I Never Preached At The White House

The other day the local papers carried a picture of President Ford stooping to get under a rope barrier in Lafayette Park, on his way to Sunday-morning worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Of course as President he didn’t have to stoop. He could have walked around it, been driven, or had the National Park Service cut the rope. But somehow—accidental though it was—the President’s plight is symbolic of all that has happened since Watergate. He has to stoop to attend Sunday worship. In an earlier day, celebrated preachers would gladly have wrestled with one another in Lafayette Park for the chance to bring the Word to the East Room, converted into a sanctuary for presidential services.

During the 1969–74 era, President Nixon broke with precedent, and while the courts and other agencies were driving religion from public life, brought the church back into the White House. Celebrated pulpiteers, ranging all the way from Billy Graham through Norman Vincent Peale to Rabbi Louis Finkel-stein, filled the modest but imposing special pulpit in the East Room.

But what were the theologians doing? As usual, they were criticizing anything they hadn’t thought of themselves. If the President wants to worship, well and good. But why can’t he go to church like anyone else (as though he does anything like anyone else!)? And there is a certain spiritual rightness about having the Chief Executive occupy a pew with the humble and powerless (not all that many of them go to St. John’s, but the principle is right, in any case). After all, as Paul says, there is no respect of persons with God (Rom. 2:11). Why shouldn’t the President simply go to the church (or synagogue) of his choice?

Well, that’s what many of us ...

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