Why the Modern President Can’t Belong to a Church

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Correction appended, 12:04pm

The new internet era of politics has changed a lot of things about the way Presidents go about their daily lives. A stray comment captured on tape can instantly ricochet and cause havoc. Post-9/11 security concerns combined with the ability to find detailed information about virtually any location has made the already challenging job of protecting the President and his family even tougher. But the freedom to attend church and be part of a congregation while living at the White House may be the first true casualty of our new political age.

Last Sunday, the Obamas held hands to cross Lafayette Park and attended the 11 a.m. worship service at St. John’s, a small Episcopal church that is famous for hosting Presidents. It was just their third visit to a local church this year, and one of a handful of church services they’ve attended in Washington since moving into the White House. More often, Obama and his family have followed the lead of the Bush family, joining the congregation at Camp David when they spend the weekend at the presidential retreat in Maryland, but staying home on Sunday mornings when in Washington. In a poll last summer, two-thirds of Americans didn’t know that Obama is a Christian, a misperception that could be easily enough fixed if the President were seen trooping up the steps of a local church every Sunday. Three years into his presidency, though, Obama has clearly decided that isn’t an option for him and his family.

As recently as the 1990s, it was possible for a President to maintain a regular, low-key presence in a local congregation with minimal inconvenience to church members and no political downside. During his eight years in office, Bill Clinton and his family were fixtures at Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, a church that his 1996 opponent Bob Dole once attended frequently as well. Neither Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush were affiliated with a local church as President. However Jimmy Carter not only attended but taught Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of DC throughout his presidency.

Even then, it was not always easy for the most famous man in America to slip into a pew for some quiet spiritual reflection. When I wrote an article a few years ago about Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, I came across some research by the historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony on how trying past Presidents found public worship. “McKinley hated having people staring at him while he read Psalms, sang hymns, put money in the collection plate or took communion,” Anthony wrote in America’s First Families. “By the 1920s, getting a presidential family in and out of church was a production. Secret Service agents had to cordon off a clear path from the curb to the church entrance before the Coolidges arrived…[and] they were swiftly escorted to their third-row pew.”

George W. Bush decided early on not to deal with the hassle. Not long after arriving in Washington, he made a visit to the predominantly African-American Lincoln Park United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill. But after that, the Republican President largely worshipped with military personnel and their families at Camp David, and occasionally at his former church in Crawford, Texas. It was a choice undoubtedly influenced by heightened security procedures after 9/11 that would have made attending church with the President more of a complicated affair for congregants at a local church than the simple stroll through a metal detector had been for members of Foundry Methodist.

In 2004, John Kerry discovered that it’s not much easier for a presidential candidate to go to mass, especially when he’s under attack from conservative Catholics. When one outspoken Catholic bishop said he would deny Kerry communion if the candidate came to his diocese, it kicked off a particularly absurd stretch of weeks during which it seemed like reporters were all but trailing Kerry to the communion rail. One religion reporter dubbed the spectacle the “Wafer Watch.”

Likewise, Obama found out how political a presidential candidate’s choice of church can become in 2008 when recordings of his Chicago pastor’s sermons nearly brought down his candidacy. Jeremiah Wright, then-senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, was, like most pastors, not in the habit of biting his tongue. But when video of his more controversial and colorful statements hit Fox News, Obama was under immediate pressure to denounce Wright. By the time the episode was resolved, Obama had delivered a major national speech about the issue and resigned his family’s membership from the church he had attended for nearly 20 years.

It’s not surprising then that the President would be a bit wary about joining a new church. As Republican candidates have discovered during this presidential campaign, they are now questioned about sermons their pastors have given–even statements made by religious leaders who are associated with them–and positions that their churches hold. If Obama were to choose a new church, the congregation would be under a microscope about its beliefs and every sermon would be treated as a potential political statement.

Technology has only made this increased politicization of a candidate or president’s religion more acute and made it nearly impossible to worship in peace. Whenever the Obamas attend a historically-black church in Washington, people start lining up hours before the service, crowding out regular church members and jostling to get video of the First Family. Even at St. John’s, which is used to presidential visitors, gawkers have taken cellphone photos of Obama on his way up the aisle. That simply wasn’t a problem the Clintons had to deal with in the 1990s. Congregants might stop by to shake Bill Clinton’s hand as they filed back from communion, but no one would have had the nerve to whip out an old-school camcorder.

Nor would they have been able to listen to Foundry’s sermon via webcast or podcast. Compare that to this week, when it would take just minutes to cause mischief with the sermon Obama heard on Sunday. Sure, the Rev. Luis Leon made clear that he wasn’t delivering a political sermon–“This isn’t a political diatribe, by the way.” But if you pull out other statements, you could make it seem as if Leon delivered a sermon denouncing Obama and his supporters instead of a meditation on preparing for the birth of Christ. “We were expecting a messiah to be our President,” Leon said.¬†“We were creating an illusion about what was happening in America and we were going to be disillusioned sometime down the road.”

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.

Correction: The original version of this column stated that Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School at a Baptist church in Virginia during his presidency. In fact, it was the First Baptist Church of DC.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.

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