As the first streaks of dawn quietly announced the arrival of morning on Sunday, November 16, 1969, a 35-year old preacher from Ohio named Harold Rawlings had already been awake for a while after a fitful night of what-could-barely-be-called sleep in a room at Washington, D.C.’s storied Mayflower Hotel. He would in a few hours face a crowd punctuated by the most powerful men and women in America, assembled in the most unusual of venues for any clergyman – the East Room of the White House.
These days, most Americans have moved on from wondering about Barack Obama’s church attendance habits now nearly a year into his presidency. Some of this inattention is due, no doubt, to the swirl of events, but a measure of it is likely because Mr. Obama is demonstrating a kind of ambivalence to church attendance that has become par for the presidential course over the years (though with some exception, e.g., Jimmy Carter).
Most presidents have likely never read Theodore Roosevelt’s “Nine Reasons A Man Should Go To Church.” Among the things TR said was this gem: “Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in a man's own house as well as in church. But I also know, as a matter of cold fact, that the average man does not thus worship.”
Richard Nixon decided in the first days of his presidency to reconcile the ethic of church attendance with the realities of security and logistics during his time in the White House, by having regular Sunday services in the East Room. Of course, he was criticized for it. Some saw it as political grandstanding and others (many in the clergy) feared Nixon might be setting a trend for “stay at home” worship. Billy Graham noted, though, that in the early days of Christianity churches met almost exclusively in houses. So, on Nixon’s first Sunday in the White House, Graham shared a sermon, beginning a long run of non-sectarian religious services at 11 o’clock most Sunday mornings.
Rev. Rawlings had received an invitation, via the recommendation of his congressman, Donald “Buzz” Lukens, to bring the message during one of those services. But the preacher had to pay his own expenses to the nation’s capital, something gladly accomplished by his church, Landmark Baptist in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the lanky clergyman shared pastoral duties with his father, the senior minister of the church.