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. bwyz

    great speech mr president! I'm sure those who lost their loved ones appreciated your comforting words even if they do not share your christian beliefs. chill-out naysayers!!! this was a valiant effort to console and comfort... all religions are myths in my humble opinion, but I applaud the president's "personal touch" regardless of his beliefs...he certainly did not seem to express hatred or intolerance for anyone in his address so I'm not getting the need to go off on various tangents... have a heart people!!!

    December 17, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  2. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Firearm ownership and fatalities in countries with a strong rule of law. (So not Mexico or Yemen for example.)

    ........................ Guns....Deaths Suicide Homicide Accidental
    ........................ p100.....p100k ......% ....... % .........%
    USA................. 88.80 .... 9.20 .... 60% .... 40% .... 03%
    Switzerland..... 45.70 .... 3.50 .... 90% .... 15% .... 03%
    Finland............. 32.00 .... 3.64 .... 92% .... 07% .... 01%
    Sweden........... 31.60 .... 1.47..... 82% .... 13% .... 04%
    Norway............ 31.30 .... 1.78 .... 97% .... 02% .... 01%
    Canada............ 30.80 ..... 4.78 .... 78% ....16% .... 05%
    New Zealand... 22.60 ..... 2.66 .... 80% .... 06%.... 03%
    Australia.......... 15.00 ..... 1.05 .... 75% .... 09% .... 02%
    Denmark.......... 12.00 ..... 1.45 .... 80% .... 15% .... 03%
    UK..................... 6.20 ...... 0.25 .... 68% .... 16% .... 04%

    So, the US has more guns per person, more deaths per person and of those deaths, a higher relative amount of homicides per person than other countries with similar respect for the rule of law. How does this not signal a serious problem?

    December 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'll be glad of my guns the next time the king of England tries to get in my face.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      in case you haven't noticed, there isn't a King of England at the moment.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The metaphorical king.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Today we have the world's finest and strongest professional armed forces to deal with any external threat.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      There's always the possibility of an internal threat, especially in times of such uncertainty and instability.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Open Eyes

      With the exception of the US all of the countries on your list have a white population. Perhaps the real question is one of demographics? Wouldn't it be more accurate to compare gun violence in the US with Somalia or the Sudan? Where I'm sure we'd come out looking quite rosy.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      after such historical examples as:

      the Whiskey Rebellion (1794)
      the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry (1859)
      the Confederate States of America (1861 – 1865)
      the Bonus Army (1932)
      the Branch Davidians (1993)

      Do you really think the 2nd amendment protects you from the government, or are you worried about local crazies down the road?

      December 17, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  3. Zealot

    To all of you liberals who think guns are the problem; What should we do to stop the daily murder of not 20, but thousands of innocent children by abortion? Even our president said he doesn't want his daughters "punished" with a baby. Just kill the unwanted child..no problem! And it's legal, too. Life has been made cheap in this country. God has been taken out of everything. The void is filled with evil. And you wonder why things like this happen?? If this "culture of death" doesn't change, don't be surprised; expect more of the same.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Please list all the **substantive** steps taken by GOP politicians to halt abortion since Roe v Wade. Speeches don't count.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      People like you are only helping the gun control lobby.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Translation of Zealot
      "Blah blah blah using this tragedy blah blah blah legislate my religion blah blah evil liberal blah blah."

      December 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Shove it. If you can't tell the difference between a clump of cells and a child of six, you need more education and less religion.

      Although, it's futile to try to educated a microcephalic.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • sam

      Can you crazy people wander away and hold off until, I don't know, next week? Or go yell about it on the abortion article they had last week. Your ranting has nothing to do with this tragedy. Causing 6 year olds to die a terrifying death is not the same as terminating a pregnancy. Go away.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Akira

      What Tom Tom said.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • SciGuy

      So, Tom, you have no problem with sucking the brains out of the seven month fetus?

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

      SciGuy...shove it sideways.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  4. netanyahu

    At least they didn't call him a c h i l d mulesting rabbi....

    December 17, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  5. Dear Kenyan Leader

    Here is great new perspective on gun control and why the Obamaunists want it.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Delusional idiocy.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  6. Mjw

    I honestly have to pray for some of these people and their comments. To George Veteran , I pray God will grant you peace and a heart of compassion for the POTUS as you have for those unborn babies. Love should not be one sided but unconditional. I pray for all victims in this tragedy and those affected by it. I pray for the President that God will continue to give him the strength to overcome the negative personal attacks and continue to be the strong, positive, calm and eloquent speaker and defender of the poor.

    Mr. President you are never alone, there are more for you than against you. I believe you were chosen for such a time as this. Thank you for being the compassionate leader you are. You have been to 4 of these mass killings not to mention other disasters e.g. Sandy.

    For those who do not believe in God that is your free will...don't hate others who do.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'll hate who I like, thank you very much.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • sjbravo

      Thank you. Well said.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Open Eyes

      Jeeboo saves – all others take cash.

      December 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  7. Donal

    Barry, you didn't write that. Someone else did. You just read it off of a teleprompter. I'm sure your Hollywood friends agree that you do deserve an Oscar though.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • sam

      Go away.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • skpfrmdc

      Change your screen name, ANAL is more appropriate.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • jackbear24

      Like anyone presenting a formal presentation, there is preparation. You bet he and his staff agonized over every word of that. He is a US President eulogizing 26 civilian Americans, 20 of which were children. This wasn't a Heritage Foundation fundraiser. And it beats the hell outta "nucular stradgety".

      December 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Becky

      Donal. This just shows how uninformed you are. It was all over the news that Obama wrote these words himself and someone else proofed it. You GOP gun lovers are just not going to give him any credit are you? Where is your outrage for all those who died in the Iraq war, based on lies and misconception. Obama has more class in his little finger than you do. And to all those who compare this to abortion, you need to read your Bible. According to the Bible, life does not begin until the breath of life is given to them. I am so sick of hearing the GOP rants and raves. I personally don't like abortion, but I think if one doesn't believe in abortion then just don't have one. This President is going to go down in history as one of the best Presidents we have ever had, simply because he does care for the country, so if you want to strike at someone, strike at the GOP Congress who keeps this country from going forward.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  8. Dean Chigounis

    I thought the Democrats abandoned the use of god in their party's platform. Last I saw, they voted three times at their convention to re-insert it and three times, it failed to gain enough support. Odd now that when we have a national tragedy like this happens, the first thing Obama does is quote the Bible. Where are all the screaming atheists who detest subjecting the entirety of our country to a Judeo-Christian god? Odd...

    December 17, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • clarke

      Stop right there. This has nothing to with you and your politics.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • sam

      It doesn't matter. Save it.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  9. Mary

    Obama's speech may have been comforting to many people, but I am not of the same faith as Obama and I do not want him or any President for my pastor or spiritual leader, Even if he was the same faith as me, I believe that the separation of church and state is an important feature of our society. When we start viewing the President or any other political leader of our country as a spiritual leader as well, we are heading straight down the road to ruin that England and many other countries already trod.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • ohio Mary

      Mary, I am sure that the people who lost the children and adults were comforted by the president as well as the other leaders of churches that spoke and contributed to the service. Therefore it realy doesn't matter how you feel, it wasn't for you as you don't see that some of us in the country need that comfort as well. Get on your broomstick and ride out into the sunset.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • gem

      Get real - all people like you do is find any reason to complain...

      December 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • ohio Mary

      continuing my thoughts to Mary. Mary, Separation of church and state is indeed important but if you want to talk about roads to ruin, do you not think that shooting 26 innocent people, 20 of them young children and not speaking of compassion and giving comfort would be better and not be the road to ruin as in England? I just don't understand the insensitivity and coldness of some of the writers and speakers I have heard in the past few days. Makes this even sadder.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • clarke

      He was there as a parent first, This has nothing to do with him, with you or me. It has everything to do with the children, the parents, All the people that were killed. These people need all the kind words and support that anyone has to give.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Dana

      Mary, I'm sure you will get over any perceived slight from the president's speech much quicker than the loss and hurt these parents are now experiencing in Newtown. Get over it Ms. Thin Skin.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  10. Chuck

    Oh my goodness, JUST STOP THIS STUFF!

    December 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  11. DRY

    Exactly-leave the counrty if you dont like the president–you have the choice, what you lack is the ability and the strength to do so on your own. And if Obama showed up at your door to meet with you, you would be telling everyone you could for the rest of your life as bragging rights.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • George Veteran

      No. They are going to take it back from people like you instead. You won't even have a clue when it happens; judging by your svengali-like belief in your false saviour.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • demrules

      Don't worry Dry! "George Veteran" appear to have some serious issues. Comes across as a person who has numerous unresolved psychological manifestation of his own to deal with! Those are the kind that seek to destroy unarmed children and adults!

      December 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'd tell him to get off my property. Also, I didn't see all the liberals running for the border during Dubya's reign.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  12. Robert

    I think Obama's the right type of Christian.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Chuck

      You mean a non practicing one?

      December 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Robert

      It's a matter of the heart and soul of a person.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  13. Sly

    No 'Pastor" – President Obama was acting Presidential, and is doing a great job.

    Barry Bonds is God, having replaced Joe Montana.

    Adam Lanza was most likely a good religious boy – most folks who collect guns are religious.

    His mom was well aware of the risks of stockpiling WMD's in a house with a mentally ill person. Darwin at work.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  14. CSX

    Puke.......puke and puke

    December 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  15. pebbles14234

    It would be some of you making ignorant comments about what the President had to say at a Memorial service. Not being true believers of God that you are. I'm not pushing religion on you, but I am pushing for you to have compassion in your heart for this whole situation. What better could you have done with your carnal minds? It was a memorial service, for crying out lound! I guess you just go to get the repass meal and not listen to the messages presented to the grieving families at funerals. Seriously! This massacre hit home with me being a mother of a child. I felt those families pain. I cried and I came home to hug my little son, and won't stop hugging him and any other child I know, letting them know I love them and they will always be loved. It was a sadistical act that occured to those young kids and women. The only thing keeping me at peace is knowing God has all of those children wrapped in His loving arms. Scripture also tells us to be like children-innocent. Those precious angels and those loving teachers are no longer with us and all you want to do is bicker. Just stop it! Have respect for others at least once in your lives. Be campassionate. I'm still grieving over this and I don't know a soul who was killed, but I feel their presence and I am sorry for their families.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • clarke

      Thank you Pebbles!

      December 17, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  16. Diane

    It was an excellent speech, even though some are too blinded by hate to see it.

    December 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • George Veteran

      Sounds like the pres. "blinded" you allright!

      December 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • sweetpea

      Georges mind is still caught up in that hateful righteous partisan alternate reality...not only blinded but totally not aware of what is happening to those of us in the real world. A mind stuck in hateful partisan right wing rhetoric...pointless to even attempt to try to communicate with anyone like that. The President has set a perfect example of humanity and compassion for those of us in the real world to look up to. Let's stay focussed on that.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  17. Marty

    The reason we don't have gun control and people out of control? Just read some of the comments here. The point the author was making is that his role shifted to "Pastor in Chief", the person to console, speak comfort to. He quoted scripture because many people, regardless of their religion, can relate and find comfort. If you read the scripture, you would see why it might be comforting. If you have nothing kind and of worth to say, say nothing. Stop with the craziness. Try to be rational and think how the parents and family members might be feeling rather than espousing continuing destructive words, that lead to destructive actions. Enough!

    December 17, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  18. Ralph

    Enough already. Before you criticize, think for a moment, he is also a parent and like all caring parents, is brokenhearted over what happened. I, and almost all of you out there could not have stood up there and said what he said without losing it. I couldn't even listen to what he said without tears running down my cheeks. This is not politics, it is a caring father and genuine human being grieving, the same as most all other human beings are grieving over this tragedy. "Pastor in Chief", give me a break.

    December 17, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • niknak

      Anything they can use to inject their god into the fundies are going to use. No different here.

      Hey fundies, where was your god?
      I thought it was all powerful?
      Did not seen to powerful to me.

      Just a thought....
      Maybe it doesn't exist.

      December 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • George Veteran

      He is a broken hearted parent? That's why he supports partial birth and late term abortion? 3500 Innocent children are killed every day in the USA. Where is the broken hearted greif stricken parent Obama on that ?

      December 17, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • sam

      George...shut up. No one 'supports' abortion. Stop making it sound like he's running around yelling 'yay, abortion! 2 for one coupon!'

      You're on the wrong article. Go cry fake BS tears on the abortion article that ran a few days back, wingnut.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • jnpa

      @George Veteran – Get over the politics! This thread is neither the time nor the place to rant about that. It is obvious that you are a cold hearted S O B to even bring those issues up on here!

      December 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • W

      I agree with Ralph, Cant a human being be SINCERE at heart without some Moron saying its Political Rhetoric and that's all. I think OUR President was Sincere and grief stricken like MOST of us over this Tragedy He is a Father too, does he Have to have a
      Political Agenda when he goes to the bathroom , gimme a break......I APPRECIATE his Scripture reference and His Humbleness to at LEAST ACKNOWLEDGE a Belief in Scripture. Does that make him a Saint ...no more than me or YOU but i would rather see a Affirmation than a Denial ... and by the way i didnt vote for him...........He "IS" the President

      December 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Equalizer

      Niknak, our God is here, what about your gay god? I hope next time it would be a group of useless gay freaks will herded and wasted....lol

      December 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • George Veteran

      are ya retarded? Obama has PUBLICLY stated his SUPPORT for partial birth abortions and late termers. It was featured during his Senate Debate with Alan Keyes. HE SUPPORTS abortion and you were just ignorant on that.
      Also, Gun control laws have equalled stupidity on school shootings, that's proven. Why don't you get that elusive GED that keeps escaping you?

      December 17, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • sam

      So let's see...Equalizer and George are the same idiot troll. Not too good at it, either. You kids out of school for the winter holiday?

      December 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  19. purpleteddy

    First of all, this horrible crime has left 20 parents without their children ranging in age 6 – 7, and adults who attend this school on a daily basis to teach the children, and all you bloggers can think of is taking a stab at President Obama. How sad that you use any occassion to show your hate for the President of the United States. You have a choice to leave this country 24 hours a day, take the next plane or train and get out, see how much freedom you will have in another country. Children are dead and you can't just leave it at that.... you all live pathetic little lives

    December 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Kathy

      It is the haters that are keeping these crimes coming. Who ever needs an assault weapon if you are not a soldier or law enforcement? And the haters bully and belittle children who are different – too dumb, too smart, too fat, too short, too poor and the list goes on. We need to promote peace at every level.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  20. QS

    Religious people will ascribe religious connotations to President Obama's speech because that's what they heard.

    Non-religious people will appreciate the compassion and sincerity that we've come to know from this President because that's what we heard.

    The way in which any individual chooses to grieve or mourn should not be up to any of us to judge.

    Having said that, referring to President Obama as "our Pastor-in-Chief" does seem to subtlely insinuate, as nearly all religious people tend to do, that regardless of what others may believe religious people instinctively (thanks to their indoctrination) assume that everybody at least believes in some version of god or another – implying that those of us who don't believe are not able to feel grief the same way because we don't believe the same way.

    Besides, believing in any version of god or belonging to any given religion are not pre-requisites for dying.

    December 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Proud of President Obama

      Very well said QS. Thank you

      December 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • Equalizer

      Imam-in-chief...sounds good..

      December 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • sam

      Wow, Equalizer, you thought that was sooooo funny that now you're posting it several times! Do you know what sarcasm is?

      December 17, 2012 at 6:47 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.