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December 17th, 2012
01:16 PM ET

My Take: Obama's Newtown remarks show presidents as pastors in chief

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Presidents wear a lot of hats. They serve as commanders in chief. They nominate Supreme Court justices. They veto congressional legislation. Increasingly, they are also coming to serve as our pastors in chief.

In his remarks Sunday night at an interfaith service at in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama vowed to use “whatever power” he has to prevent more mass shootings, and he all but promised to push for stricter gun control laws in the next U.S. Congress. But policy was not top of mind yesterday for either the president or a grieving nation.

Obama began by quoting from the second letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians:

Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away ... inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1).

He then reminded us that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” The tragedy that visited Sandy Hook Elementary School could have been visited on any school in any town in America, Obama said. So Newtown’s grief is not its alone: “All across this land of ours, we have wept with you."

As a pastor among pastors at Sunday's interfaith event, Obama spoke of sadness and comfort and evil and inspiration. As a parent among parents, he referred to "caring for our children" as “our first task” as a nation.

Presidents are often tasked with posing difficult questions about foreign or domestic policy. In this speech, Obama asked philosophical and theological questions instead: “Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?” He then spoke, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, about moving through the darkness, without easy answers, “often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”

In his famous hymn to love in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote that "the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). For me, the most surprising turn in Obama's speech came when our president did the same.

"Love" is not a word that typically comes flowing off the tongues of our chief executives. But on Sunday, Obama spoke of love nearly a dozen times. In an uncertain world, he said, love is the “one thing we can be sure of."

Then he read the names of the 20 children who died.

Earlier, Obama had spoken the names of the six teachers and administrators who were killed. As he did so, the wailing in the auditorium was audible. When he read this litany of the children, the wailing returned. He read the names slowly. He read them surely, like someone looking out loud for a fallen friend on the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He then asked for the blessings of the Almighty on those who were killed and his comfort on those who are grieving.

It wasn't a speech. It was a sermon. And it is worthy of the talents of our current pastor in chief.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Bible • Christianity • Faith Now • My Take • Opinion • Politics • Schools • United States • Violence

soundoff (1,110 Responses)
  1. Michele

    CNN-You missed a wonderful opportunity when you did not televise the National Prayer Service. Instead of letting the people of America and beyond America witness a truly beautiful intrafaith service, you spent your time on air discussing a 'red dress' at length. You showed film of the same people coming down the same staircase we saw yesterday. You had a very long story about Prince Harry. But you did not show people of the world how beautiful and so simular the Faiths of the World are. You did not show how if everyone can accept that all people deserve the right to their own faith, that the world could be a more peaceful place to live. People of the world were denied beautiful music, viewing different faiths standing side by side praying togther, holding hands, singing and smiling together. People of the world were denied a wonderful and inspiring service given by Pastor Adam Hamilton. I am sure it was an inspiration to the leaders of our great country. But it also spoke to me in my little world about faith and pressing on when one wants to give up due to facing hardships.
    CNN-I have always looked to you to give the news of the world. However, today you missed one of the greatest chances to be a part of something so beautiful and inspiring for the people of the world, not just here in America. Today I am ashamed of you CNN.

    January 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Reply

    January 23, 2013 at 6:43 am |
    • Dan

      I like president Obama, I'm glad to know he's my brother in the Lord. Smart men like us humble ourselves before the Lord/Jesus Christ as is our reasonable duty, because He paid a debt for us we could never pay ourselves:-)

      February 9, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
  2. Mike

    If you don't recognize how disgusting it is that a president would be "pastor in chief", then you're a complete moron. The president is the chief executive. His job is to execute the laws of the federal government. He is emphatically NOT the healer of America's wounded soul, the finder of lost children, the tender of America's spiritual consciousness, or whatever other spiritual bull**** a "pastor-in-chief" would be.

    January 18, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  3. Christine Knight

    I find it strange that the so call christian who are always there to judge other and throw their religion around when it come to the matters that separate us but their moral voice seem to be lost where it is needed. I have been asking God for the pass months about the gun violences and my heart always get the same respond thou shall not kill. YOU all should be a shame to know that little children are murder and no one has step forward to remind us of who Jesus is and what he stood for shame shame .God is watching shame.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  4. Common Sense

    "I love Obama, hate Christianity and am willing to write frequently" – Blogger
    "You're hired!" – CNN

    December 23, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Eddie Vanmeer

      That would describe me! yeah

      December 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • wendy

      Really?

      December 28, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • anthonyhantonh

      That pretty much describes a CNN reporter. Love Obama, hate Christianity, Che poster in their loft. Yup, same old pot smoking libbies.

      February 18, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • midwest rail

      We have a winner in today's "stereotype hyperbole" contest. Well done, anthony.

      February 18, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  5. Common Sense

    Another fairy tale from Prothero...

    December 23, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Tom

      cnn cracks me up ith their uber lib obama daily lovefest crap

      December 23, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  6. Political will on gun control and sledge hammer fist on gun runners

    “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”=FALSE!

    A man in China attacked and 'INJURED' 20 children using a 'KNIFE'.

    A man in connecticut attacked and 'SLAUGHTERED' 20 children and 6 women and a man (himself) using (3) 'GUNS'.

    I wish people are not too blind to see the 'HUGE' difference.

    December 19, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • Common Sense

      You would have preferred him to use explosives??? Idiot...

      December 23, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      @Common Sense

      I don't think that when someone points out the problem with car travel they're advocating for railway travel, necessarily. It's dumb for you to jump from an anti-gun perspective to a pro-explosive perspective, and really, aren't bullets just precise explosions, anyway?

      But no, I'd prefer all people have much more access to mental health professionals than to firearms. I think that dynamic would be much better than the way it is, now. Just think how much more peaceful a place this world would be if we spent the money on guns an military might on healthcare and clean water, food, and clothing. Did you know that 10% of the US military budget would provide food, clean water, and clothing to 95% of the world's starving and dest!tute?

      February 18, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Saraswati

      @Common Sense, You have to really want to believe in your position to manipulate the example to that extent. Did the attacker in China use explosives? No.

      February 18, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  7. krhodes

    How about hypocrite and chief..or maybe liar in chief?

    December 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • krhodes

      *in* instead of "and."

      December 19, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Da King

      The Pres. did exactly the right thing. He read the words of Jesus, "Let the children come to me.... The right scripture at the right time. Well done, for heaven and earth. A slap in the face for satin, who caused the deaths. And fortunately for all....
      Unto us a Son is born, unto us a Son is given. Praise God for his peace and grace for all who can accept his gift of eternal love.

      December 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • old golfer

      Or spender in chief.

      January 10, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Yeah, satin is terrible, all smooth and junk.

      February 18, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Satin doesn't kill people...physics does.

      February 18, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  8. Salero21

    Pastor in Chief :-P really!! I don't think so! :-P That's as far as my appreciation, love and respect for him and his position goes. That's where I draw the line. No a thousand times NO.

    A pastor takes care of sheep, a cowboy takes cares of cows and bulls others take care of goats and pigs. There may be some sheep among his flock but for the most part, the nation is made-up mostly, in its immense majority of other animals. Beginning with the atheists who are worse than apes whom they claim to be their brothers. Who are always flocking to Faith blogs like this, to spread their ill will.

    December 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Reality

      A prayer specifically for Salero21:

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen
      (references used are available upon request)

      December 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Salero21

      Reality has lost touch with reality.

      The prayer of a Fool, of someone who is not a Sheep of the Great Sheperd, but some other sort of animal will not be heard by God. :-)

      December 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Reality

      Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

      Then, apply the Five F rule: "First Find the Flaws, then Fix the Foundations". And finally there will be religious peace and religious awareness in the world!!!!!

      December 19, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Salero21

      Reality,

      You are deep in the spider hole of the 5 F's of the Fuzzy Fools namely: Fabulist, Fallacious, Falsehood, Feeble and Falsehood.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Reality

      For those who want to find the flaws in the foundations of Christianity using many of the references used by contemporary NT scholars,:

      o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      o
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication– with appropriate review references for each.

      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter

      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      joezias.com/HealthHealingLandIsrael.htm
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

      Added references are available upon request.

      December 20, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  9. Reality

    BO as pastor-in-chief? Give us a break!!

    Forget what Stevie P thinks about BO, we can make our own judgements.

    Obviously, BO won the presidency on the backs of 35 million aborted womb babies and therefore is the leader of the Immoral Majority i.e. What BO can do to at least lift part of the Immoral Majority leader label?

    He says abortions should be "safe, legal and rare" but says nothing about the basic tenet of proper human conduct i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill. And where is BO's sense of indignation that abortions are not rare and that these acts of horror demean the Golden Rule considering that he says he is a Christian. And where is his sense of indignation that women who use the Pill do not use it properly resulting in an failure rate of 8.7% as per the Gu-ttmacher Inst-itute statistics. Using these and other Gu-ttmacher Insti-tute data, this failure of women to use the Pill properly results in ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year. And the annual abortion rate in the USA is?? ~1,000,000 as per the CDC.

    And do males use co-ndoms properly? No, as said failure rate for this birth "control" method is 17.4%!! Again using Gu-ttmacher data, said failure rate results in another ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year.

    The Gu-ttmacher Insti-tute (same reference) notes also that the perfect use of the pill should result in a 0.3% failure rate (35,000 unplanned pregnancies) and for the male condom, a 2% failure rate (138,000 unplanned pregnancies).

    Bottom line: BO is still not aware of the basics of birth control and still remains the leader of the Immoral Majority and will remain so until he becomes a true Christian and one who respects and protects human life in all its forms and who at least emphasizes proper use of birth control methods and the responsibility involved!!!

    December 19, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  10. Fungoking

    What is really sad is that the president would have dismissed the slaughter of these children with a shrug or a given a defiant defense of their slaughter, if their mothers had chosen to have their children ripped apart while in their wombs.

    December 19, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  11. SandyLester

    How so very sad Stephen Prothero that the spot light of your ignorance coupled with a void of reason is on the CNN site.
    Your family must be mortified at this exposure,

    December 19, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Common Sense

      CNN searches for the most controversial people they can find... Sad...

      December 23, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  12. Michele

    Regarding the death and destruction in Newtown, God did not cause this, the mother who chose to have the guns in her home, and the son who chose, for whatever reason, to use them on so many caused this. God took them all home because their bodies could not withstand the massive assault. Please do not give people the idea that God did this because He needed more angels in heaven. God is about love and compassion, not evil and destruction. My hope is that we can all reach out in peace and not anger to one another.

    December 19, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  13. nope

    You're kidding, right? Geez, Mr. Prothero, have a love-fest with Obama much?

    Do CNN writers have any ability OTHER than trying to place an exalted halo on Obama, no matter what he ever does?

    December 19, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  14. Danny V

    "I have read the Second Amendment, and I find no mention there of any right to possess any gun more advanced than an 18th-century musket..." – Stephen Prothero

    Of all the arguments against gun ownership, this is one of the most ridiculous. You will find no mention of computers in the First Amendment, either.

    December 19, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Danny V

      Sorry, wrong article. This website is messed up.

      December 19, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good point though. You have the right to free speech but you do not have the right to free blogging.

      December 19, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  15. tukcut799

    Pastors and chief????????????? what!!!!!!!! No way!!!!

    December 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  16. Concerned in Cleveland

    They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    Benjamin Franklin
    and Ben is always right, so if you don't agree, you are wrong
    and
    GYYYEEEEEETTTT OUTT!

    December 18, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  17. wjmccartan

    The president was dooing his job and he did it very well the other day.

    December 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Da King

      Amen.

      December 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • Tom

      He's in Hawaii again, that's what he does well. A vacation for a rich family, you know, ok if you're not White but up for venemous commentary if you're White.

      December 23, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  18. Tom

    God/Jesus is right exactly where society has told him to be.... Get out of our schools, get off our money, take your ten commandments too and today we teach our children that humankind/existence just happened by chance and that their is no God.............

    The truth is God/Jesus' is merciful to us despite ourselves....

    December 18, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • niknak

      The truth is, god/jesus don't exist.

      December 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Jeff

      The two of you are exactly why I'm an agnostic. There is no consensus.

      December 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  19. William Wilberforce

    God forgive us for our transgression and thy will be done .

    December 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jenny

      When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11

      Isn't about time adults stopped treating guns as toys, something "fun" to collect at shoot?

      December 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Rational Humanist

      Because your psychotic god loves to read comments on the internet, right? Good thinking.
      Cover all your bases are belong to us.

      December 18, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  20. Beleve in Facts

    Scientists have unearthed the first direct signs of cheesemaking, at a site in Poland that dates back 7,500 years.
    Human Evolution (1 of 2)
    http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIE2cHumanevo.shtml

    December 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.