President Obama surprised and disheartened religious conservatives this month when he discontinued the traditional White House prayer breakfast in honor of the National Day of Prayer.
But it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, because Obama was just being who he is. The prayer breakfast had been an open expression of who former President George W. Bush was (and remains), a devout Christian for whom prayer was (and remains) an important part of his life. In contrast, Obama is just nominally Christian, and like many Americans, religion just isn’t that important to him.
Obama professes to be Christian, but hasn’t belonged to any church (and has rarely attended any) since he resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago a year ago to end the political fallout over the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Of course, virtually all presidential candidates profess having religious faith, because openly being an atheist, agnostic or other type of secular humanist is generally regarded as politically risky. So all presidents have had the usual photo ops attending church even if their faith wasn’t all that strong.
During the Wright controversy it became apparent that Obama had joined Wright’s church as a young aspiring politician because at that time membership in that church was a political plus in the part of Chicago where Obama was seeking office. During the presidential campaign, Obama credited Wright to turning him on to Jesus Christ as his Savior. But disclosure of Wright’s controversial sermons derogating the United States raised questions about whether Obama believed what his supposed religious mentor did. In particular, on the Sunday following September 11, 2001, a day of huge church attendance nationwide, when Wright delivered his infamous “the chickens have come home to roost” sermon, how could Obama sit in the pew and listen uncritically? There is an easy answer: Obama either wasn’t there or wasn’t paying attention. For him, religion was (and is) just a prop. His views and attitudes were (and are) better represented by the secular humanist persuasion of the Democratic Party base.
Since the 2000 election that elected Bush, polls have consistently demonstrated that a voter’s likelihood of voting Republican or Democrat is most consistent with how regularly the voter attends church. According to exit polls from the past three presidential elections, 55-64% of voters who attended church more than once a week voted Republican, while 62-67% of voters who did not attend church at all voted Democrat. Starting this decade, religious affiliation (or lack of same) is a better predictor of voting behavior than wealth and income, which had formed the lines of political cleavage since the Great Depression. (In 2008, Obama won 52-46 among wealthy voters earning over $200,000, while McCain carried the $50,000-75,000 middle-class vote.)
That is not to say that regular churchgoers aren’t Democrats, because many are. (Former President Jimmy Carter is perhaps the best known example.) Nor does it mean that there aren’t any Republicans who never go to church. They are just part of the minority of their respective demographics, similar to the 37% of union members who voted for McCain.
Bush’s treatment of the National Day of Prayer resonated with his political base, and Obama’s resonated with his. Those hoping for a more tangible presidential observance of the National Day of Prayer should take note: Obama’s just not all that into you.