel or Trinity. In Philadelphia he attended either Christ Church, presided over by Bishop White, or St. Peter's, where the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie officiated. This was to be expected. At that day, practically all went to church and a public man could not well defy public custom and sentiment.

This jibes with my own perusal of the first year or so of Washington's diary.

I was struck at how often GW attended services, especially in his first year as president. One day, he even went twice! If Washington wasn't devout in private life [and he apparently wasn't, attending church irregularly, and not at all in later life], he seemed to want to set an example of piety as president, or in the least, it was apparently expected of him in those times.

As a matter of current politics, I happen to agree with Gary that in 2010, President Obama's church attendance should be a non-issue, and outside of maybe a few writers, it is.

However the historical support for Gary's point simply isn't there.

Anonymous said...

This is a well written post, and raises some interesting points but thank you to Mark Van Dyke for pointing out the problems with Washington's diary, it wasn't exactly a complete record. And who knows, maybe Washington attended so often as president to set that trend, or because of a renewal in his personal faith. In Mary V Thompson's book, she contends that Washington's church going habits were exactly the norm for the Tidewater Virginia culture he was raised in. Church was attended some days, but fox hunting was much more preferred.

I don't know that much about Obama so I don't have an opinion.

Anonymous said...

Should our President go to church more often?

I couldn't resist answering this. I'd say at least get the kids to go a little more than just four times. They're missing out on a formative part of childhood.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, Oprah, I'm not one of those who argue for George Washington's "Christianity."

Jonathan Rowe of this blog does a very persuasive job of arguing against preachers who write books like Dr. Peter Lilliback's "Sacred Fire."

His degree is in religion, not history, and his agenda is pushing his religious and political POV, not historical truth.

I like the 1936 [!] Steiner essay because it agrees with all my own research into the original Founding era documents. I've seen your blog and I think it's worth a read for anyone who cares about the historical truth.


It agrees with my research into the Founding documents. We shouldn't take history writers' word for anything.

So my point here is about Washington's public expression toward religion, and Christianity was all they had, since there were only a few thousand Jews and near zero of any other religion.

Rev. Gary Kowalski ["Revolutionary Spirits"] doesn't get the history right about Washington, religion and the Founding in writing his support of President Obama.

I just wanted to set the historical record straight. that's the purpose of this blog. We all have our religious and political points of view---me too---but it has to have some grounding in historical fact.

Gary slipped up here a bit.

Should the president attend church as some sort of example?

Washington clearly did, attending church more often after he became president.

Even Jefferson, the most unchurched of all the American presidents [in fact he was fairly hostile to churching], felt it was his duty as president to show his face now and then. That's a historical fact also.

But this is 2010. I don't think people really care.

Maybe it would be a good thing, maybe not. Bill Clinton was photographed going to church after the Lewinsky thing, and Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school. Reagan never went especially after the assassination attempt, and Dubya, a reputed Holy Roller, was seldom seen either.

I think it's becoming clear that if the president attends a service, Secret Service and security precautions are gonna mess it up for anybody who actually wants to attend a religious service.

So it's OK in this day and age to stay home, or hit the Evergreen Chapel at camp David. these are strange times.

Not that on special occasions, state funerals or whatever, the president should see attendance at church as optional. And that would be my point, I guess, even in our post-Christian age of 2010, that in times of national emergency, we Americans still turn our eyes upward.

On September 14, 2001, 3 days after you-know-what, President Bush, his father 41, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford gathered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

You could look it up, but here, let's save you the trouble.


So I hope this answers your question in some small way. The reply is a little long but your question is a little deep.

Phil Johnson said...

Every once in a while Van Dyke makes good sense.
The question Oprah raises here about children and Sunday School is central to what America is all about in a very important sense. It deals directly with what have been called Family Values by the ideological among us.
In fact, the entire discussion that deals with America's creation and Christianity is of great significance. We really owe it to ourselves to be open to discussing the issues involved.
From all sides.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thank you for posting this and not putting it in bold.

I have one other request. The font that you post under is not congruent with the default blogger font that the rest of us use.

I changed your font to the default to make the formatting look more consistent.

I'd greatly appreciate it if your future posts were done with the default font.

Thanks and I enjoyed this post.


Anonymous said...

Tom Van Dyke, I guess I misunderstood your intentions in a way but please know I wasn't trying to filter your views. "Sacred Fire" is in, my opinion, a bad book. It's written rather poorly, and I think he focuses on quantity over quality (there's no need to reprint those huge speeches in the back of the book just to make it bigger if it doesn't further the argument). I could rant more but I would take a while.

My question for you: have you read Thompson's "In the Hands of a Good Providence"? It's succinct but substantial. She's lead researcher at Mount Vernon and the book speaks for itself.

To Pinky: I am not an idealogue. I just think people should at least expose their children to the concept of church going (whatever church/faith that be).

I'm in a hurry so my spelling is off...

Phil Johnson said...

I am not an idealogue. I just think people should at least expose their children to the concept of church going (whatever church/faith that be).
Yup, That's a good point and why I responded as I did.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Speaking for myself, I am remiss to say that I haven't yet read Mary's book.

However, I have read her work on the matter, and parts of the book excerpted from other places.

And I like what I have seen so far.

The book is on my list and I hope to get to it soon.

Gary Kowalski said...

How often did our first President attend church? My references to Washington's diary were to the years 1748 and 49, not to his years in the Presidency, when Mr. Van Dyke claims the diaries were "incomplete." Based on those earlier years, his attendance could be described as sporadic at best. Later, as President, Washington was careful to attend services of every denomination, in keeping with his station as leader of a multifarious republic: Quaker, Jewish Methodist and even (in his own words) "the Presbyterian Meeting in the forenoon and Romish Church in the afternoon," recalling that during one visit to Pennsylvania he had attended worship at a Dutch Reformed church, "which, being in that language not a word of which I understood I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the Preacher." In such cases, Washington was no doubt setting an example of the open-minded embrace of the new nation's religious diversity. Yet even Van Dyke seems to agree that the President stayed home on Sunday morning whenever the weather was disagreeable or he felt indisposed. So I can stand by my assertion that his church attendance was rather haphazard.

Thank you all for your lively comments.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What's relevant vis-a-vis President Obama is his church attendance as president. Since Washington clearly felt he should set an example, your argument doesn't hold. In fact, the uptick in his attendance proves the exact opposite of what you were trying to say.

Nice spin on Mr. Obama's pastor, Rev. Wright, BTW, as if Obama left his church when he "started sounding like an angry radical."

Not so. He always sounded like one. You could look it up. Fortunately, most folks accepted that Obama had only cynically used the church to further his career. Had they thought Obama actually believed Wright's nonsense, things might have gone differently.


Oprah, I agree with you about Lillback's thesis. He's not a historian. I agree with Steiner's thesis, which is worth a look.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Rowe, glad to hear Mary's book is on your reading list. You will like it.

Pinky, sorry I misinterpreted you. Thanks for the agreement. ;-)

Tom Van Dyke, thank you for the link to Steiner's thesis, I will definately check it out. It's always good to get both sides of fence, so to speak.

Revolutionary Spirits, I have to agree with Tom on his point about the diaries' incompleteness. They cannot be the only thing to rely on. Washington was a busy man (!) and couldn't write every night, try as he might. That being said, you are right about his church attendance during the presidency, which if I am not mistaken Tom doesn't dispute (just the motivation behind it).

My argument is that Washington may have experienced a renewal in his faith, perhaps because he attended churches other than the Anglican one. Tom's idea of setting a standard is a noble one, but it is less sanguine in my humble opinion because it implies impersonal rather than personal motivation....just my "spin"

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oprah, I enjoyed your mini-review of In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington by Mary V. Thompson at your blog.


I just can't get all the way to your summation, that "All in all, this book proves beyond a doubt that Washington was a Christian."

It doesn't jibe with our numerous discussions on this blog, nor with my own looks into it.

Now Washington, the "old fox," kept his religious leanings secret, but when push comes to shove, I'd say his note to Lafayette that

"Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest and least liable to exception."

is his heart of hearts, that Christianity is fine for others, but not for himself.

Most interesting in your review was the report that

"He paid for the communion wine, he gave money for the building of churches, he went to church as often as was customary in the Tidewater culture, and read a vast amount of religious books and tracts. He prayed in the morning and at meals."

This is stuff I haven't heard much about, especially about his frequent prayer. If true. Still, I'd be surprised if he said grace "through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen."

It just doesn't sound like him, and neither did he have clergy in for last rites.

Still, it's clear he was genuinely moved to thank Providence as his "first official act" at his inauguration, and I'm not convinced he attended church more frequently as president solely to serve as an example.

Still, "Christian" is a bit too far for me to hang with. As, of course, so is "deist."

Anonymous said...


Thanks for reading the blog post I did. I just posted an interview I did with the author if you want to read that too.

As for saying traditional grace, I think I recall that a foreigner who once dined with Washington said only a few words. If those words included "Jesus Christ" in them is lost in time.

I'm of the opinion he was Christian, especially after reading that book. As you said before, Lilliback's wasn't good and actually jaded my view about the Christian Washington camp (so to speak).

Maybe because I'm really tired, but I don't know what to make of that quote to LaFayette. When I'm more alert I'll think about it some more.

I read your article that you sent in the link, by Steiner. It was well composed, and very well argued. I think, given that it was published in 1936, that it is outdated, relying primarily on Jared Spark's edits of the letters, which we know now were butchered. However, I will give you this, it does support your side very well.

Washington, a reticent man by nature, is an enigma to unravel!

Anonymous said...


If you want to check out my blog I posted some points I have about the Steiner essay. I had some coffee ice cream to get some caffeine in me!

I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom, from a socio-political standpoint, it's very fair to associate Washington with the Christian camp. From an orthodox, deep-down, "what did he REALLY believe" standpoint, his faith is more guarded and difficult to unravel. Though he's still closer to the Christian camp than the Deist camp.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oprah, sorry it took me so long, but I did reply.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Tom. No rush, everyone has a life to attend to!