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. Tn Ken

    You Know. Jesus didn't DIE on the cross. He slept there for maybe three days. Then went back to his home in heaven. You really can't call that dieing.

    December 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  2. ????????

    What is the biggest threat to Peace ?
    According to the pope it is gay marriage and abortion...

    December 18, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      How is abortion a threat exactly? How are gays a threat? The very fact that the pope potentially said this means little-he protects pedophiles, he is not much of decent human.

      December 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  3. nobody i n paticular

    Are you some kind of idiot? You just oversteped yourself. You said: "Humans are created to have empathy." If that is true, and I believe it is, then atheists are created also, they also have empathy and they too greive. I feel sorry for them because they have no hope beyond the grave; that is very sad. God loves them also and does not want any to perish, but He, God, has created them to have a choice and that is their choice - not to believe upon God. Just learn to love them they are God's children too.

    December 18, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Lee

      The choice is "worship me or burn for all eternity"?
      Wow, sounds like the demands of an all powerful being, and not old jewish men trying to establish order over 2,000 years ago. You're a fool.

      December 18, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Jenny

      I feel sad for people who don't play Bridge, but what are you going to do, right?

      December 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Jenny

      If somebody pointed a gun at you head and told you that you can hand over your money, or die, would you think that they're actually giving you a "choice"? If you guys said that salvation was a free gift, take it or leave it, no harm if you say no, then maybe fewer people would criticize what you believe. What you're presenting is "Take this free gift, or I'll shoot you in the spine".

      December 18, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • sam stone

      god is omniscient, right?
      god knows before they are born that some will not accept jesus as their savior
      but he allows them to be born, nevertheless

      December 18, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Rational Humanist

      I feel sorry for people who have been indoctrinated to view everything in a crazy, distorted way.

      It is a crime against humanity and an outrage!

      December 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  4. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    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

    December 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  5. albie

    dont you dare call him my pastor – I voted for him, I did not vote for religion of any kind

    December 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • lol??

      He's a professional servant that wants to serve you in every way, if it involves talk.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  6. calvin

    Why question a Holy God who has left His word as to how we are to live. When we take God out of the picture, we subject ourselves to horrible events. Prayer was taken out of the schools. Men/women/children fornicating/ living together unmarried. Men marrying men, women marrying women. Prejudices, racism, just a few things that this country seem to wax worse in. Pastors not preacing, teaching the truths–gaining welth and fame in the process. Preaching material/monetary prosperity. Pastors/leaders/presidents/congress, not seeking God's guidance and wisdom. People not being informed that they must Repent, be baptized in Jesus Name and filled with the Holy Ghost which will guide and lead you into all truths. Acts 2:38 WHY? The answer is in God not away from God!!!

    December 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • BU2B

      "His word" was written by men, and revised countless times. Just like any other fictional book, it is nothing to live by.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Jenny

      You rile against men marrying each other and women doing the same, then you list "Prejudices" as another evil, but I'm guessing that you don't see the hypocrisy of that, do you? All prejudices are wrong unless they're Christian prejudices, is that what you're saying?

      December 18, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  7. Open Mind !

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    ‘They said, "You have to be Jewish or Christian, to be guided." Say, "We follow the religion of Abraham – monotheism – he never was an idol worshiper." [2:135]

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint. Both of them used to eat the food. Note how we explain the revelations for them, and note how they still deviate! [5:75]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    O people, here is a parable that you must ponder carefully: the idols you set up beside God can never create a fly, even if they banded together to do so. Furthermore, if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it; weak is the pursuer and the pursued. [22:73]

    They do not value God as He should be valued. God is the Most Powerful, the Almighty.[22:74]

    If you obey the majority of people on earth, they will divert you from the path of God. They follow only conjecture; they only guess. [Quran 6:116]

    “There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in God has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. God is Hearer, Omniscient.” [2:256]

    “God: there is no other god besides Him, the Living, the Eternal. Never a moment of unawareness or slumber overtakes Him. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. Who could intercede with Him, except in accordance with His will? He knows their past, and their future. No one attains any knowledge, except as He wills. His dominion encompasses the heavens and the earth, and ruling them never burdens Him. He is the Most High, the Great.” [2:255]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  8. lol??

    How do the Masters strip the Big O of his pastoral duties? Any lessons from the way he dumped Rev Wright? Or am I wrong?

    December 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  9. Human beings are created to have empathy

    So how does an atheist grieve and begin the healing process after the loss of a loved one?
    Atheists probably don't grieve they just tell themselves 'worm food' and move on, how very crass!

    December 18, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Huebert

      After a post like that you have no business calling anyone crass, you hypocrite.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • BU2B

      We grieve the same way as you do. Spend time with family and reflect on the life of the loved one. We just don't lie to ourselves and say that our imaginary friend is with them.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Lisa

      Atheists have no trouble expressing empathy. It's the believers who don't seem to be able to empathize with everyone wanting equal rights, or control over their own reproductive lives.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      One big difference is that atheists and agnostics don't injure and insult the bereaved by uttering plat itudes like: "He's in a better place now." "He's with his lord and savior." "god doesn't give you anything you can't handle."

      December 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      LOL you need a religion in order to grieve? That's news to me....more made up BS by christians.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Lisa

      Yes human beings have evolved to have empathy, but it take religion to convince people that the feelings of others aren't worth considering just because they don't match yours.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • mama k

      "Atheists probably "

      This is where you get into trouble.

      December 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  10. Clear and Present Thinker

    Nothing brings the worms out of the wood faster than a dose of compliments about a fine sermon by a lay preacher. Right on, Brother Stephen.

    December 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Pete

      They're not use to strong sermons that aren't about hating some group or other. It confuses them. It doesn't seem "Christian" to them.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  11. ug

    Of all the stupidest things I have ever heard in my life! Now we bring religion into this and politics...libs live and play by double standards and they really suck at it! especially this lib suck up to Obama! He is the most bigot of them all! He really makes me sick! the writer of the article is obvisuly brain washed that is for sure...nobody would ever have put up with this stupid article if it were a white man and a GOP leader that is for sure...I bet he gives bj's underwater.

    December 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  12. My Mixed Up Cross

    +++++++++M-y wife and I recently signed up for 23.anadem, which analyzes a sample of ones DNA. It is useful for identifying potential health risks, and tracing an.cestry. My own ancestry, through the genes, was mun.dane My wife had a remarkable ge.netic make up, which includes 3percent gen.etic material which is N-eanderthal. She is Ja-panese, with Sp-anish, French, Sl-avic, and South American na-tive (think Inca) background. But several thousand years ago (note this; it must have occurred well before 8000 years ago which creationists believe was about the time that g-od created man), a very distant ancestor of hers m-ated with a N-eanderthal. I know this is hard to believe, it is hard for me to believe, but this is true, and should cause some of you to think, as it has caused me to do. For those who wonder what this cross looks like – she is beautiful+++++++++

    December 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • ug

      Dude...who cares!

      December 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  13. Jackie

    It's true that it guns don't kill people, people kill people, but only an assault rifle will allow a human to kill SO many innocent victims in such a short time. It's very difficult to protect ourselves from mentally ill people who are willing to go to extreme lengths to harm others with disregard to their own safety. He likely would have entred the school even with more heightenend security and could have done serious harm, but without such a deadly, rapid fire gun, the death toll could have been much lower. It's time to put an end to these killing machines.

    December 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  14. Bev

    We already have restrictions on what kinds of weapons we allow civilians to own. Full machine guns, rocket launchers, and hand grenades are legal as far as I know, but I wouldn't doubt that plenty of people would just love to have them to play with. All anyone is asking for is restricting assault and combat weapons that also have no business being off the battlefield.

    December 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • ug

      UMM I have some good news for you...you can own a Tommy gun with full automatic in UT...need a permit yes but you can still own one...

      December 18, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Pete

      Why would so many fine Mormons need to have machine guns? Hmmm...

      December 18, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  15. MyManJohn

    Obama is the pied piper; he plays his tune, and CNN and most of the MSM dance along without a care (or a question) in the world...

    December 18, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Kelly

      November was last month. Get over it! 🙂

      December 18, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • sam stone

      Did your man Mittens lose MyManJohn?

      Too bad.

      Get over it

      December 18, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  16. America spoke

    Beam me up, Scotty! No signs of intelligent life here!

    December 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  17. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    To those who claim that improving gun control laws and restricting the sale of assault-type rifles wouldn't do a thing to keep this sort of tragedy from happening: How do you know? Why don't we try it and find out?

    December 18, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • MyManJohn

      We did. It was called the '90s. Then this thing called Columbine happened...

      December 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • ug

      I dare you to try and take my guns...I really would like you to try boy.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, they didn't, you idiot. We have never had adequate controls on assault-type guns.

      If you have to lie to make your point, you have no point.

      And to the little turd you dragged in on your shoe: I'm not a boy.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim

      That TEC-9 they carried was as close to an assault weapon as they could lay their hands on. Would you argue that fewer people would have been killed in Columbine if they had assault riffles and multiple 30 round clips?

      December 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • lol??

      That idea is what is known as Socialistic Science. They experiment on the Masters. It is very SIMILAR to voting on ye olde obamacare bill to find out what's in it. Nutzoism is esteemed and revered in gubmint churches AKA as universities.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, goodness. Guess ug was struck dumb by that last post. I'm SHOCKED!

      December 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • lol??

      You jumped to the wrong cause.Try mental health care in this country. It's pathetic but the CEO's of insurance companies like it. Check Fox today.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      FOX? I might just as well watch my cat take a poop.

      Figures that's where you get your news.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • lol??

      Socies do have a groove in their, ahem brain.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  18. blake

    Obama is anything but a pastor-in-chief. This dangerous bozo cares about nothing and no one. His world view is that of a secular humanist and a Marxist. Virtually everything he says and does verifies this, yet the far left media refuses to see it. He is opportunistic and a good actor. Pastor? Caring? NO!

    December 18, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • ug

      WOW! someone see's this phony in charge like I do...and on a cnn blog sight! Maybe there is hope for his country after all.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Wow. That last election must have left a mark on your tender little souls. Wahahhahaaaaa!

      December 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • sam stone

      "blah, blah, fvcking blah" – blake

      December 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Cracks me up that ug the sock puppet makes the same mistakes as his master.

      Who knew that apostrophes were so difficult to understand and use? Maybe we should have a ban on them.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  19. Really??

    Tom, Tom the Idiot's son trolling here is the perfect spokesperson for Obama!

    December 18, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And you're a perfect spokesperson for Complete Ass Holes of America.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • AtlJack

      If you wonder why Republicans lost the last election. And the one before that. And 4 of the last 6 Presidential elections.
      Look at yourself. You can't let go of the 24/7 We Hate Obama even at a time of national tragedy.

      When the astronauts died on launch, Democrats did not attack Reagan when he spoke about the tragedy. Reagan was the President and he spoke for the nation.

      Barack Obama IS the President as he has been elected TWICE by America.

      Stop listening to Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and others who get rich peddling lies and nonsense to millions who can't discern they are lies.

      Stop being a Republican and try becoming an American.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • ug

      @atljack...let go one farther back ok...In the last roughly 30 years...the GOP has had a total of about 20 years in power and the libs 12...look it up and stick it fool.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      ug, you poor little thing. Must really suck to be such a sore loser.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  20. Nik

    Keep up those drone strikes Obama! CNN thinks you are a godly man so you can do anything you want!

    December 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • AtlJack

      You need to get together with "Tom". Both of you could direct your hate at each other and let the rest of us just be American.

      24/7 Politics is polluting this country.

      Just stop. Look at YOUR life and fix whatever it is that is taking you into this constant state of anger.

      December 18, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • ug

      @atljack...and you seem to have a nerve that is hit if anyone mentions anything about the phony in charge...wonder why...and yes we are Americans...not commies like yourself.

      December 18, 2012 at 10:06 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.