Exclamations of pain and disbelief greeted news that the National Council of Churches has given bonuses to its employees.
"How do they justify this outrage?" asked President Obama when White House Religious Affairs Director Joshua DuBois informed him of the NCC action.
Even before the President's outburst, DuBois had found himself the target of bitter criticism from Republican leaders in Congress.
"Why didn't DuBois do anything to stop the NCC?" asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia), pounding the podium with his fist. "And why did he take so long to inform the President?"
"Oh my God," said House Republican leader John Boehner, carefully spacing out his words. "The real question is what the White House knew about this and when did they know it?"
National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon sought quickly to clarify the nature of the bonuses.
"These are spiritual bonuses," he said. "Their value cannot be calculated in material terms."
Examples of the bonuses included additional stars on previously granted crowns, enhanced luster on old robes and eternal leases on heavenly mansions (of which there are many), Kinnamon explained.
"We don't hand out these bonuses to all our employees," he added. "Only to those we wish to retain."
Asked about the bonuses during an accidental turn into the White House press office, DuBois said they were small in relation to rewards handed out by other churches and their impact should not be exaggerated.
"The President is confident that his recovery package is supported by the American people, financial-wise and spiritual-wise," he quickly said before his exit was blocked by Helen Thomas.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the NCC extravagance could indirectly end President Obama's honeymoon with the Congress.
"Sure, the NCC bonuses have no financial value," McConnell said, "but their moral and ethical value is incredible. The fact that so many of our business and political leaders were morally and ethnically bankrupt is what got us into this mess in the first place."
It is "patently unfair to hand out these perks to NCC staff instead of to thousands of spiritually impoverished bankers who have no hope of ever seeing them," he said.
President Obama said he agreed the American public had a right to be angry at the NCC bonuses but he saw no Constitutional remedy available to him.
"The wall of separation between money and souls is guaranteed by the First Amendment," Mr. Obama said.
But the President, a United Church of Christ layman until his resignation last year from Chicago's Trinity UCC, said the NCC bonuses "don't make me feel good about moving my membership to a church in an NCC member communion here in Washington."
Kinnamon said the President "has the same right as all Americans to worship where and how they please," and he declined to release the names of NCC staff who had received the bonuses.
Even, so, Kinnamon said, "In the public interest I am asking those employees to return their bonuses, at least in part."
Asked for specifics, Kinnamon shrugged.
"Half the stars, anyway," he said. "And a mansion or two."