Barack Obama confirmed to Matt Lauer last week what we here at Time.com first reported in June 2009: the First Family is not looking to join a church in the Washington, DC area. The family’s main reason for calling off the search, Obama said, was the concern that their presence would prove too disruptive for whatever church community they did join. It’s a well-founded worry, as when the First Family ventured out to southeast Washington to attend Easter services at Allen Chapel AME Church on Sunday, those who had gotten advance word of the visit began lining up at the decidedly ungodly hour of 3:30 in the morning to score a seat in the 700-person sanctuary.
So instead of joining a church, it looks like Obama will have to create his own faith community. He made a start on Tuesday morning, inviting approximately 80 Christian leaders to a belated Easter breakfast in the East Room of the White House.
The event was billed as a prayer breakfast, but in reality it was the latest in a series of sectarian events the White House has hosted to observe key religious holidays. Last fall, Obama became the first U.S. president to attend a Diwali ceremony to celebrate the Indian festival of lights. The White House has also held a Hanukkah party, a dinner to break the fast during Ramadan, and most recently a Seder on the first night of Passover (although no outside guests attended).
Many Christian leaders visited the White House during the Christmas season for holiday parties, but according to White House aides, the President wanted to hold a separate event specifically observing a Christian holy day (even if it took place after Holy Week). The term “prayer breakfast” created some confusion, however, as in the past it has been used by other administrations for ecumenical gatherings of religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other traditions. In contrast, when Obama has met with religious leaders from different faiths, it has almost always been related to the work of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The White House is not releasing the full list of attendees at the Easter breakfast. But the names they did provide to the press are a careful mix of ethnic and denominational leaders, including a large number of African-American pastors who met with the president separately before the breakfast and representatives from Mexican-American and Korean religious communities. Other notable attendees included mega-church pastors Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Illinois and Joel Hunter of Northland in Florida; evangelical pastor and author Joel Osteen; progressive evangelical Brian McLaren; and the heads of the National Council of Churches, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and the Salvation Army.
In addition, the aides pointedly invited Catholic leaders deemed friendly to the White House, including Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, who ended up supporting health reform over the protests of the bishops conference. Pietro Sambi, the Papal Nuncio (essentially the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States), was also in attendance, although his was purely a diplomatic presence.
Several leaders, including Hybels and Sharon Watkins, head of the Disciples of Christ denomination, spoke at the breakfast event. But the most striking remarks were delivered by Obama himself. The president spoke for just a few short minutes and relied on a written text, but his words were the most self-consciously Christian he has uttered publicly as a national politician.
Telling the audience he wanted to talk about “what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection,” Obama offered a brief reflection on the Easter story. In the process, he delivered statements of belief that would have outraged liberal critics if spoken by George W. Bush in the White House:
We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him. We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection…. As Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered—by faith in Jesus Christ.
Obama has always sounded very relaxed when talking about faith—both his own beliefs and the important role he sees for faith in public life. He seemed less comfortable and sounded less himself on Tuesday morning. Or maybe it was just jarring to hear the president use phrases like “our risen Savior” and “the Son of man” in the East Room. Regardless, White House aides say Obama wrote his own remarks.