Religion in Society

Obama Picks a Church... Or Has He?

| by Baptist Press

Is President Obama's new pastor a Southern Baptist? Apparently, it depends whom you ask.

Time magazine posted a story June 29 stating Obama has "decided to make his primary place of worship" Evergreen Chapel, the nondenominational church at Camp David which is led by Navy Lieut. Carey Cash, a Southern Baptist chaplain. The White House, though, denied the Time report, releasing a statement saying "the President and First Family continue to look for a church home."

"They have enjoyed worshipping at Camp David and several other congregations over the months, and will choose a church at the time that is best for their family," the White House statement continued.

But the author of the Time story, Amy Sullivan, is sticking to her original story, saying in a follow-up Time blog that "nothing in the [White House] statement contradicts my reporting." In her blog she also added an important caveat, saying the Obamas have decided to worship at Evergreen Chapel "for the time being, rather than join a D.C.-area church." The Obamas' search for a church has been closely watched by White House observers.

"[G]iven the intense lobbying by virtually every Washington church to score the Obamas as new members, this wasn't something the White House was looking to publicize," she wrote on her blog.

Cash is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and is commissioned as a chaplain by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. He served as a chaplain during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he was profiled in a Baptist Press article. He also wrote a 2004 memoir of his Iraq experience, "A Table in the Presence" (Thomas Nelson). The Navy rotates chaplains at Evergreen Chapel every three years, according to Time, and Cash began his stint in January.

The Obamas like the privacy of Evergreen Chapel in contrast to the spectacle at D.C. churches, which have been packed each time they attended, Time said. During an Easter service at St. John's Episcopal Church, attendees walking down the aisle for communion were taking pictures of Obama on their camera phones, Time said. At 19th Street Baptist -- where the Obamas attended before the inauguration -- long-time members were unable to get into church due to the number of visitors there to see Obama.

"The First Family won't have that problem at Camp David, where the 150-seat Evergreen Chapel attracts a congregation of between 50 and 70 people most Sundays," Sullivan wrote in her original Time story. "... Each week, regardless of whether the President is on-site, Evergreen Chapel holds nondenominational Christian services open to the nearly 400 military personnel and staff at Camp David, as well as their families."

Sullivan noted another stark contrast.

"If the White House had custom-ordered a pastor to be the polar opposite of Jeremiah Wright, they could not have come as close as Cash," she wrote. "The 38-year-old Memphis native is a graduate of the Citadel and the great-nephew of Johnny Cash. He served a tour as chaplain with a Marine battalion in Iraq and baptized nearly 60 Marines during that time. Cash earned his theology degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth -- and, yes, that means Obama's new pastor is a Southern Baptist."

But that doesn't mean Cash necessarily will become Obama's spiritual advisor, even if the Obamas do call Evergreen Chapel their home. Patrick McLaughlin, the chaplain at Camp David from 2002 to 2005, told Religion News Service he had "very little" contact with President Bush outside the worship service.

Unlike churches in D.C., Sullivan wrote on her blog, Evergreen Chapel is not a "membership" church -- in other words, attendees don't join.

"The Obamas have not ruled out becoming members of another church down the road -- what churchgoer would? -- but neither are there any plans for them to pursue that option right now," she wrote.