September 19th, 2010
04:36 PM ET

For first time in months, President Obama attends church publicly

President Obama publicly attended church Sunday morning for the first time in nearly six months, and shortly after a major survey showed that only a third of Americans can correctly identify Obama's faith as Christian.

The first family attended the 9 a.m. service at St. John's Church Lafayette Square, an Episcopal congregation about a block from the White House.

The Obamas - the president, first lady Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha - made the trip on foot.

The family sat a few rows from the altar, among roughly 40 worshippers. Each family member received communion, led by the president.

St. John's rector, the Rev. Luis Leon, preached on the weekly gospel reading, Luke 16:1-13, which ends, "You cannot serve God and wealth," in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

The visit, Obama's first public trip to church since Easter, comes several weeks after a major survey showed that a substantial and growing number of Americans believe that Obama, a self-described Christian, is Muslim.

Nearly one in five Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, up from around one in 10 Americans who said he was Muslim last year, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The number of Americans who expressed uncertainly about the president's religion, meanwhile, is much larger and has also grown, including among Obama's political base. For instance, fewer than half of Democrats and African-Americans now say that Obama is Christian.

The survey was conducted in late July and early August.

Despite intense media speculation about which Washington church Obama would join when he arrived in Washington, the White House has yet to announce that he has joined any, though the president sometimes attends chapel at Camp David.

Obama had been a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago until spring 2008, when he left after videos surfaced showing his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivering controversial sermons about the United States.

At St. John's on Sunday, Rev. Leon said that the week's gospel passage - known as the parable of the dishonest steward - was a call to "act shrewdly on behalf of God."

He said that the parable showed that "Jesus has a sense of humor... he also likes to shock us" and the extent to which "everyone has cut a corner or two."

After the roughly hour-long service, Obama chatted with Leon and the first family and strolled back to the White House.

According to the Pew survey released last month, most of those who think Obama is Muslim are Republicans, but the number of independents who believe he is Muslim has expanded significantly, from 10 percent last year to 18 percent this summer.

In March 2009, 36 percent of African-Americans said they didn't know what religion Obama practices. Now, 46 percent of African-Americans say they don't know.

"You would think the longer the person is in the White House, the more the 'don't knows' would decline," said Alan Cooperman, the Pew Forum's associate director for research. "But the 'don't knows' are higher now than when he came to office."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Church • Houses of worship • Politics

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