Holy BlackBerry! Obama Finds Ways to Keep the Faith During First Year in Office

Has the First Family's D.C. Church Search Come to a Close?

January 28, 2010, 2:28 PM

Jan. 29, 2010— -- If church attendance is one measure of a man's faith, then President Obama may appear to have lost some of his. The first family, once regular churchgoers, have publicly attended services in Washington just three times in the past year, by ABC News' count, even bypassing the pews on Christmas Day.

Obama quit Chicago's embattled Trinity United Church of Christ months before taking office in 2008 and has not formally joined a new one in his new hometown.

But sources familiar with the president's personal life say Obama remains a faithful Christian while in the White House, practicing his beliefs regularly in private with family and the aid of his BlackBerry.

"Barack Obama is a Christian. He's always been clear and unapologetic about that, and he's comfortable with his own faith," Rev. Jim Wallis, an Obama friend and spiritual adviser, said. "But I think the president, particularly a president, needs the kind of pastoral care or spiritual counsel with people who don't have a political agenda. And it's hard for a president to get that."

Obama told ABC Nightline's Terry Moran that his personal BlackBerry, which he famously fought with the Secret Service to keep, has actually become a tool of keeping the faith during his first year in office.

"My Faith and Neighborhood Initiatives director, Joshua DuBois, he has a devotional that he sends to me on my BlackBerry every day," Obama said. "That's how I start my morning. You know, he's got a passage, Scripture, in some cases quotes from other faiths to reflect on."

Keeping the faith in quiet moments of worship may be the best Obama can do given the realities of the presidency that make it nearly impossible to join a church without inflicting a heavy burden on taxpayers, fellow churchgoers and his own spiritual life, sources say.

Security concerns mean costly and complicated measures to ensure the president's safety on church outings, including screening every member of the congregation for weapons and sweeping the church building and areas around it for threats.

Incessant media attention is also distracting for any president trying to commune with God, exposing what is traditionally a private practice to public scrutiny, Wallis said.

"I don't think for them [the family], it's a political decision," he said of Obama's church dilemma. "I think for the media, it's a political issue. Where they land and get their nurture, care and formation; that's very difficult for the first family to find."

After Quitting Home Church, Obamas Improvise

The Obamas announced a search for a new place of worship in late 2008 after a scandal over incendiary comments by then-pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright forced their separation from Trinity, where they had been members for 20 years.

Days before his inauguration, Obama described to ABC News the "difficult time" of being without a church, saying that despite receiving daily prayers from supporters, "it's not the same as going to church and the choir's going and you get this feeling."

But weeks later, when the Obamas ventured to 19th Street Baptist Church -- one of the oldest, most historic African-American churches in the nation's capital -- aides say the family was shocked by the circus atmosphere surrounding their attendance and dismayed that some longtime church members couldn't even get into the service.

"It is tougher as president," Obama told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in his first year. "This is not just an issue of going to church, it's an issue of going anywhere."

Joshua DuBois, the White House religious affairs director, said last year that the Obamas "will choose a church home at a time that is best for their family."

It's now looking increasingly like their search may be indefinite.

Aides and family friends have spent months visiting various local churches on behalf of the Obamas. And on two occasions, the first family turned to an old presidential favorite across the street from the White House, St. John's Episcopal.

Every president since James Madison has attended a service at St. Johns, where pew 54 is designated as "The President's Pew."

President Obama also enjoys worshipping "fairly regularly" at the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, where the Rev. Carey Cash -– a U.S. Navy chaplain and great-nephew of singer Johnny Cash -- ministers, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has said.

"We've been attending church, there's a little chapel up in Camp David when we go up there," Obama told ABC News' "Nightline" in July. "There's a wonderful young pastor up there, a chaplain, who does just wonderful work. And the Camp David families attend."

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, also frequented the chapel at Camp David and ultimately chose not to formally join a church in Washington during his eight years in the White House.

Church Membership Not a Requisite, Presidential Historians Say

A president's not formally joining a Washington, D.C., church is consistent with precedent, historians say.

"For the modern presidency, it is not the norm that a president attends church regularly," University of Maryland presidential scholar Matthew Burger said.

Burger, who studies presidents, religion and public life, points out that George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, were both "frequent attendees" at local churches but did not formally join a D.C. congregation.

"Ronald Reagan stands out as someone who articulated certainly the values of evangelical Christianity but was a pretty infrequent church attendee," Burger said. "He wasn't a member officially anywhere."

Jimmy Carter, who joined First Baptist Church in Washington, stands out as one of the most prominent presidential church-goers. He attended 72 Sunday services at First Baptist while in office, according to records kept by the Carter Library.

"Whenever he could, when he was on the road, he'd go to church, too," Steven Hochman, Carter Center researcher and assistant to the former president, told ABCNews.com.

And the Clintons, who attended Foundry United Methodist church near the White House regularly but did not formally join, are perhaps the exception in modern history for first family participation in church life, experts say.

"The fact that Chelsea Clinton was able to be part of the youth group and sing in the youth choir and that all three of the Clintons could just drop in on a Sunday without creating too much of a stir really is a testament to that church congregation and may also have just been a stroke of luck," said Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap," who also formerly attended Foundry Methodist at the same time as the Clintons.

"I don't think the Obamas could assume they can do the same thing, and the Bush family concluded they couldn't do that in D.C."

Obama Keeps the Faith on His BlackBerry

Despite the challenges of attending church while in office, Obama has indicated that he has not been detached from his faith or faith communities during his first year.

The President told ABC News in July that he prays every night before going to bed.

"I pray all the time now," Obama said. "I've got a lot of stuff on my plate and I need guidance all the time."

Aides say some of that guidance comes from the president's faith advisory council of 25 religious and non-profit leaders who help the administration partner with faith-based and community groups in providing social services.

Rev. Wallis, a member of the council, says the council is another means for the president to hear messages otherwise preached from the pulpit. "I think he certainly listens to people of faith when we speak about things we are about," he said.

Obama and all former U.S. presidents professed faith in Christianity, with most men identifying as Episcopalians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Obama is the first U.S. president who affiliates with the Christian Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Speaking on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this month, Obama told a packed Vermont Avenue Baptist church in Washington, D.C., that faith keeps him grounded.

"I have a confession to make," he said. "There are times when I am not so calm. There are times when progress seems too slow. There are times when the words spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for not, that change is so painfully slow in coming and I have to confront my own doubt. During those times it is faith that keeps me calm."

ABC News' Sunlen Miller, Yunji de Nies and Russell Goldman contributed to this report.

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