On a bright Easter morning in Washington, President Obama and his family attended the Shiloh Baptist Church. Greeted by applause and a choir singing “Total Praise,” the first family couldn’t help but stand out in the second row pew no matter how much they might have wanted their worship to be intimate and without the trappings of the presidency.
"The Secret Service said, just be ourselves," the church's pastor, Dr. Wallace Charles Smith, told the congregation, according to the Associated Press. “This is a place of worship,” Dr. Smith added as he asked people not to take photographs. Obama declined an invitation to speak.
But in a job where the personal is always political, Obama’s presence at a church founded by freed slaves nearly 150 years ago was also a statement to those who question his Christian faith.
It’s not been an easy issue for Obama.
A large minority of Americans (growing in recent years to nearly 20 percent) say they think he is Muslim, the religion of the Kenyan father he barely knew. He had to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial minister who had been Obama’s pastor in Chicago for years.
Conservative talk show heckler Glenn Beck has dismissed Obama’s religion as “liberation theology.”
“People aren't recognizing his version of Christianity,” Beck said last year.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, who once said Obama “was born a Muslim,” has questioned the sincerity of the President’s declared Christianity.
Citing concerns about disrupting congregations and services with their security entourage, the Obamas are not regular churchgoers. And like his predecessor George W. Bush, the family has not joined a local church.
But Obama has found ways to emphasize his faith.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February he said, “My Christian faith has been sustaining for me over the last couple of years and even more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time.”
“When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord and I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people,” he said. “And when I go to bed at night, I wait on the Lord, and I ask him to forgive me of my sins and look after my family and the American people. And to make me an instrument of His will.”
On Tuesday, Obama hosted the second of what he said will be an annual “Easter Prayer Breakfast” at the White House, an event that included Christian leaders from around the country.
“I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason – because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection – something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective,” he said.
“We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work,” Obama said. “But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross. And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world – past, present and future – and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.”
There likely are many who dismiss Obama’s religious rhetoric as merely political, just as there are those who will never believe that he was born in the United States.
But as Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, “We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but that we are true to our conscience and true to our God.”