Throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry has been more responsible than anyone for getting notoriously secular political reporters through the doors of churches on Sunday mornings. Ever since a few conservative bishops raised questions about Kerry's Catholicism, given his pro-choice positions, journalists have trailed the Senator to church, breathlessly wondering if this will be the week he's denied communion. Some have even snarkily commented that his Boston congregation--the Paulist Center--is insufficiently traditional, calling it "New-Agey." What they haven't done is take up the task of following President George W. Bush to his home church. That's because of one small problem: He doesn't have one. Frankly, I don't give a hoot if Bush goes to church. Anyone who has spent much time with an assortment of religious people knows that frequent church attendance doesn't necessarily make you a good person and that plenty of highly moral people never attend church. But if reporters are going to spill plenty of ink each and every Sunday on the church activities of one candidate, then they had better do the same for his opponent. Particularly if that opponent has staked much of his domestic agenda on the argument that civil society--and particularly religious congregations--holds the key to solving social problems. I think it's perfectly relevant and fair to ask why a man with such firm convictions about the power of religious congregations doesn't belong to a congregation himself, though he may drop in on services at places like St. John's Episcopal Church (near the White House) from time to time. Why doesn't he? Among the reasons I've been given is that the security precautions would be too onerous. This, it should be noted, is the exact same excuse Ronald Reagan proffered for not attending church at all during his time in Washington. And I'd almost buy it, if not for the fact that for several years in the late 1990s, I attended Foundry Methodist Church when the Clintons were members there and found that it took all of an extra five seconds to pass through the metal detectors and enter the church. Parishioners were not outnumbered by tourists (and, in any case, we were happy that they were in church, no matter what the reason) and the Clintons played an active role in the life of the church, with Chelsea particularly involved in the choir and youth group while she was still in town. Okay, Bush's defenders say, but even if he did go to church, it's tough for a president to be really involved with a congregation. He is, after all, running the free world. But, then again, he has spent almost 500 days on vacation over the past four years. You'd think some of that time could have been devoted to planning the next church social or sitting in on mission board meetings. Jimmy Carter found time to teach Sunday School at a local Baptist church while he was president.
Fellowship is an incredibly important part of being a Christian. It's part of the reason why, even as I moved through various denominations on my way from recovering Baptist to newly-minted Episcopalian, I could never be satisfied with a simply private faith between me and God. The implied and often explicit responsibility for each other that undergirds congregational life is at the heart of Bush's faith-based policy agenda. If reporters are going to do everything short of inspect John Kerry's molars for evidence of any unswallowed Host, the least they can do is devote one article to the church life of our most vocally religious president.