President Barack Obama has gone to church a grand total of 18 times in the five years he's been in office.
Though a professing Christian for several decades, the only time he and his family attended a Christmas church service since leaving Chicago was back in 2011. For those keeping track of the mysterious contours of Mr. Obama's spiritual life, the "holy bump" from that rare event has long since evaporated.
Recently, The New York Times reported that instead of attending church services, the first family spent Christmas day at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay with members of the military and their families. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth on right-wing blogs about his lack of public piety.
Unless it is Ronald Reagan, who rarely went to church, or George W. Bush, who attended church 120 times during his eight years in office, professional virtuecrats get their hackles up whenever the commander-in-chief passes up an easy opportunity to "parade his faith before men," as Jesus contemptuously put it when he was quizzed about his indifference to public prayer and sabbath rituals.
God knows that even on those rare occasions when Jesus did make it to a neighborhood synagogue, he was likely to be chased off by a lynch mob for doing something "sacrilegious" like healing the sick on the sabbath. Taking a whip to the vendors and moneylenders at the Temple of Jerusalem showed a little too much irreverence toward the Almighty (dollar) as far as the religious authorities were concerned, though it did earn him a trip to Golgotha on Passover weekend.
Meanwhile, the spirit of those first century hypocrites lives on in the finger-pointing antics of contemporary pundits who critique the president's religious life -- or lack thereof. They're the first to suggest that there's something a bit "Muslimy" about Mr. Obama's refusal to attend a church they could thereby forever damn by association.
Mr. Obama, who has written extensively about his faith and spoken eloquently about how its precepts impact his political world view, also happens to be the most circumspect when it comes to public expressions. Previous presidents happily gave the people who care about such things the lip service they crave, whereas Mr. Obama appears to have taken seriously Jesus' admonition against thumping one's chest in public while praying.
Instead of parading his religion in an undignified perp walk to church every Sunday, Mr. Obama prefers to pray in private. While the precedent for praying solo and for worship with a small number of believers was set by Jesus himself, actually doing so is seen as suspect by those who believe the depths of one's spirituality is directly proportional to how much time is spent in the pews listening to boring sermons.
Given the controversy surrounding Mr. Obama's last church home in Chicago, it would be irrational not to expect any church he attends going forward to be regularly staked out by reporters from Fox News, bloggers and tourists looking for the money shot of the president nodding off. They'd all be praying for the Second Coming of Jeremiah Wright every time a guest preacher takes the pulpit, especially if he's black.
Why would any president want to subject himself, his family or his congregation to the freak show that is the modern media waiting to pounce on the first idea or notion that sounds unorthodox? Even when he attended Rev. Wright's church, Mr. Obama didn't show up every week. His family was much more faithful about church attendance than he was.
I'd rather we had a president who had the spiritual maturity and confidence to reflect on the meaning of Scripture on his own, rather than be photographed bending his knee so that the baying acolytes of America civil religion get their fix. I wouldn't mind it if he had no religion at all so long as he had a high regard for the U.S. Constitution.
Being perceived as "religious" only gets a president so far, anyway. Ask Bill and Hillary Clinton. They were regulars at Foundry United Methodist Church, which earned them zero credit with Rev. Jerry Falwell and his ilk, who regularly accused them of everything from drug running in Arkansas to murders of White House aides.
President Jimmy Carter continued to teach Sunday school throughout his presidency but was thrown overboard by conservative evangelicals who were hot for the twice married, non-church-attending Ronald Reagan. His wife, Nancy, was partial to bringing astrologers into the White House. Did anyone question their religion for a second? No? I wonder why!
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.