Presidential Piety: Obama’s Faith Is In The Public Eye Again

The New York Times reports that in lieu of church, Obama celebrated the holiday by singing carols, opening presents with his family and greeting soldiers at a local military base in his birth state, Hawaii.

News that President Obama did not attend Christmas church services has reignited a public debate over the president’s true religious affiliation. The New York Times reports that in lieu of church, Obama celebrated the holiday by singing carols, opening presents with his family and greeting soldiers at a local military base in his birth state, Hawaii.

To most Americans that probably sounds like an average Christmas -- except, perhaps, for visiting a military base. According to a recent Pew Research poll cited by the Times, 54% of Americans reported plans to attend Christmas religious services. That number is down from previous years, a figure consistent with a general demographic shift away from organized religion and toward less structured demonstrations of faith.

Some commentators find Obama’s reluctance to attend services unusual. Gary Scott Smith, author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, told the Times that Obama had gone to church “hardly at all” as president, and added, “It's very unusual for a president not to attend Christmas services.”

The Christian Post calls it “telling” that Obama has attended church a mere 18 times during his presidency, compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who visited 120 services.

It’s not the first time the Religious Right and its affiliated media outlets have criticized Obama over his Christmas observances; in 2009, the Post also reported that Obama had omitted church from his annual holiday trip to Hawaii.

The resulting furor from the fringe forced urban legend debunker Snopes.com to weigh in on the subject. It pointed out that Obama was hardly the first American president to skip church on Christmas. While it might be a stretch to call it a tradition for presidents to skip Christmas services, there’s certainly a bipartisan precedent.

But four years later, facts have once again been obscured by the public scramble to pigeonhole Obama’s religious beliefs. The question has dogged Obama from the 2008 elections forward. To the Religious Right, he’s just not Christian enough, and rumors about his secret Muslim identity refuse to die. In 2010, a Pew Research poll found that one-in-five Americans believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Obama is actually a Muslim. 

And the Religious Right has some strange company when it comes to questioning the president’s professed Christianity. Earlier this year, celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins told TV personality Bill Maher that “Like many people, I’m sure that Obama is an atheist.”

These speculations are, of course, directly at odds with what Obama publicly says about his faith. He has professed Christianity throughout the duration of his political career, and clear references to the faith consistently appear in major speeches. As president, he continued the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships started by President Bush, and the former head of that office, Joshua DuBois, acted as Obama’s long-term spiritual advisor.

DuBois, who still sends the president a daily devotional, told the Times, “He has a serious practice of faith even though he doesn’t necessarily wear it on his sleeve.” And if that’s the case, Obama has far more in common with the average American Christian than his foes on the fringe would like us all to believe.

It can even be argued that Obama’s version of Christianity, a less ostentatious version than his predecessor’s, adheres a bit more closely to what Jesus actually taught in the Gospels. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven,” the Book of Matthew recounts.

Strange how the Religious Right likes to ignore that particular lesson.

It is, of course, more than a bit lamentable that the personal religious beliefs of any elected official are considered so newsworthy. But as long as the president’s religion is in the public eye, perhaps it’s time to point out the American people, who elected Obama to two terms in office, might actually prefer his quieter faith.