Why the modern president can't belong to a church

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.