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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 • Opinion • Politics • Schools • United States • Violence

soundoff (1,110 Responses)
  1. Mike

    Quick solution: Hire armed security guard for every school paid by increased tax on guns and bullets. Problem will go away overnight.

    December 17, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      What? In *every* classroom?

      Absurd.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You have no clue what you're talking about. This is not a feasible solution.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. ditty mom

    No more assault weapons it is enough already

    December 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Possession of assault weapons is already illegal without a class III firearms license.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Agreed. And for those who play with the semantics of definitions, no more assult-style weapons either.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bill,

      do you agree that a ban on 'assault-style' weapons is the next logical step?

      December 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      How about no 2nd amendment? Hey here's an idea! How about no amendments at all? Yeah, we don need no stinkin Constiitution

      December 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bill,

      you avoided my question.

      I will say the 2nd amendment is an anachronism. It should be repealed. We have had a professional standing army since 1814. There are no militias and the 2nd amendment is moot. But it won't be repealed. So what is the alternative?

      Is it time for a ban on semi-automatic rifles?

      December 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      GOP, I do not. I think it is important to separate the tragic events of mentally ill people from the safe guards of liberty enshrined in the Constiitution. It's easy to make an emotional appeal at a time like this but emotional decisions made in haste are not generally a good way to run the nation. The second amendment is in the Constiitution for a good reason. It's also simplistic in my opinion to tie violence to the presence of firearms themselves when, as so many are pointing out, the cultural issues we have developed may be a larger contributing factor and the guns are simply the symptom. Let's fix the real problems in our society and leave the Constiitutional protections of our freedoms as they are shall we?

      December 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      OK let's follow your train for a minute. Fully auto are already illegal. Now let's say semi-auto are banned. What's next? Large capacity lever action? What's large capacity? More than 7? 10? What about after that? No more bolt action rifles or auto loading shotguns? How about revolvers? Should they be outlawed since they are ready to fire after the first round is discharged and can hold up to seven cartridges? How about no guns at all? Then what? What other freedoms shall we begin to erode for our own good simply because they are abused by a few deranged individuals?

      December 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bill,

      it's a question of what the right in the second amendment provides. It is clear to me what Jefferson intended – protection from a tyrannical government – foreign or domestic.

      Most (though not all) Americans do not believe as Jefferson did:
      “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.”
      “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”

      Anyone who believes that the 2nd amendment affords them material protection from tyranny, is fooling themselves.

      This has been disproven time and time again starting in 1794 with the Whiskey Rebellion and as recently as the Branch Davidians.

      The 2nd amendment has been perverted into something completely different.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @bill,

      "Now let's say semi-auto are banned. What's next? Large capacity lever action? What's large capacity? More than 7? 10? What about after that?"

      I don't accept the 'thin edge of the wedge" argument. It is a fallacy – just as much as it is in the marriage equality debate – and as we can readily observe from the total lack of progress in meaningful gun control, pro-gun owners are a strong enough democratic force to prevent it.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Only the pro-gun people in our community can make this change.

      It is time to take weapons that have no purpose for self-defence out of the hands of people who have lost their moral compass.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Now we're in agreement. Loss of moral compass; there's the crux of the biscuit.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hilarious. Billy LOVES the Const itution and its amendments when guns are the issue. Goodness knows, he wants everyone to have the right to own guns!

      But just ask him about the rights of women to control their own reproduction and watch how much he loves freedom. Unless it's for the fetus, you know, because women don't need no stinkin' right to privacy.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  3. Domes74

    It is amazing to me that in time when we need to unite someone has to put negative comments about what the president said or did at the interfaith gathering. We should unite instead of being such a polarizing society. People need to understand the election is over and we need to come together as a community and stop all this nonsense attacks.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  4. Just call me Lucifer

    @ Ghani...

    Kudos to you... to be so full of bullshyte is a rare gift. You could have a great career as a servant of god. I know, which god,
    right? Pick one, they're all bullshyte... just like you! I'm the devil, and I approve this message.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  5. Luciano

    Dear Mr. President I applaud you for your towards at a time of great sorrow and pain. Please look inwardly and use the same power to protect children both born and preborn from death..work to eliminate abortion, easy access to guns, irresponsible social entiltlement programs that only serve to impoverish, a cripling debt that will make future generations poorer and stop the war on the values that created this once great nation..namely freedom of religion and the right to the pursuit of happiness. Than you will truly hnor the lives of those poor innocent victimes killed in Netown and everyday in all other parts of the country...help America get back to its greatness.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  6. EasyTiger

    20 beautiful 6 and 7 year old children are dead. They could have been my babies, your babies, your sisters or brothers, nieces and nephews... I am a Christian. I don't care if you are atheist, the most devout Christian on the planet, I don't care if you are Muslim or Sikh, or believe in the eternal power of grass – it is not relevant. What matters is that there are families that have been ripped apart in a senseless and horrible tragedy. And we owe it to each other, as fellow Americans, to love a little more today and hate a little less. Being upset over Obama's comments is so pointless and so demeaning. I know it's probably really idealistic of me to think – but man, I thought people would be willing to start linking arms and looking past our differences and trying to help our communities become better places. Before you start ripping each other apart over who is right and who is wrong – let's try to remember what this should be about: Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel D'avino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeline Hsu, Catherine Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, Ana Marquez-Greene, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison Wyatt

    December 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  7. Jack M.

    While Mr. Obama did not campaign with his religion on his sleeve, it certainly helps that he is able to communicate to ALL Americans using spiritual language. It amazes me how many of those who post comments here continue to judge President Obama. Judgement needs to begin at your house. Stop judging others before you judge yourself!!!

    December 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  8. Al

    Its sad that people brought so much political hate into this post. It is a well written article about faith and how our President is in-tune with the pain and able to bring hope and be one with people in America. By posting so much hate you have spit on the graves of the fallen. It shows you are more concerned about yourself and your political view then a family who has lost a child. The President is doing what he is supposed to do and he means it, to comfort Americans in times of chaos. Thats his JOB!
    In chaos such as this, we are all American's.. not GOP not DEM not any other political party... we are AMERICANS and we stand together. We cover eachothers back in joy and in sadness.. thats what makes us great.

    Have respect for the dead.. leave your hate off the post.

    OH.. by the way... I voted GOP this time... I am standing next to Obama this time like a REAL AMERICAN should in such a horrific time. If you don't.. please hand in your citizenship and leave the country. We need AMERICANS now.. not haters.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  9. lionlylamb

    10's of thousands die by DUI's each and every year! Seems to me that society has its numbers of deadliness issues all discombobulated and not seen in righteousness grieving. Which is the worse 27 plus one dead or tens of thousands dying senselessly in yearly DUI deaths? Yes death is a sadness but to put things in perspectives should we not be made aware of all deadly issues and not just only the segmented newsworthy ones?

    December 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Have some drinks and go for a drive... it is your destiny.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  10. deb

    You have got to be kidding me?!?!! He did what any acting president would have done. Quit making him seem he is something so different then any other president in a time of morning.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Jm

      Ditto Deb – this man is no different than George W Bush when he had to lead after 9/11 or Ronald Reagan after Challenger or Bill Clinto after Columbine. Pastor-in-Chief???? Will the anointing of this guy never end . . . .

      December 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • DefyTheGods

      I voted for Pres. Obama, and I agree with you!

      December 17, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  11. naturechaplain

    Not really an "Amen" here. We need comforting words, from all sources, but most of all the times require decisive leadership to turn back the violence. If the death of these little children shocks us into action, there may be some meaning. One wishes we would hear less words and otherworldly language, hopes and dreams, and see much more courageous action in the face of fuming and fearful gun-lovers. By the way, I appreciate the thinly veiled sarcasm here, and say a strong "Amen" to less preaching by our President and other Pietistic Politicians.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  12. K from AZ

    Our 'pastor – in – chief'? Our Liar & hypocrite – in – chief!

    December 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • jeff

      'splain 'yo self d.ouchebag

      December 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Samuel

      I was there. OBAMA was not wanted there.

      Many are quite disgusted with him.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • whit

      To K from AZ grow up A hole

      December 17, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Sly

      Yes Samuel, there are still many racist white pigs out there still unhappy they lost the Civil War.

      But Samuel, President Obama is OUR President, so we really don't care what you hillbillies from other countries care about.

      Thank you Mr. President for doing what all Americans respect you for – helping heal America during a crisis. That is why we elected you.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  13. jb

    I have no issue with Obama speaking on the horrific tragedies, I do have issues with people like this writer making the Prez seem to walk on water. Stop doing that. This type of language doesnt add up.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  14. ccd08

    So where is the left's anger at references to God and religion? Hypocrites.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • naturechaplain

      Please pay attention. Many of us ARE very critical of the President or any Politician using their religion and their god to push their faith on the rest of us. Left or Right, this wonderfully diverse nation of faith and no faith deserves better than pulpiteering.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • jb1947

      i'm an athiest and am not offended at this taking place at a RELIGIOUS gathering. If you were offended, then why were you watching a memorial service for slain people of our fellow citizens?

      December 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ProudTxLib

      What would YOU do.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  15. Nik

    All the people (AKA lame parts of the Democratic party I am ashamed of) that are whining about the responses to this. THIS IS A POLITICAL POST.

    We are not going up to the survivors and family members and berating them, we all have sympathy for them and want to support them. We don't care for mindless worshipping of MEN and garbage political endorsements! Get off your high horses for Gods sake!

    December 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • jb1947

      this is not a political post, it is an opion post on a BELIEF page. It was the haters that turn to politics when this is about comforting a people by their elected leader

      December 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • ;p;

      It's an opinion piece on an opinion blog. Can you not read? You're getting hollered at because you don't get it and your behavior sucks. More than one party is yelling at you. Dumb brat.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  16. Nelson

    OMG This isn't about the President nor is it about you, this is about the families in Sandy Hook. Please just stop it and look at the bigger picture, this is about 26 people that were taken away from so many! (PLEASE JUST STOP IT)!!!!!

    December 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      No.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Sarah

      OBAMA said it himself.. he has done this 4 times now.

      Why has this nation fallen so under OBAMA??

      The OBAMAnation is a damnation from the Lord.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • mama k

      And just when do you think that started, Sarah?

      December 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • ;p;

      That would be super funny, Sarah, if there was a god to care. You don't own any guns, do you? You sound crazy.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  17. Grandmom

    This writer is a moron!

    December 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  18. G

    Pastor in Chief... my pastor believes gay marriage and abortion are evil too, just like the whack job that killed these poor kids and teachers.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  19. hammer

    WOW! How stupid can you be? 1.3 Abortions each year,over 3000 each day.How can anyone who vote for that be a Pastor.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • mojo

      I can't believe the idiots who are bringing abortion and war deaths into this. Your lack of understanding the differences is only making you look like a fool.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Jeff

      typical right wing blow hard. Newtown, CT and the nation are dealing with one of the most tragic events that we've ever had to deal with and the repercussions can't be understated yet even for just a short period of time, you can't let go of your blind fanatical way of life. How sad of a life you must live.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • hammer

      mojo I can't believe the idiots who are trying to promote Obama.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • mama k

      You must be pretty damned stupid to think that either Obama or Romney could affect Roe v. Wade upon assuming office. Do you even understand what it takes to overturn a SCOTUS ruling?

      December 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • hammer

      mama k Did you not understand that I said voted?

      December 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • GaryB

      Abortion is the law of the land affirmed by the supreme court. Obama could no more stop that than he can force congress to balance a budget. Please, before you you comment bother to learn something about our system of government.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • hammer

      Gray are all you people that stupid? HE VOTED FOR ABORTION.I understand that it is a law and it will always be.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • mama k

      Well you said "vote", not "voted", but either way, he is upholding the current law. Yes he could have voted differently on related issues, but then one could say if some of those issues turned out differently, then they still could have been challenged in light of Roe v. Wade. So, the SCOTUS ruling stands and it has stood through a number of administrations.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • mama k

      And I think that other responder's name is Gary. But many people of all kinds have voted for a woman's right to choose. Obviously, others don't see the issue as black and white as you do. Every time you scream murder – every time you call someone who supports a woman's right to choose a killer, you are stifling your own cause because you're being too dramatic. You'll never effect change that way.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  20. Moonbeam

    The assault weapon that has been proven to have been the murder weapon (each child was hit between 3 to 11 times) was not actually illegal because it had been "grandfathered" in before the law. All his mother's guns were legal and registered, and she was a well-trained and purportedly "responsible" gun owner. In fact, she is said to have taken both her sons to the firing range and taught them how to shoot. If she had not been allowed to have that weapon, it is unlike the kid could have afford to obtain one on his own. There is no excuse to have those types of weapons in the hands of the citizenry. The shooter in Colorado was able to order his by mail, as well as the ammo, if what I read is correct. No argument in opposition to a ban can hold water, and no statistic can back it. They will, and should be, banned. Get used to it. I project it will happen in 2014 at the latest.

    December 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Akira

      I certainly hope so.
      There is no reason for assault weapons to exist outside of a military.

      December 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • RWmat

      http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/14/world/asia/china-knife-attack/index.html

      Twenty-two primary school children were wounded in a knife attack Friday in central China, authorities said.
      Maybe we should ban knives while we are at it, and lets not forget personally owned vehicles they killed 10,288 in 2010.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
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About this blog

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.