Obama is of course a Christian, but there are a number of excellent reasons why he should not join any particular church. There is also an important historical precedent: Abraham Lincoln refused to ally himself with any denomination or congregation, although he sometimes attended services at different churches in Washington. Lincoln, who was suspected by many of being (gasp!) a secret freethinker and religious skeptic, resisted considerable political pressure in his refusal to join a church. Obama, who is a believer, might choose to remain unaffiliated for different reasons.
First, Obama could make many Washington clerics (and their congregations) happy by gracing them with his occasional presence. Then they would have the prestige of hosting a president without the weekly headache of presidential security. And, let us not forget, the minister of any church that Obama actually joined would have to be constantly on his toes, lest the hungry press pounce on some politically incorrect statement in a sermon.
Second, although Obama is a Protestant–not a Catholic, a Muslim, or a Jew–he could still make non-Protestants happy by attending a service as a guest rather than a participant. Many religions that do not allow nonbelievers to fully participate in their services still welcome everyone as guests.
Third, why doesn’t Obama consider coming to a function sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, a rationalist think tank (for which I am a consultant) or delivering an address to a group like Americans United for Separation of Church and State? More than 15 percent of Americans consider their outlook on public affairs wholly or predominantly secular. There are many more Americans who belong to no church than who belong to minority religions such as Judaism or Islam. How about us, Mr. Obama? We voted for you in overwheming numbers, even though your pledge to expand faith-based social service programs worries us.
One religious institution I would rule out for an Obama visit is the Summum sect, now involved in a Supreme Court case challenging the domain of a Ten Commandments monument in a town park in Utah. The Summumites use mummified animals in their religious ceremonies. You are about to acquire a puppy for your daughters, Mr. Obama. I don’t think they’d like to go to services with mummified dogs.
Addendum: I don’t care whether Obama joins a church, but I have one piece of advice for him about the musical program for his inauguration. There is going to be music–there always is–and there will probably be songs mentioning God. Don’t miss this chance to include the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson. This song, once known as “the Negro national anthem” is familiar to every black American over 40 but is less well known among younger blacks and is virtually unknown to whites unless they were active participants in the civil rights movement in the South. My guess is that Obama missed hearing this inspiring anthem while growing up in Hawaii, but his wife, Michelle, would surely have heard it as a child. It speaks directly to the struggle, and the heritage of black patriotism, that utlimately made the election of an African-American president possible.