In Wake of Rev. Wright, Obama Seeks New Church

In picking church, Obamas will weigh political, religious and personal feelings.

November 21, 2008, 6:39 PM

Nov. 24, 2008— -- Come Jan. 20, Barack Obama knows the house in which he and his family will live, but he has yet to decide at which house of worship they will pray.

Within steps from the White House, the Obamas can choose from a bevy of churches, each offering reasons to be selected, from historic connections to the presidency to historic connections to the African-American community.

Anywhere the Obamas choose to worship, observers told, will likely be scrutinized for a political message.

The Obama transition staff would not comment on which church the family was considering or when it would announce a decision.

Shaun Casey, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and an advisor on religious outreach to Obama during the campaign, said the Obamas had yet to make a decision.

"They have not made a decision. I have no idea what the time frame will be," Casey said.

Former President Jimmy Carter belonged to a Baptist church in Washington and taught Sunday school in Virginia.

The Clintons attended church a mile away from the White House where their daughter Chelsea belonged to a youth group.

Both presidents Bush were members at St. John's Episcopal Church, a short walk from the White House, though the current president more often attends services at Camp David than in Washington.

Obama's selection will perhaps be scrutinized more than that of any other recent president, given the attention paid during the election to his faith and his relationship to his former pastor, the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama left Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago last spring, when inflammatory comments made by Wright, who had been Obama's religious mentor for 20 years, became an issue during the campaign.

Obama has attended church sparingly in the past several months, and since winning the election has spent his Sunday mornings at the gym.

"I think he has to use some discretion because of Rev. Wright, and carefully consider where he and his family choose to attend," said pastor Ronald Braxton of the historically black Metropolitan AME Church, located six blocks from the White House.

Where Obama and His Family Choose to Worship

"President-elect Obama and his family should choose to worship wherever they want, wherever they feel most comfortable," Braxton said. "But of course, people will try to interpret their decision to see if he and his family are trying to send a message."

Braxton said Metropolitan AME had not sent an official invitation to the first family, but that his congregation of 2,000 has a "welcoming spirit and would certainly welcome the first family." Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a member and was eulogized at Metropolitan, and today, prominent black Washington insiders, including Clinton associate Vernon Jordan and former Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, are members of the church.

Obama has spoken frequently about the importance of his Christian faith. In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote that "the historically black church offered me a second insight: that faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts, or that you relinquish your hold on this world. ... You needed to come to church precisely because you were of this world, not apart from it."

But there is no guarantee that the Obamas will choose an historically black church, and perhaps, instead, they'll pick a more diverse congregation.

"There are some in the African-American community who want to ghettoize him and want to pick a church and other things for him and his family," said activist and preacher the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"He should pick a church that is comfortable for him and his family," Sharpton said. "He should take into consideration more what church he wants to raise his children in than making a political or social statement."

The Clintons regularly attended Foundry United Methodist Church, about a mile from the White House. Bill Clinton is a Southern Baptist. His wife Sen. Hillary Clinton, however, is a Methodist.

Though there has been speculation that the Obamas will select a church before the inauguration on Jan. 20, the Clintons did not attend their first service at Foundry until March, recalled the church's then-pastor, Phil Wogaman.

"We didn't have any advance warning that the Clintons would be attending that morning," Wogaman said. "The Sunday they arrived, it was bitter cold and Washington was walloped by a record snowfall. There were just a handful of people there, and in walked the Clintons. They had walked a mile from the White House in the snow. They looked a little bedraggled, but settled right in. The press and the Secret Service comprised half the congregation that day."

Different Denominations and Congregations

Wogaman, who served as one of Clinton's three "spiritual advisors" in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, said the biggest issue for congregants were the metal detectors set up by the Secret Service on days the first family attended church.

Trinity, Obama's old church in Chicago, is associated with the United Church of Christ, a predominately white mainline Protestant denomination. It has several churches in Washington, some with mostly black congregations.

"Ironically, Wright belonged to the United Church of Christ, a middle-of-the-road white denomination," said Sharpton. "The Wright situation must be something on his mind when looking for a church, but I don't know what his thinking is.

"The truth is, it's a new age in America and in America's churches," Sharpton added. "What were once white churches are now mixed. And what were once black churches are now mixed."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events