The late Phyllis Tickle, doyenne of writers about religious publishing, has a warm place in my heart for her 1997 book, "God-Talk in America." (And, yes, it's partly because she said something nice about one of my books therein.)
But when we consider "God-talk" today, much of that discussion must center on President Donald Trump and his administration. A nearly infinite number of pixels have been spilled in the analysis of Trump's references to faith versus the rather coarse lifestyle he embraced in his pre-campaign days. I am sure armies of reporters are checking into any current rumors.
Now, as we approach the 100-day mark of the new administration, Politico jumps into the God-talk arena, asking, "Has Trump found religion in the Oval Office?" Here's the opening:
President Donald Trump has increasingly infused references to God into his prepared remarks -- calling on God to bless all the world after launching strikes in Syria, asking God to bless the newest Supreme Court justice, invoking the Lord to argue in favor of a war on opioids.
He's also taken other steps to further cultivate a Christian right that helped elect him, granting new levels of access to Christian media and pushing socially conservative positions that don't appear to come naturally to him.
One of the first interviews Trump sat for as president was with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody.
“I’ve always felt the need to pray,” Trump said in that late-January interview. “The office is so powerful that you need God even more because your decisions are no longer, ‘Gee I’m going to build a building in New York.’ … These are questions of massive, life-and-death.”
“There’s almost not a decision that you make when you’re sitting in this position that isn’t a really life-altering position,” Trump added. “So God comes into it even more so.”
But don't let the semi-friendly tone fool you, gentle reader.
Politico echoes much of the media in contrasting Trump's words with his alleged non-deeds: POTUS was "a businessman who was known more as a playboy than a practitioner of faith," they note, and -- wait for it! -- he doesn't attend church services regularly, though he did make an appearance at a nearby Episcopal congregation in Florida on Easter Sunday:
But there’s no public knowledge of any other church services Trump has attended, and if he has, it has been without the knowledge of White House pool reporters.
The White House did not respond to questions about whether Trump has been attending church as president.
Politico's Matt Nussbaum, apparently eager to dish on the contrasts in Trump's God-talking versus his life, neglects to provide much-needed context, even from his own organization. President Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, shied away from church attendance, too, but according to a 2014 Politico report, in the heart of 44's second term, that wasn't such a terrible thing:
President Barack Obama rarely goes to church and has spent just one Christmas morning of his presidency in the pews.
But that’s not for lack of faith, members of his small circle of religious confidants say. While church isn’t a regular part of Obama’s life, prayer and reflection are, whether he’s meeting with ministers in the Oval Office or spending a few minutes reading an inspirational passage. And, if anything, they argue, his connection with God has intensified during his time in the White House.
There couldn't possibly be any sort of double-standard here, could there? At the end of 2014, the lack of church attendance by a president was No Big Deal. Now, less than three years later and, again, less than 100 days into his administration, Trump is proving some sort of hypocrite, or worse, for not showing up in church each and every Sunday.
Nothing to see here, folks, just move along! Then again, Obama didn't owe his presidency, in large part, to a tsunami of white evangelical Protestants (about half of which truly wanted to vote for him).
In contrast to Politico's take, the Associated Press, in a widely circulated pre-Easter story, notes there might be a good reason why the self-described "down the middle of the road" Presbyterian wouldn't rush over to one of his denomination's outposts for a Sunday respite:
"Churches in D.C. tend, not all, but tend to be a little more liberal. It's a hard sell," said the Rev. Roger Gench, the senior pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House. He said his church has not reached out to Trump, though all are welcome.
"The policies of Trump are counter to the views of most of the people in the church," he said.
By framing Trump's invocations-versus-attendance as something new and unusual, the current Politico report ignores not only their own previous reporting but also omits vital context. If I knew that a congregation wouldn't welcome me as a worshiper and might even shun me -- the clear implication of the Gench's comments about "most" of his congregants' views -- why would I bother showing up?
Moreover, there's tradition to consider. The AP story correctly notes that President Bill Clinton "frequented a Methodist church" in the District. But that's the exception in the past 17 years. President George W. Bush, also less-than-popular with some in Washington, routinely opted -- with post-9/11 security -- for a chapel service at the White House or Camp David. The Obamas were expected to join a local congregation but never did.
Part of this may reflect the radically different world we've seen since the 1970s when President Jimmy Carter was known for teaching Sunday School classes. There's way more in terms of security concerns to factor in, and it's just easier for a President to have a preacher come to the First Family, even if it misses a nice photo op.
But you won't know that from just reading this latest Politico report, which seeks to make much of a Washington newcomer's behavior without any context or clarity.