(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
President Barack Obama did celebrate Christmas while vacationing with his family in Hawaii, but he didn't go to church yet another time. An unofficial White House historian says the president has attended church only 18 times during his nearly five years of presidency.
Obama sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base in Hawaii, but he didn't attend Christmas church service – "something they have rarely done since he entered the White House," says The New York Times.
The Christian Post noted on Dec. 26 that a brief description of the president's Christmas Eve and Christmas Day activities, as provided by a White House press pool report, didn't mention churchgoing at all.
In an email to CP, a White House media affairs representative did not indicate whether or not the Obamas had attended any Christmas church services recently, and said the information in the pool report was the only information available on the topic.
Obama, a professing Christian, has gone to church 18 times since January 2009 when he was inaugurated as president, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who is an unofficial White House historian. The number becomes more telling when compared with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who attended church service 120 times during his eight years in office.
The Times comments that Obama's faith "is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps - religious and presidential historians say - a more inclusive affair."
"He has not gone to church hardly at all, as president," Gary Scott Smith, the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, tells the Times. It's "very unusual for a president not to attend Christmas services," he adds.
Many have taken to social media to criticize Obama for not attending church on Christmas, highlighting statistics provided by Knoller.
"Along with most nominal Christians… Obama skips church on Christmas," reads a tweet by a Virginia man. "Just a side note here.... the Obama family did NOT attend church over Christmas..... golf, swimming.... got in the way," says another comment on Twitter.
Some are defending the president. "Obama hardly goes to church. Same as Reagan. I've always believed you show faith through practice, not attendance," wrote a man from New York.
Obama perhaps is not too different from other Americans in terms of attending church on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. A Pew Research Center study showed this month that just a little more than half of adults surveyed planned to attend Christmas religious services.
"I would argue that Obama's faith has been one of the most misunderstood of any president out there," Smith says.
"He's very conscious of the fact that this is a pluralistic nation," Randall Balmer, the chairman of Dartmouth College's religion department and the author of God in the White House: A History, tells the Times.
"The important thing to President Obama isn't where you worship God, but how you serve God by serving other people," says Joshua DuBois, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
But Balmer adds: "If the calculus is, 'Do I spend two hours going to church Sunday morning or do I get to watch college basketball Sunday afternoon?' If he had to choose between the two, and knowing Obama, he'd probably choose college basketball."
In his weekly address on the weekend before Christmas, Obama said: "For my family and millions of Americans, it's a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, to reflect on His life and learn from His example. ... Every year, we commit to love one another. To give of ourselves. To be our brother's keeper. To be our sister's keeper. But those ideas are not just part of our faith. They're part of all faiths. And they unite us as Americans."