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. james pfeiffer

    Obama has nothing to lose by addressing the gun insanity in this country. Not only will sensible gun control make this country a better place to live, it will also expose those career, cushy politicians who are puppets on the financial strings of the gun lobby. Shame on us.

    December 18, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  2. bernard Thomas

    The missions both Christ Jesus and President Obama ventured, speak for themselves. What are you doing, what are your accomplishments?

    December 18, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  3. JoeProfet

    Let's just keep the focus on these adorable, fragile, precious, and wonderful little children that graced the lives of the people they new with their innocence and love. Keep our hearts and minds on the little ones that survivied and all the rest of them that have questions and doubts about the world they are growing up in. This is an early exposure of a not so nice society they will be coming into if they are fortunate and blessed enough to survive. We, as parents have an obligation to make their little world safer...at least for a while. This isn't a time to bash the nations president, this isn't the time to take up political points on gun laws, albeit they do need to be rightly moderated, but we haven't been able to fix that for quite some time. It won't get fixed over night. Anyway, these children and their time with us is the most important!

    December 18, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  4. Casey Collins

    I guess the writer of this article did the trick – envoke an argument over the President's belief. (Which none of us know his heart)

    The President is not the one calling himself a Pastor....He was speaking to the mourners close to the people involved in this tradgedy. If it helped them heal just a little bit, then he did his job.

    December 18, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  5. Casey Collins

    I guess you people all know what is in the Presidents heart? How dare any of you judge anyone! If you are a true believer, God is the final judge of everything under the sun. So, take your damnation and look in the mirror.

    December 18, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • lol??

      Judging is so easy even the least can do it, and should. The dudes and dudettes at SCOTUS make a big deal of it....."1Cr 6:4 If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church."

      December 18, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Casey Collins

      Taking the bible out of context – Chapter 6 is talking about lawsuits and issues within the Church, not judgment of the heart. I said judgment of the heart.

      December 18, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • lol??

      "Mat 7:20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.".... Just hold your nose while dining on their fruit. NOT.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • sam stone

      "Judging is so easy even the least can do it"

      even lol??

      December 18, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  6. are122

    I do not particularly like Obama or his policies. I never voted for Obama. But I see nothing wrong with what he said and consider it very appropriate for the the situation. These people need all the comfort they can get.

    December 18, 2012 at 5:56 am |
  7. Casey Collins

    I see the President as a kind compassionate person. Very normal indeed. Wish most politicians were more like him.

    December 18, 2012 at 5:55 am |
    • lol??

      I pledge allegiance to my servant. He's a professional campaigner, you idiot. He Can't quit. He's hooked. He already told you he'd kill his own grandkid.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Casey Collins

      LOL?? – Your the idiot FOX following, kool aid drinking idiot! Get a mind of your own.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • lol??

      Spoken like a true coyote Socialist. I don't have a TV. Those coyotes sure make a ruckus when they're on a hunt.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • midwest rail

      @ C.C. – welcome to the delusional world of lol??. Specializing in innuendo and buzz words he doesn't know the definition of, you'll find a special kind of stupid in his posts. My advice is read 'em and chuckle – that's what the rest of us do.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • lol??

      That's funny, a railing yelper.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • Lori

      Lol?? Is a hateful pos who needs to get a life.

      December 18, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Casey Collins

      lol?? – you have the internet – even more dangerous than drinking the kool aid...I guess your here to envoke stife and division? Not working....common sense good people will prevail.

      December 18, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • lol??

      Casey since you are doin' all the judging that you say you don't do, let me point out a couple of errors in omission like m rail and lori above. Let's see you jump on them.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • lol??

      BTW, where'd you come up with "good people"?..."Mar 10:18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God."...........Don't be so reckless.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  8. Natch

    Pastor-in-chief, Apologist-in-chief, Blamer-in-chief, and now Griever-in-chief.......it's no wonder he got elected! Seems the ONLY role he can't seem to fill is the one of President, where he gets done what NEEDS to get done, and not spend a considerate amount of time being distracted by something else!!

    December 18, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • lol??

      It's not the time he spends that's the problem. It's the moolah for his pals!

      December 18, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • Robert Gertz

      Whatever. Great job, Mr. President. Now, ban these weapons.

      December 18, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  9. Leroy Duke

    A few quotes from the Bible at a deperate time does NOT a pastor maketh!
    A true Pastor (Christian Pastor) is at all times promoting the Kingdom of GOD and the Grace gifted to us by the Birth and Death and Reserection of Jesus Christ the son,preaching that Salvation has come to mankind!
    Sorry, President Obumbo does not do this!!

    December 18, 2012 at 3:48 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      that's good.. he respects the fact that this is not a theocracy and that we have separation of church and state...
      do you have a problem with that?

      December 18, 2012 at 3:58 am |
    • clearsight

      Your empty promises of eternal orgasm are meaningless and immoral. Love is the greatest good.

      December 18, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • fiftysomething

      I have a feeling that no matter what actions Obama had taken, you would be there to criticize him. Don't you conservatives ever miss a chance to be nasty?

      December 18, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • demovsemperor

      We have already heard enough about Lord Obama. He is just another politician from Chicago, the capital of dirty politics. I have no lord or god before me.

      December 18, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • Love

      I am a Christian who do not vote for obama. You sound like you are and angry so called Christian. Where is the love that Yeshua taught? Quit hiding behind Christianity and pretending you obey his words. Apostle Paul said that hatred will not enter into the Kingdom of God.

      December 18, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Love


      December 18, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  10. carlkrammit

    strong words RATIONAL HUMANIST. firstly, no one stated that obama was "required" to speak as he did, or that it was his "task". its also funny you extrapolate from my message that i am a racist god lover. i feel zero argumentative compulsion to respond to your response, especially since you adopted the ad hominem approach and thereby conceded the argument anyway, but whatever.
    so what words of comfort would you have offered those suffering? that this is a result of causality? this kid grew up in a rough family and what resulted was this tragedy, they're dead and that's it? is it a psychological conclusion? am i close to your thesis??
    you think your "rationality" is what brings you liberty from the tyranny of such "blind" religious beliefs as christianity, but it does not. you also believe a set of ethereal doctrines which has become your own religion. except, your religion offers no love, no mercy, no forgiveness. and it has no source beyond the individual seeker. who wrote the bible? men? that's what theology and academia will teach you. but have you ever read it? really? the bible says of itself that it was written by God. are you going to deny that? what if you're wrong? again, have you read it, or just heard about it? no doubt it is the latter. so don't be so quick to deal out judgement on such matters, when you yourself, the enlightened humanist, are guilty of hypocrisy. sleep on it pal.

    December 18, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      I have read the Bible, so you're wrong again, as well as being wrong about pretty much everything.
      Don't worry, that's what happens when you are mentally ill. Your schizophrenia is not my problem but yours.

      I am fine with being intelligent and rational. If you don't like it what does that make you? A fool.

      December 18, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • Kelly R.

      Carl, saying that RH's use of a fallacy "thereby conceded the argument" is itself a fallacy, The "Argument From Fallacy" Fallacy, which sis the potentially faulty assumption that if an argument for some conclusion is fallacious, then the conclusion itself is false. Fallacies can only negate themselves, and even then, only sometimes.

      Allow me to elaborate: ad hominem is actually NOT a fallacy if the character of the subject of the ad hominem is indeed relevant. As an example, if in a presidential debate one candidate says to the other "you are a dangerous psychopath", it actually is not ad hominem if it is true, as it is indeed very relevant to the matter at hand. Who wants a psycho for a president? (Unfortunately, W was elected anyway).

      It helps to understand the core concepts of fallacies before making fallacious claims yourself.

      December 18, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • demovsemperor

      There is absolutely NO PROOF that any invisible sky god wrote anything at any time or in any place. There is no proof that there is an invisible sky god either.

      December 18, 2012 at 5:48 am |
  11. HanValen5150

    Stephen Prothero, Obumbler ain't no pastor in chief. And you're no journalist.

    December 18, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • Paul

      Have you been a hater long, or are you showing your poorest side for all the world to mock?

      December 18, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • sam stone

      Perhaps not HavValen: But he IS the president, and he beat whatever the Grumpy Old Punk party put forth

      December 18, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  12. GulpOff

    Go to Internet.
    Anyone can become
    a preecher in
    a few clicks.

    December 18, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  13. Maximus

    I'll keep my guns, thanks...

    Maybe shrinks can stop prescribin' meds that actually TELL YOU on the side effects list that it "may cause suicidal thoughts or uncontrollable fits of anger"?

    You think that maybe JUST MAYBE that had something to do with it?!

    December 18, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Yeah

      And yet another person thinks he has special insight into what happened, based on absolutely no evidence.

      December 18, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • Observer

      Attempting to blame drugs is a lot easier than pointing the finger at the organization that fights to get these weapons of mass killing out to the public – the NRA.

      December 18, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  14. Maximus

    I will gladly support mixing religion, socity, and politics.

    As soon as ALL churches pay taxes....

    December 18, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Naughtius

      OH HELL NO!!!

      Allow Christians to pass their sharia and turn America into Jesustan, just for some tax money? Forget it.

      December 18, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • demovsemperor

      Lord Obama is no more a christian than I am a saint. What christian lies? What christian smokes coke? What christian bears false witness to american citizens? Obama is no christian.

      December 18, 2012 at 5:51 am |
  15. Mike

    Religion and politics should not mix. You can go to Obama's church if you prefer. Just because he is president and can quote a few Bible versus does that mean he can lead people to everlasting life? That road is narrow and not as populated as the popular road. Read the Bible and find out for yourself.

    December 18, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Brandon

      i agree

      December 18, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Pippa

      Go to Internet.
      Anyone can become
      a preecher in
      a few clicks.

      December 18, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  16. Brandon

    Obama is the President of the U.S. he is not a pastor in chief Good that he has used scripture and Brings God into it, but hopefully with a sincere heart. He is just a man nothing great, we all are just men and women. I pray for the families because they are left to grieve, the children are in a better place, no doubt in our Heavenly Fathers arms, I pray for Obama because the bible says to pray for our leaders. I pray that he does a good job and that God helps him make the right decisions and that he will do God's will not man's because again we are just men.

    December 18, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • Calling Dippy!

      Dippy, did you want to do your thing here, or is Brandon's post just too FUBAR?

      December 18, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • Brandon

      ok to dippy

      December 18, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  17. Reality

    School shootings have been occurring since 1764 in the territory that was to become the USA:

    Some recent statistics and history:

    "According to the National School Safety Center, since the 1992-1993 U.S. school year there has been a significant decline in school-as-sociated violent deaths (deaths on private or p-ublic school property for kindergarten through grade 12 and resulting from schools functions or activities):[37]"

    1992–1993 (44 H-o-micides and 55 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1993–1994 (42 H-omicides and 51 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1994–1995 (17 H-omicides and 20 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1995–1996 (29 H-omicides and 35 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1996–1997 (23 H-omicides and 25 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1997–1998 (35 H-omicides and 40 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1998–1999 (25 H-omicides from school shootings in the U.S.)
    1999–2000 (25 H-omicides from school shootings in the U.S.)

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 1998-1999 School Year, 3,523 students (57% High School, 33% Junior High, 10% Elementary) were expelled for bringing a firearm to school.[38]

    The late 1990s started to see a major reduction in gun related school violence, but was still plagued with multiple victim shootings including;

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_shootings_in_the_United_States for a list of shootings from 1764 to the current tragedy.

    December 18, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  18. Ralph

    Please, everybody, lets leave politics and agendas out of this and just post our sincere support for the grieving love ones of these victims. Just think for a moment how you would be feeling if you were a family member or even a friend and these comments were thrown in your face. I am in no way acquainted with any of them and it hurts me to read these callous comments.

    December 18, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      Oh, you think posting comments is going to help them get over their shock and trauma? Are you retarded?
      Why don't you support efforts to prevent this from happening again and I'll respect that.
      But wasting your time on the internet posting condolence cards will not stop other children from being brutalized or murdered in the future. Why not use your time effectively instead of openly wringing your hands and wailing on the internet of all places?

      December 18, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • No. That's wrong.

      Why is it that whenever something happens, some dingbat runs in and tells everyone thatfreedom of sppech is wrong and instead everyone is to do what he tells them to?

      We are not allowed to discuss things? We are not allowed to debate the matter? That's just unAmerican.

      That kind of thing is fine around the people actually involved (and we sure wouldn't need some Ralph to tell us how to act), but everyone here is many miles away and not in contact with those involved. We are just talking it out, which is our right.

      Get over yourself, Ralph. This is America. Take your totalitarian tendancies elsewhere.

      December 18, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Epidi

      A family member or friend would have to be a masochist to even look at these forums. Were it me in that situation, I'd avoid the news & forums such as this on the internet like the plague. Unfortunately many people have little respect or empathy for one another it seems. Kinda what causes these tragedys in the first place. They will do what they want to do regardless of how tactless of heartless it may seem to you or I. The price one pays for living in an open & free society but you have to take the bad with the good there. :-/

      December 18, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Paully

      Ralph does not want a free society. He wants a silenced society that obeys.

      December 18, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  19. bwyz

    did mother of psychopathic killer exercise very very poor judgement or what? what the heck is going on with parenting in 1st world countries?

    December 18, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      It has been this way throughout human history.
      It would be nice to see it all stopped, but how likely is that when the one percent rule without ever being freely elected?
      The violence will continue because nobody in power wants accountability to stop their depredations upon the world's population. They want people to be violent and stupid and as desperately poor and sick as possible. Heck, they'd rather most poor people just die, but they enjoy the suffering because it makes them feel better about being monstrous tyrants.

      December 18, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  20. bribarian

    It's quite comical watching CNN worship obama.

    December 18, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Get a clue, bo bo

      How do you figure? Because one of their staff stands behind the president in a national crisis? Isn't that what conservative shreiked that everyone had to do when W wanted to illegally attack Iraq?

      December 18, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Observer


      For a real laugh, watch Rupert Murdoch's network kiss up to Republicans and hire them.

      December 18, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Paul


      I bet you laugh at car accidents, train wrecks, suicides, and funerals, don't you?

      December 18, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • lol??

      Paul, I see you have been reading up on Joseph Michael Swango. The educational governmental complex covered up for him just like Obama. Don't forget that other dude on the gubmint payroll, the Joker.

      December 18, 2012 at 6:20 am |
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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.