Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ask not whether Obama goes to church

Am I the only person who is really irritated by these unctuous reports from the Politico that President-Elect Barack Obama is not attending church on Sunday? Here is an excerpt from reporter Ben Smith’s dumb story:

As my colleagues Jonathan Martin and Carol Lee noted last week, Barack Obama -- despite undergoing a campaign maelstrom over his pastor -- isn't a regular churchgoer. He didn't often attend Sunday services on the trail, and--unlike Presidents-elect Bush and Clinton--hadn't been since his election.

This is the kind of reporting one would expect from the Christian Broadcast Network, whose editors and reporters presumably view less than weekly religious observance as an offense against God, and as a sign of moral depravity in a public official, but why is this presumably secular publication making such a big deal about it? I regard as an invasion of Obama’s privacy.
JOHN B. JUDIS, it is apparent, guards Barack Obama's privacy much more jealously than does the president-elect himself. I wonder what he would say about a press corps that treated President Bush with such extreme deference?

Obama, for one thing, made his own Christianity a campaign draw in his efforts to court both the religious left and elements of the religious right. Pictured above -- and here -- is a campaign flier from the South Carolina Democratic primary last winter.

Did Obama invade his own privacy? Was that entire aspect of the Obama '08 campaign something "one would expect from the Christian Broadcast Network [sic]"?

Did Obama's Christianity cease to be in the public domain once America cast its ballots Nov. 4?

Has George W. Bush's privacy been violated when commentators of a certain stripe blame his Christianity for every boneheaded thing he's ever done as president? Has Bush's privacy been violated by all the armchair psychoanalysis of how his Christian faith has intersected with public policy?

Indeed, was the Washington press corps way out of bounds when reporters noted Ronald Reagan rarely attended services?

IT IS TOO MUCH to expect perfect objectivity from any journalist -- mainly because such a thing doesn't exist. It is ridiculous to expect such within The New Republic's realm of "viewpoint journalism."

But is it too much to expect a little reportorial legwork . . . and a little intellectual honesty as well?

For example, let's look at the July 12 edition of Newsweek:
The cross under which Obama went to Jesus was at the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ. It was a good fit. "That community of faith suited me," Obama says. For one thing, Trinity insisted on social activism as a part of Christian life. It was also a family place. Members refer to the sections in the massive sanctuary as neighborhoods; churchgoers go to the same neighborhood each Sunday and they get to know the people who sit near them. They know when someone's sick or got a promotion at work. Jeremiah Wright, whom Obama met in the context of organizing, became a friend; after he married, Obama says, the two men would sometimes get together "after church to have chicken with the family—and we would have talked stories about our families." In his preaching, Wright often emphasized the importance of family, of staying married and taking good care of children. (Obama's recent Father's Day speech, in which he said that "responsibility does not end at conception," was not cribbed from Wright—but the premise could have been.) At the point of his decision to accept Christ, Obama says, "what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life—but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles—I found that powerful."

Maya says their mother would not have made the same choice—but that Ann understood and approved of Obama's decision: "She didn't feel the same need, because for her, she felt like we can still be good to one another and serve, but we don't have to choose. She was, of course, always a wanderer, and I think he was more inclined to be rooted and make the choice to set down his commitments more firmly."

After his stint as an organizer, Obama went to Harvard Law School. He didn't officially join Trinity until several years later, when he returned to Chicago as a promising young lawyer intent on becoming a husband, a father and a professional success. Around the time Obama was baptized, he says he studied the Bible with gifted teachers who would "gently poke me about my faith." As young marrieds, Barack and Michelle (who also didn't go to church regularly as a child) went to church fairly often—two or three times a month. But after their first child, Malia, was born, they found making the effort more difficult. "I don't know if you've had the experience of taking young, squirming children to church, but it's not easy," he says. "Trinity was always packed, and so you had to get there early. And if you went to the morning service, you were looking at—it just was difficult. So that would cut back on our involvement."

After he began his run for the U.S. Senate, he says, the family sometimes didn't go to Trinity for months at a time. The girls have not attended Sunday school. The family says grace at mealtime, and he talks to the children about God whenever they have questions. "I'm a big believer in a faith that is not imposed but taps into what's already there, their curiosity or their spirit," he says.

Amid the hubbub, Obama continued to try to work out for himself what it meant to be a person of faith. In 1999, while still in the Illinois State Senate, he shared an office suite with Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew. Obama peppered Silverstein with questions about Orthodox restrictions on daily life: the kosher laws and the sanctions against certain kinds of behavior on the Sabbath. "On the Sabbath, if I ever needed anything, Barack would always offer," remembers Silverstein. "Some of the doors are electric, so he would offer to open them … I didn't expect that."

Since severing ties with Wright and Trinity, Obama is a little spiritually rootless again. He lost a friend in Wright—and he lost a home, however tenuous those ties may have been toward the end, in Trinity. He has not found a new church, and he doesn't plan to look for one until after the election. "There's an aspect of the campaign process that would not make it a good time to figure out whether a particular church community worked for us," he says. "Because of what happened at Trinity, we'd be under a spotlight."

Nevertheless, his spiritual life on the campaign trail survives. He says he prays every day, typically for "forgiveness for my sins and flaws, which are many, the protection of my family, and that I'm carrying out God's will, not in a grandiose way, but simply that there is an alignment between my actions and what he would want." He sometimes reads his Bible in the evenings, a ritual that "takes me out of the immediacy of my day and gives me a point of reflection." Thanks to the efforts of his religious outreach team, he has an army of clerics and friends praying for him and e-mailing him snippets of Scripture or Midrash to think about during the day.
IF POLITICO is guilty of anything, it's not invasion of privacy. It's of not reading Newsweek.

Invasion of privacy?
Lay off the church thang?

Yea, I pray thee, Brother Judas Judis, giveth thou me a break.

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