Yesterday, while perusing through my Facebook feed, I noticed a photo that caught my eye. It was a picture of the Obamas speaking with the rector I used to work for in Washington. I read the headline "As the Obamas Celebrate Christmas, Rituals of Faith Become Less Visible" and wondered what sort of article this would be. I then read the New York Times article, which, in part, says:
But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.
“He has not gone to church hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.
Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair...
...Mr. Obama has gone to church 18 times during his nearly five years in the White House, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial White House historian, while his predecessor, Mr. Bush, attended 120 times during his eight years in office.The article then concludes with-
"Mr. Balmer put it more bluntly: “If the calculus is, ‘Do I spend two hours going to church Sunday morning or do I get to watch college basketball Sunday afternoon?’ If he had to choose between the two, and knowing Obama, he’d probably choose college basketball."After reading the article, I was left disgusted and angered, pondering the question "when did this become okay?" When did it become okay to keep a public record of anyone's church attendance? In a nation that seems to be up in arms (and rightfully so) about several breaches of privacy, these authors seem to have no qualms about prying into the private life of this particular Christian (and his church attendance is a function of his faith, not his political office).
What is perhaps even more abhorrent is the baseless guess by Mr. Balmer that the President would choose to watch basketball over attending church. The President is the only one who could make that call. When did making such an audacious claim become okay?
Matthew 7:1 says "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," while James 4:11a records "Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law." But these phrases appear to mean nothing to the article's author, Ashley Parker, who had to issue a correction nothing that several of the numbers originally reported were "off," or to many of those quoted in the article.
When did such haphazard journalism become okay? When did it become okay to judge the faith of others? When did it become okay to publicly condemn the private religious practices of someone? Now some might say that it's about race, and to be sure, part of it is likely built upon that foundation. But more than that, this article seems to suggest that we've forgotten what faithfulness is about, and what metric (if you can even measure that) is used to measure it. Though parts of the article suggest that Obama has a deep faith, when did it become okay to then, in effect, say "but let's take a look at the record and see if he walks the walk or just talks the talk?"
In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox writes of the earliest church- "what bound them together, however, was not an organization or a hierarchy, and it was not a creed. Rather, it was a powerful confidence that they shared the same Spirit and were all engaged in the common enterprise of following Jesus and making his message about the coming of God's Reign of shalom known to the world." In other words, if you were on the Way (the earliest name for what we call "Christians") then you were on each others' side, something some seem to have forgotten.
Faith has never been about how much money you give, how often you attend worship, how many prayers you can say in a day. Now to be sure, those might be signs of a deep faith, but they themselves are not the faith. To judge the intention, soul, or priorities of another person is extremely dangerous and myopic.
I have some unique insight into this whole notion of the religious practices of the presidents, at least as far as attendance at St. John's is concerned. While I never took attendance of the presidents, you of course noticed when they are present. To say that either GW Bush or Obama were "regular" attenders at St. John's would be a stretch. But I, indirectly, heard stories from them of the pressures of attending public worship- knowing that the media is waiting outside to ask you questions about policy doesn't exactly allow for a quiet and worshipful state of mind. Attending worship as the President isn't easy, as you have to travel with a caravan of bodyguards and police. I recall a particular Sunday when some visitors at St. John's forgot that they were at church and not in 4th grade and decided to pass a note to President Bush. The note was intercepted by the Secret Service, and while I don't recall what exactly the note said, I do remember that it wasn't full of kind words. Many presidents have chosen to worship at the White House, or at Camp David, or in places more conducive to worship instead of a three-ring circus.
To judge someone's faith based on how many times they have attended a worship service is not only a terrible way say anything substantive about their faith, but it is also un-Christian to cast such stones of judgement. When did such an open critique of one's religious practices become okay? When did confusing church attendance with religiosity become okay? Maybe it was just a slow news day. But either way, let's be clear- this isn't okay.