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President in the pews: D.C. churches offer Biden options

If President Joe Biden becomes a regular churchgoer in Washington, he will have plenty of choices.

Four Catholic churches sit within 2 miles of the White House. As vice president, Biden attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington’s tony Georgetown neighborhood, where the nation’s only other Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, frequently went to Mass before his inauguration.

Previous presidents have made a wide variety of choices – or none. Not far from the White House is New York Avenue Presbyterian, which maintains the pew where Abraham Lincoln once worshipped. Even closer is St. John’s Episcopal Church, walkable across Lafayette Square from the White House for the presidents who have made a historic practice of worshipping there at least once.

St. John’s was thrust into the headlines last summer when police forcibly dispersed protesters so President Donald Trump could pose with a Bible outside its butter-yellow front doors. But its status as the “Church of Presidents” dates to James Madison, and it’s accustomed to the special scrutiny that comes with hosting commanders in chief.

The Rev. Luis Leon, rector at St. John’s from 1994 to 2018, said congregants were very good about high-powered visits: “They treated the president’s experience of worship as they would treat their own experience of worship.”

The VIP presence nonetheless had its own specific effects on churchgoers’ behavior. Leon joked that, on days when the reserved “president’s pew” was occupied, the church “would get tilted” because so many congregants wanted to sit on the same side of the sanctuary as the chief executive, hoping to shake his hand during the Episcopalian exchange of the peace.

While Trump often consulted with spiritual leaders in the Oval Office, he never adopted a home church in Washington. He preferred private prayer, including with the Rev. Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia-based megachurch pastor who recalled at least 10 visits with Trump on faith matters.

Franklin said the outgoing president “always was so receptive” of spiritual encounters.

“When we first started meeting with him, we asked him, could we pray with him? And he was very open to that, very thankful,” Franklin said.

Former President Barack Obama and his family attended the historically Black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in the early days of his administration. But a competition emerged among the city’s houses of worship to attract the first family, and the Obamas ultimately never settled on a full-time church home in the capital.

Joshua DuBois, who was Obama’s faith adviser during his first term, recalled the search for a church as “a beautiful challenge.”

“On the one hand, President Obama wanted to worship as often as he could with local congregations, and to worship God and be in community with others in his new home,” DuBois said. But “we were acutely aware of the disruption of a presidential visit and wanted to be mindful, to limit that disruption as much as possible.”

President George W. Bush often opted to worship at Camp David.

The Clintons were the last first family to regularly attend church in the city. They became members of Foundry United Methodist Church, just north of the White House on 16th Street, where then-teenage Chelsea was active in the youth group.

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, then-Foundry’s pastor, said he would help minimize crowding by asking the congregation to remain seated at the end of the service for the Clintons to exit.

“Anytime he seemed to be a little sleepy I thought to myself, ‘Well, at least today I can serve the people of the United States by giving their president a bit of a rest with my sermon,’” Wogaman said.

After the November election, Biden’s churchgoing remained low-key.

He attended Mass nearly every week at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Delaware – a yellow church built in 1841 on land donated by manufacturing magnate Charles I. DuPont – less than five minutes by motorcade from his lakeside home in Wilmington. Biden sometimes went Saturday evening but most often on Sunday mornings, attending with his wife, Jill, or his adult grandchildren, though more frequently coming solo.