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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. End Religion

    I'm concerned our galaxy may be in immediate peril: there is a super massive black hole where Stephen Prothero's brain should be.

    December 17, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • blogo

      I'm not worried, he's a blogging nobody!

      December 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  2. halo117

    The ONE TO BLAME HERE IS THE MOTHER OF THE SHOOTER WHO FAILED TO "LOCK-UP" HER GUNS FROM HER MENTALLY Challenged SON.

    And the Best actor of 2012 goooooooes to Barrack Insane Obama for his role in the Sandy Hook shooting ....the crying scene was jus wonderful and FAKE.

    December 17, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  3. MikeTexoma

    Where was God? God was their in the person of al of those prescious persons, children and adults, who so blessed all of us. God was their in the hearts and minds of those teachers and care givers and administrators who selflessly risked harm in order to protect others. And God is there at the funerals, weeping because of one man's inexplicable inhumanity to man.

    Obama isPresident of the UnitedStates, not head of the Southern Baptist Convenion. I am thankful that he is a man of God, a

    December 17, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • blogo

      Heck no. He's an atheist. His step dad was an atheist. Do you think some of it might have robbed off? Obama was not stupid then, and is not stupid now. He's a politician, and he knows how to play the game!

      December 17, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  4. doghaus

    I. I am very proud of President Obama.

    2. Let's finish burying some children and then resume the political BS.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Emeralds

      I am sick of the mixing of State and church. get off this kick Mr. President. I voted for you.. not your "God"

      December 17, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  5. MertonPrice

    If the President ignored the families in CT, wouldn't his detractors have hooted that it shows a lack of empathy and respect to the familes, and shows that he only thinks about himself, etc? But he does in fact go, and they still complain about his going. The pettiness of his detractors is really something. They say worse things about Obama than liberals ever said about President Bush. .

    December 17, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • W.

      "They say worse things about Obama than liberals ever said about President Bush."

      http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-250_162-693713.html

      December 17, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  6. Mike Texoma

    When things like this happen folks are wont to ask where was God. I heard Mike Huckabee rant the other day, asking why, when we have kicked God out of our schools, do we wonder why he was not there. Mike Huckabee is wrong about it. No one kicked God out of our schools. God's hand was there in the person of those prescious children who so richly blessed all of us. God was there in the hearts and minds of those brave teachers and caregivers and first responders who acted selflessly to shelter the children. No one there turned his back on any child bcause he or she was a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu because God was there and God loves us all. And the God I believe in cries

    December 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      You seem like a good person, Mike. I think the God you imagine is what you would be if you could be God. But God is imaginary and the real heroes are just folks.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • MertonPrice

      A trick the religious right uses is finding one example where one liberal teacher in one school tells one kid he can't draw a picture of a crucifix, and then they use their noise machine to "get the word out" that here's a perfect example that public schools are trying to stamp out religion. I guess this is how they fundraise by using these lone examples, and scaring their followers into giving money.

      December 17, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • ohio Mary

      Bravo MIke, you and some others have said it best. God WAS absolutely there! God was with the teachers and school principal and psychologist who attempted to stop harm to the children, strength came from somewhere for a teacher to lay across her class to protect them, for a teacher to hide 11 children in her classroom and for teachers that didn't pay with their lives, God gave them all courage! God took those children to a better place where they will always be children and where they will not worry about gunmen and evil. As hard as it is to understand God also was with the evil who held the gun because he gave us all free will and that was the ultimate gift that of forgiveness. This is not about Obama as a president doing his duty, it is about a President who went further and gave comfort and compassion to a town that will grieve for many years for the lives that could have been, for adults that could have done more and for families that will never tuck their children in bed at night again. Ney sayers think what you will, then stand behind the folks that will say anything ignorant to get attention and show their own evilness with words. You may not believe in God and that is your perogative, but have the decency to respect those that do in this horrific situation where God is so needed and faith and hope is all there is to hang on to at this time.

      December 17, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  7. lol??

    Prothero is over the top with his, ".... Increasingly, they are also coming to serve as our pastors in chief......." No thanks, no thanks, no thanks...NO NO NO NO Go away usurpers. Haven't you did enough already?

    December 17, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  8. sweetpea

    I thought our president set an example of humane heartfelt compassion toward all concerned. It shows what this man is all about. It would be nice if more of the public felt and acted the same..actually I think this is what I observed in most everyone except many on this blog who just can't seem to let go of the hateful partisan rhetoric. I am glad that it does seem that they are no longer in the majority. As someone who also has lost a child, my heart breaks for those who are experiencing the most profound grief any one can bear. This president of ours has the ability to put himself in a persons shoes and express the empathy so much needed by those who are suffering. He is a truly a leader to be proud of.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Casey Collins

      Well said, and I am so sorry for your loss. Take care.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  9. John Thomas

    I am a 38 year old man. 6'3" 250 lbs, and as tough as they come. I broke down in tears as the president spoke. This whole story just breaks my heart, but I was comforted by his words. Thank you Mr. President for leading us through this tough time in our history.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  10. Johnnie

    To Vortex1964, The God Almighty just told me to convey to you that HIS KINGDOM is not for haters like you. He demands that you repent, and know that you have no credentials to choose for Him, nor would you ever know the criteria to those He has chosen.
    Remember Paul? If you were around in his days, you would still be doubting his conversion. You, my friend, have defined your self a none believer by your own words.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  11. Clean_Your_hands_Boy

    If he didn't do wthis,Ya'll would be COMPLAIANING that he's too busy playing golf,or doesnt care bout dead children and he'll ignore it like he did Libya attacks.Y'know it!! Admit it!!

    December 17, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • robertblumenthal

      You would be take much more seriously if you could use spell check prior to posting.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Clean_Your_hands_Boy

      There are none,Bob

      December 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  12. Tom

    Regardless of whether you're a Dem, Repub, Independent – you have to admire the President for his kind words. My heart broke when he read the names of the 20 innocent children who were needlessly removed from our planet last Friday. Thanks Barack, I'm sure the people of Newtown appreciate your kindness in this time of unthinkable sadness.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  13. Casey Collins

    This blog will be shut down someday because some people just spew hate.

    December 17, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  14. KEC927@gmail.com

    I imagine that most of the heartless souls who comment here about their selfish affection to guns don't have kids, or on their way to being one of those monsters.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • Padraig

      That is a ridiculous comment that you made. I don't believe anyone with a conscious does not feel for the loss of the children, the affect on family and friends. People need to realize that if you are really want to purchase an assault weapon that they are available outside of the normal means of purchasing a weapon.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      KEC, you epitomize d.ouchebaggery.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • KEC

      I said "most" – do you have a guilty conscience, or are you speaking for the spewers of hate?

      December 17, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  15. mabel floyd

    how sad that some people have so much hate they can not even joint our president in morning the murder of 27 people, 20 of them children. it was reported that some smucks even complained that their football program was interrupted by the memorial service for those dear children and those who died defending them. they shame their God, their country, their family and themselves. you wonder if they raised by slugs just like them.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sure there are some people, "mabel floyd" who would, in fact, love to have a joint with the President.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  16. wondering

    I am wondering if the people who have made the heartless and cold statements would do the same in person or make a video tape of themselve and post it on you tube, i hope their courage is only due to the secrecy the inetrnet affords them and not a dry and dead heart. I am wondering why pain at the loss of children through a tragedy such as this should be overshadowed by abortion deaths? i believe everyone of those children deserve to be grieved over without our pain over other human failures clouding the moment. I am also wondering why the people who fight against abortion do not give money to orphanages. I am against abortion but i think there is problem when our concern for abortion prevents us from being moved by the death of 20 children. I am wondering how dark a person you must be that you dislike/ hatred for Obama would over take you ability to feel for the families and community as whole.
    To those of us with a heart of love please let us take time to pray for the grieving families and pray that they are able to get some sleep... yes sleep . They will be able to be there for each other more if they are able to get some rest. Rest at this time is very important but can easily become a forgotten thing. A father or mother that has been able to rest is more able to comfort thier spouse or the other children they have. Its a simple prayer, Dear God, please give them a night of restfull sleep.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      What about those of us who have a rationally functioning brain and a heart which pumps blood? Who should I pray to? J.R. "Bob" Dobbs perhaps?

      December 17, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Akira

      I am wondering why you brought up abortion...you are no better than the people you are complaining about.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  17. Chris

    One further point, about those who have posted such shrill and bitterly ugly remarks about President Obama's 'intentions' with this speech. He doesn't have to pander to anyone. He has no gain or need to campaign any further. He cannot be re-elected so what rational reason would he have to be disengenuous? The abortion comparison is ludicrous. "3000 children a day die in abortions". That's only if you believe a fetus is a child. Pro-Life debates do not belong anywhere near this discussion. Calling abortion 'murder' once again panders to the lowest common denominator and shows the personal vitriole of some of you. If Obama was Pro-Life the same people who are calling him a murderer would find something else to accuse the President of. To call him a Muslim, when he has CLEARLY AND OBVIOUSLY shown he his Christian, though secular in nature, clearly shows a depth of ignorance which is rampant in some circles of American society. This President cannot win, in the eyes of some, and there is a clear and obvious reason why. When will people actually believe, in paraphrasing Dr King, a man should be judged not by the color of his/her skin, but by the strength of their convictions'?

    December 17, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • vortex1964

      It is sad to hear someone put Christian and secular in the same sentence when describing someone portrayed as a Christian. You can not be a secular Christian and if you are then you are a carnal Christian who is moved by the themes the world promotes. Yes, Obama used Christian scripture, he quoted the Bibile, that does not make him Christian. If he were truly the Pastor president he would focus on America's rejection of God as the primary reason for evil in American. We have no moral compass in America. The media, government, liberal theologians tear at the heart of Christianity and call themselves Christian.

      Mat 7:21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
      Mat 7:22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'
      Mat 7:23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

      Commitment to Jesus Christ and a real relationship is what matters. Lip service will not identify you with the living Savior.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • check it out

      Bravo! Well Said

      December 17, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  18. Mohammad A Dar

    so Obama was a better pick after all!

    December 17, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It was a bit like a choice between AIDS and cancer.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Akira

      Aww, sorry about Ron Paul.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  19. Chris

    The author of this article went a step too far in calling the President Pastor-in-Cheif knowing it would incite this type of rhetoric. The speech was beautiful, the emotions real. He did what any President would have and should have done, speak to the families and to the nation with words of comfort and compassion. If he didn't say anything people would be up in arms (pardon the pun). He spoke honestly about HIS feelings regarding guns in America.

    The President is a citizen of the United States who has the RIGHT to Free Speech and the RIGHT to religious expression. he wasn't imposing religious beliefs on anyone nor was he pushing a religious or political agenda to those listening. What he did was shed light on a problem that is self evident. Something has to be done about the wanton and rampant gun culture in America. Those who commit these sorts of atrocities are mentally ill. No sane person would commit these types of crimes, however, the availability and accessibility of semi-automatic and automatic weapons in the US makes it EASY for someone to kill 20 children and 6 adults in the span of 2 hours. Someone earlier mentioned the Stabbings in China. Read that statement again. 22 children were WOUNDED ... guess what else? ALL OF THEM SURVIVED. THAT is the DIFFERENCE.

    Mentally ill people need help and those who are also fighting and angry about universal health care are also generally the same people who are FOR maintaining the status quo regarding guns. Don't want to help the mentally ill get better, seeing as most who are mentally ill are also quite poor and can't afford private health care OR insurance companies DON'T COVER THAT KIND OF TREATMENT, and don't want to restrict or ban the weapons that these same untreated people will continue to have access to, then expect these types of tragedies to cease.

    The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same things over and over again and expect a different result. Time for the US to take a good look at WHY these incidents keep happening and to be transparent about it.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Prothero was 100% correct.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Another difference with China. Their govt strips liberty from their people without fear. Why? Because the people are unarmed.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes, and that was EXACTLY my point. One step away from calling the President a Communist aren't you?

      December 17, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Chris

      Oh, and it's because private citizens have assault rifles in the US that protects the freedoms and liberties of the people right? Yes, that must be it. Good greif ...

      December 17, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      There were plenty more such cases in China with numerous deaths.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Read the founders on the 2nd amendment. The purpose of it is not for hunters or sportsmen, but for protection of the people from tyranny of the govt. This has nothing to do directly with Obama.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  20. timothyclee

    Sad to see not even such a tragedy can shut up the trolls. Shut up trolls!

    December 17, 2012 at 7:34 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.