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.
Seeing each of the religious leaders get their turn at the podium last night, part of me considered whether or not a non-believer should have been represented among them. I decided it was probably unnecessary unless one of the family members requested it, and it might have been unsettling to some.
But that led me to think: what might a nonreligious leader say that might be comforting and appropriate? Is there anything? I imagined something along the lines of Carl Sagan's moving reminders that we are all literally stardust, that we are each fantastically beautiful compositions of the same atoms that were present at the beginning of time, and will be there at the end. Further, biologically, our energy and our matter are borrowed, but are themselves eternal and will be reborn in in the living beauty of the trees and sprouts and new babies of all organisms around us. Our loved ones are indeed immortal, and they persist among us in the colors and songs of every songbird, and in the beauty of every flower that blooms. They are truly eternal in matter, energy, and life.
Not that I begrudge anyone the solace of their beliefs in a time like this, but maybe someday voices (voices that can phrase all of this better than I have) will be included that express a hope that is an alternative to supernatural beliefs, and perhaps – because it is demonstrably true – more satisfying than faith.
It is the faith in the glory and the One who is that space, and nothing is above it or below it, to its left or right – that space within which stardust was created and within time became known that we believe in and find our peace and purpose as eternal.
Rufus, as a believer, I find your words very comforting and cannot imagine why anyone would take offense at what you have offered. Many times part of the grief we experience comes from the idea of a person being "gone" forever. The beings that were those children, whether soul or particles, lives on forever in another way, and can never be really lost. We may not have them to hold in this life, but perhaps in the next life or in whatever way we may meet again.
I think you composed it perfectly. Thank you -
Comments please .....
Obama quotes scripture and calls on God but every day through his politics he tries to eliminate Him from our lives. Hypocrite.
Haha EBG, this is the best comment here. Obama has tried harder than any other president to remove god from the American political and cultural landscape and now "Stephen Prothero" says hes pastor in chief, what a joke we've become.
" . .but every day through his politics he tries to eliminate Him from our lives."
I think you need to elaborate on that. In what way is the President eliminating "Him"?
Blah blah blah, malcontent chatter, etc. Go away.
Even in the face of the end of innocence being mourned we can find a hater in waiting trying to bring make a political point. Best let your little mind rest for a day or so, and let the nation grieve in peace.
You criticize the President for not invoking God, then criticize him for doing it.
How so,does the president try to eliminate IT/HIM/HER?How?
If we regarded "love" the way the President wishes, then mentally ill people wouldn't feel the need to do these things.
Don't so many of you realize you're missing the point. Obama did the appropriate thing as the leader of this nation during such an unspeakable tragedy. How could he not go there and speak to these people as both a human and the leader of the USA. And he appropriately didn't show up to push policy, views or beliefs. As our leader, and he is our elected leader, he showed up to offer encouraging, spiritual words of faith and guidance in an effort to bring us together, to make us better and stronger. The speach, regardless of the sources of his quotes, were thoughtful and, I feel, universal for all religions. They were about faith, love and spirituality; the morals and core of any religion. I am not Catholic/Christian and I don't care that he mentioned Jesus, because that was not the focus of his words. He should up as the leadr of a nation to help with the healing process, not to push any agenda. If you think he did or don't understand that, you just don't get it.
True, but one has to question his morality in his remarks, remember, this president did not take his oath on the bible.
buck, you idiot, he used Lincoln's bible
Looks like CNN is censoring anything against this president!
Are you aware of the automatic word filter, which flags certain letter combinations?
Al, please secede from the Union.
Just in case this is the problem... and for others who may be getting frustrated:
Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, sopho-more, etc.
ho-oters…as in sho-oters
ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
p-orn… as in p-ornography
pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
sm-ut…..as in transm-utation
sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, t-itle, ent-ity, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, salt-water, etc.
va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).
There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.
no, but we others push the report abuse button to ask them to remove you
What we can do is pray for this lost president!!
You are one sad human being Al.
Yep. Prayer always works. Every prayer is answered. Every prayer is answered thusly: "Your call cannot be completed as dialed... please hang up and try again".
Yall are so stupid!!!!!
Maybe when God decides it's your turn, or your child's turn, you won't be so ignorant then.
So god decided these kids should be blown away by a maniac.Some god-some DECISION...Some belief system.
I'm not an Obama fan.
However, I thought his address last night was the right tone, sentiment, feeling, and conviction for a grieving nation.
Thank you President Obama for delivering the right address at the right time.
Thank you for having a decent response.
If you really want to thank the President, don't bother posting it here – Go to the whitehouse.gov website and do it direct.
Obama's a good salesman! This whole scenario shows the conditional product of what Secular Humanism is producing from the school system. Once again, their looking at the apparatus(guns), and not the real problem. The source of the problem? The Heart! A person filled with good things doesn't do this kind a thing or anything even like this. While Americans sit back and watch the Kids fill themselves with Violent Games, Violent Movies, Violent Music, Violent Sports, etc, and then think that Kids will turn out good??? You've got to be kidding me! If it's not guns, it'll be a Knife as it was in China! Let's get to the root of the problem, and not point at the instruments! Guns don't kill, People kill! Knives don't kill, People kill! Bombs don't kill, people kill! Societal Bandages don't work! Time to change back to what works! Jesus Christ!
People kill, and the knives and guns are what enable them to do it–quite easily. Remind me to stay the F away from whatever Church you report to lead.
You are an idiot. The gunman's Heart did not kill a single person, bullets from an automatic rifle did.
Yes President Obama is such a kind man – for all of my fellow donkey Democrats out there – how many children have been killed by Drone Strikes since Obama took office? Way more than in Connecticut!
Yes, we get what your platform is. Congrats. You are awesome. So politically savvy. Great timing. Fuck off.
Obama's the right kind of Christian.
Seems your kind believes in abortion. God's kind doesn't !!
Really Robert? How sad. God does not care what religion you are-God loves all mankind regardless of their brand of religion and those people killed were His beloved children. No one has to be the "Right kind of Christian". Anyone who grieves at the loss of a single soul by violence is the "Right kind of child of God".
Religion is not necessary to feel badly and grieve for these kids and their families.
Are you kidding? I have never heard so many misrepresented and out of context scripture passages as Obama's speech last night! Real pastors do not throw out sound-byte scripture verses and pseudo-Christian cliches in every other sentence. I respect Obama as our president, but "pastor-in-chief"? Please. Where did Obama get his theological degree?
Agreed!! Just a slow day for CNN writers. Needed to make up something again !!
You don't need a degree in Theology to be a pastor. In a time of such tragedy, it's sad that people still find a reason to complain about Obama. Grow the hell up!
I think it's mainly a metaphor. Feel free to get all upset by it, though.
What is wrong with you people? How can you compare politics at a time like this? Does it really matter who is republican and who is democrat? Come on...he is the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!! What? Is he supposed to sit in the white house, by the Christmas tree and say nothing? You people would be-damn him for not standing up and addressing anything, and you be-damn him when he gave an eloquent speech last night. You people will continue to be-damn him when he doesn't do enough to enact more gun control but then walk around with your guns hidden in your vehicle while visiting the grocery store. It will never be enough for America, there will always be people to criticize no matter how much good is done to counteract the bad. You all have already lost sight of the big picture here. So what that Obama quoted words from scripture? He wasn't only speaking as the leader of the free world, he is a father too...and for you people to criticize a man who tried his best to console those families in mourning, you are all heartless. For just 2 hours last night, you were to watch with the rest of the world as we all shared one common thing, the sadness of that community. But no, once again Americans had to show how unbelievably inappropriate and criticizing we can be even in the face of something so tragic. You have to come along with your damn politics, your insults of one man who was just trying to do the best he could in a situation none of us could imagine being in. What has this place come to?
Well spoken, Tammy. I admire your courage in speaking out. The President' speech was eloquent and moving.
The rest of the world? Leader of the free world? Get over yourself Tammy! This isn't 2005, Americas position in the world is very different. The world is multipolar now, and they have their own things to worry about. If you think they all stood still and watched Obamas speech you will be sadly mistaken.
People are heartless Tammy. Our country is filled with hate. You need look no further then some of the posts here. Attack a President trying to console these hurt people. Trying to reassure us. Thats what brings these terrible acts. Hate. Our country isnt going to be a great and good one again until these sad generations of people pass. Hopefully, the next generation will have more empathy, respect, and love for their fellow man. This one surely hasnt.
NIK-you are a moron-you have to find fault with everything. You are one of the things wrong with this country. I'm glad human beings outnumber dumb a$$e$ like you by such a large margin. As President, Obama is doing his job-an unpleasant, sad and hard role as comforter of a nation. He is President. Get over it. He is a father. Are you a dad? What if one of those angels had been yours? You might not appreciate his attempt to console, but thousands of others did. Get over your freaking self.
Right on, Tammy.
Get off your high horse Stephanie. You are the real problem with this country, you are a Kesha listening mindless drone. Open your eyes and look around you, the truth is out there!.
Some folks like attention, even if it's negative, I suppose.
Tammy, it is sad. I concur totally..
I am a Hindu. USA, just like India is not a theocracy. I found president Obama's words soothing and uplifting. Calling him a muslim and attacking him only exposes the hatred and ignorance of the people. Telling some one from Sweden to go back to Sweden is a joke unless it comes from an American Indian. Let us pray for those who were killed in the school and all the other innocent victims who are killed all over this country and the world.
Well said, RK.
Prayers do nothing but make you pretend you are doing something real.
Use your energy to solve problems instead of running away from them and you'll find that talking to the inside of your head doesn't get things done in the real world.
Hands in prayer are useless and pathetic. Hands working to fix things in the real world are useful and worthwhile.
Sure Jim, the President is a Muslim, and George Bush planned the 9/11 attacks. Anybody that doubts that there is afortune to be made in the sale of tin-foil hats need look no further than this page. I did not vote for President Obama, but will stand nt with him in a time of trajedy. He has nothing to gain politically. He is merely doing his job. After fifteen years in DC, as a high level Governmeh employee, iit becomes clear that on rare occassion, things are only what they seem to be on the surface. I believe this is one of those times.
I'm very proud of our president and grateful for the kindness and concern he showedfor the people of Newtown, Connecticut.
I'm proud of you, President Obama.
I'm from the UK; Britain has just as many problems with crime, violence and mental health as the USA and (probably) a larger % disadvantaged social underclass. The UK has a fraction of the gun-related murders of the USA on a per capita basis for one simple reason – it is almost impossible for the 'average citizen' to legally buy and own a handgun. Giving a troubled young man easy access to an assault rifle, two handguns and plenty of ammunition isn't likely to lead to positive outcomes.
No evidence of any assault rifle being used, or even owned, as they are already illegal in Connecticut as in almost every corner of the US.
Two things interest me with regards to the politics being discussed here. The left actually put it in their national platform to keep the ability to slay unborn children without limits, but cry foul when already born children are killed. The liberal media and Hollywood elites make huge fortunes portraying, romanticizing, and depicting more and more gruesome gun violence and making it seem normal, but then blame conservatives for such violent acts.
Kind of brilliant if you think about it isn't it?
Actually the Semi Automatic rifle has been said to kill EVERYONE that day... neither one of the handguns were used and if you want to talk about abortion.. You guys are more then happy to safe the life of an unborn child but won't lift a finger to protect that same child after its born... Can't have it both ways buddy.
@TS8BC, To be banned as an assault weapon in Connecticut, a rifle must be semi-automatic, have a grenade launcher plus several other unique attributes. In other words, a semi-auto rifle w/o a launcher is not subject to the ban regardless of it other capabilities. That Conn. ban appears to be a ban in name only.
Probably just a difference in definitions. A semi-automatic weapon is not an assault rifle. Military assault rifles are fully automatic. Assault style weapons are just that, they are semi-automatic but are designed to look like fully auto military assault weapons.
@TSB and Bill
And you're completely willing to absolve parents from teaching their kids the difference between fantasy (movies, video games, etc.) and reality, or to just sweep away the fact that this guy was obviously mentally disturbed? Oh please, people like you are so willing to blame "liberals", and "hollywood" for people doing things, yet completely absolve the ease at which guns can be obtained in many states, and the complacency by parents thinking "if I teach god to my kids, they are incapable of doing bad things". Wake up you morons, things aren't that simple. Do you really think if abortion were illegal, movies and video games were completely censored to the point of G rating being the highest it goes, if everyone is mandated in schools and work to say specific Christian denomination prayers that everything will be a-okay? Are you people that fucking deluded?
The Bushmaster rifle using .223 rounds is an assault rifle. It belonged to the killer's mother as did the 2 hand guns. Not sure why his mother owned such high powered weaponry but if she did not own those weapons perhaps this wouldn't have happend.
Not sure what you're trying to say Hawaii other than putting words in people's mouth and then calling them morons for it. Why not try responding to what people say instead of your own straw men?
"Assault style weapons are just that, they are semi-automatic but are designed to look like fully auto military assault weapons."
So, is there a problem with a national ban on the sale of assault-style weapons?
Monkey this is why the debate is clouded. Ignorance of firearms coupled with fear:
The term assault rifle is a translation of the German word Sturmgewehr (literally "storm rifle", as in "to storm a position"). The name was coined by Adolf Hitler as a new name for the Maschinenpistole 43,[nb 1] subsequently known as the Sturmgewehr 44, the firearm generally considered the first assault rifle that served to popularise the concept and form the basis for today's modern assault rifles.
The translation assault rifle gradually became the common term for similar firearms sharing the same technical definition as the StG 44. In a strict definition, a firearm must have at least the following characteristics to be considered an assault rifle:
It must be an individual weapon with provision to fire from the shoulder (i.e. a buttstock);
It must be capable of selective fire;
It must have an intermediate-power cartridge: more power than a pistol but less than a standard rifle or battle rifle;
Its ammunition must be supplied from a detachable magazine rather than a feed-belt.
And it should at least have a firing range of 300 meters (1000 feet)
Rifles that meet most of these criteria, but not all, are technically not assault rifles despite frequently being considered as such. For example, semi-automatic-only rifles like the AR-15 (which the M16 rifle is based on) that share designs with assault rifles are not assault rifles, as they are not capable of switching to automatic fire and thus are not selective fire capable.
Those are the only solutions I see popping up from the religious, so no it's not a Straw Man. How about you actually address what's written instead of trying to find ways to not answer anything.
I love how Bill has lots of knowledge about guns and loves to use Nazi words but barely knows a thing about the Consttution.
TSCB, whatever your name is, you are way behind. According to the police, he shot his mother 4 times with the assault weapon. AND, he had 4 guns behind his body, and 2 more in the car. The weapons were legally purchased by his mom. The question for me is if my son had the problems he did, why would have have any weapons in my house? If fact, she had recently quit her job to take care of him. Clearly, there were known problems. Weapons around people with mental problems is a no brainer.
I think the Presidents speech was very moving and appropriate for the moment. I also have no doubt that he used someone to look for the scripture references. Obama is a very caring person no doubt and I believe he is truely moved and saddened by this. But he is by no means a Pastor of Christian believers. This doesn't make him less of a caring person but I cringe every time he uses scripture, regardless of how comforting the bible it is to many of us. Not so much this time, but many times before it sounds so unnatural coming off his lips.
@JR, That is something that I humbly suggest that you will need to work on. The Bible I know is open to all of faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
#1 you are correct the President of the United States, Mr. Barrack Obama, is not a pastor. But, regardless of your personal beliefs, the President of the United States Barrack Obama and his immediate family are Christians.
The losers still can't get over Barack Obama won, so they continue to throw eggs and tomatoes at him. Remember when your hero Bush "won" and you all said "Get over it"?
Yea man... this all about losers and winners and hurling insults. You da big man you winner man!
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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.