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My Take: Obama channels Reagan at Boston interfaith service
April 18th, 2013
06:27 PM ET

My Take: Obama channels Reagan at Boston interfaith service

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

At the interfaith prayer service held in today for the victims of the Boston marathon bombing (including Lu Lingzi, a graduate student at Boston University, where I teach), President Barack Obama was once again called upon to play the pastor-in-chief at a moment of national tragedy.

In his speech, Obama did a lot of cheering for the home town, praising Boston as “the perfect state of grace.” He recalled his time as a law student at Harvard. He cheered on the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, and the Bruins. And he repeatedly referred to Bostonians as a gritty people who would not give in to terrorism in the 21st century any more than they bowed to the British in the 18th.

As I listened to the speech, however, I couldn't help hearing echoes of President Ronald Reagan.

After the 2012 election, and particularly after Obama’s second inauguration, many pundits started to refer to him as the “Liberal Reagan.” Just as Reagan made it OK to be conservative in the 1980s, Obama now seemed poised to make it OK to be liberal. He seemed less worried about failure and more comfortable with his convictions. I see this "Liberal Reagan" in Obama’s outrage at the Senate’s rejection on Wednesday of even the most milquetoast gun control legislation.

But I heard Reagan himself in Obama’s speech at the interfaith prayer service.

Reagan's success as a president turned on his optimism and his resolve. In a sense, these two rhetorical notes are at odds. Optimism can be seen as soft, even wishy-washy. Who but a fool (or a liberal) can be optimistic in the face of communism or terrorism or a difficult Congress? The other is hard and unbending: the resolve to face up to communists or terrorists or Democrats at home whose policies seem designed to drive American society to the brink of extinction.

Yet together optimism and resolve served Reagan well, transforming him into one of our most popular presidents, despite the often polarizing positions he took on domestic and foreign policies alike.

The heart of Obama’s speech today came about halfway in when he quoted from the second letter of Timothy in the Christian Bible: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Obama then praised “doctors and nurses, police and firefighters and EMTs and guardsmen” for running toward the explosions. “That’s discipline,” he said. He praised “exhausted runners” who themselves became first responders, tending to the wounds of spectators. “That’s real power,” he said. And “when Bostonians carry victims in their arms, deliver water and blankets, line up to give blood, open their homes to total strangers, give them rides back to reunite with their families, that’s love.”

Obama next pivoted to the perpetrators themselves, addressing them directly (and to much applause):

That’s the message we send to those who carried this out and anyone who would do harm to our people. Yes, we will find you. And yes, you will face justice. We will find you. We will hold you accountable.

Obama's speech was a celebration of the spirit of the city of Boston and the resilience of the American people. It was an optimistic speech, and a speech of high resolve.

As Obama turned his attention to the injured, he combined these two Reaganesque notes, looking forward to a better future when those who lost their legs will, through faith and hard work, learn to run again. Your city, your commonwealth, and your country are with you, the president said. “We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again. Of that I have no doubt. You will run again.”

Obama then spoke of the resolve of his fellow Americans, and promised that this time next year the Boston Marathon would be run yet again to even louder cheers. But what caught me up was his hope, and his conviction. Yes, "the Democrats' Reagan" was addressing the people of Boston and the American people. But he was also addressing himself, steeling his own resolve, vowing to "run with endurance the race" that is set before him, and resolving to do so with hope and conviction.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Bible • Interfaith issues • Massachusetts • Politics • United States

soundoff (160 Responses)
  1. midwest rail

    @ "Smart" Christian – why post as me ? Bored ?

    April 19, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  2. STFU

    @Praise Him, hey what guarantee you have your mother was not poked by arab in back of some burger king kitchen?

    April 19, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  3. Larry of Nazareth.

    He's a Poe. Gave himself away on another story. But bravo! Very funny.

    April 19, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  4. midwest rail

    Thank you for your well thought out, intellectual reply. Next.

    April 19, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  5. Larry of Nazareth

    Either Praisey is a genuine whack-job hypocrite or he is the funniest Poe ever!

    April 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  6. midwest rail

    Trolling should never be this boring.

    April 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  7. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF CORRUPTING YOUNG MINDS

    YO MOHAMMAD A. DAR, THIS IS WHAT YOU'RE CONTRIBUTING, VIOLENCE, YOUR POSTS ARE CORRUPTING YOUNG MINDS, WHILE YOU RAT DRINKING TEA AND WATCHING BOSTON NEWS FROM COMFORT OF YOUR HOUSE, PRAISING ALLAH

    April 19, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  8. { ! }

    The first responders should be praised at other times too. Nurses, doctors and police are just as heroic when they cope with a night's worth of murder, domestic violence, gang and drug activity in Boston.

    April 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
  9. Jim

    The heart of Obama’s speech today came about halfway in when he quoted from the second letter of Timothy in the Christian Bible: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

    To that we say, Amen!

    April 19, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  10. Ghostriver Studios

    Reblogged this on Ghost River Studios Blog.

    April 19, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • ThingsBestIgnored

      and...?

      April 19, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  11. Polybius

    Stephen, this is a terribly disappointing article. You don't know much about either Reagan or Obama. Obama is not the Democrat's Reagan. He is profoundly dishonest. He was so in Illinois, and he is now sustained by the adoring media, who have abandoned all pretense of independent thought. Obama showed his true, whining colors in both the management of the gun control bills and his low response to defeat in the (please note, Stephen) Democratic Senate.

    That's the real Obama, and CNN has helped bring him to us. Thanks also to the great moderator, Candy Crowley.

    April 19, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • { ! }

      @Science The "sky fairy" only existed in the minds of atheists. They kept God small. Its easier to argue against "sky fairy" than it is God. God has infinite breadth and depth. God engages all the energies of the mind. We leave "sky fairies" to its prophets (Dawkins) and faithful (atheists).

      April 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jason B

      When has Prothero ever said or written anything sound or correct?

      April 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • sam

      Bah, hush up.

      April 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • meifumado

      We actually need to blame Oprah for this, If she had never backed him, He would never been in the running.

      Boycott all Oprah products and shows.

      April 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  12. LAST DAY

    There is only one true Religion

    sent by one real GOD

    as Moses and David and Jesus and Muhammad clearly prophesied about it

    here now:

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    April 19, 2013 at 5:04 am |
    • Science

      The end is here for the fairy in the sky !

      April 19, 2013 at 5:17 am |
    • Science

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/13/pope-asks-cardinals-to-study-church-reform/comment-page-2/#comments

      April 19, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  13. John Stefanyszyn

    President Obama spoke words out of the Bible at the interfaith service...,BUT President Obama lives by a way that dictates that it is right to be free to worship any god.

    The apostle Timothy lived by serving in obedience the Will of the One and Only
    God, whose Son and our King is Jesus Christ.

    April 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF BULLSH.IT

      WHAT'S YOUR POINT JOHN

      April 18, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Bob1god

      John, take a long walk on a short pier!

      April 19, 2013 at 2:51 am |
    • meifumado

      I am an American, I will serve no king or queen.

      April 19, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  14. lol??

    "............once again called upon to play the pastor-in-chief .............."

    Too bad it's not a play. I wish these showboating politicians would just attend to their servant duties. If he absolutely feels compelled to say something he could say it to an empty chair, tape it, let the grievers get free copies, and sell other copies for a buck a pop. Let them grieve in peace!

    April 18, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • .

      You are completely delusional if you think that President Obama has no role in comforting the people of Boston and this nation. You sincerely have no clue about civic leadership and shoukd shut your snarky mouth, you stupid bitch.
      Did you say the same thing when your idol Bush was giving lip service to all of the grieving families after 9/11? You were probably on your knees praying you could swallow some of Bush's "grace". You have no clue as t what compassion is, and you never will, you nasty, bitter old hag.

      April 18, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  15. Salero21

    Hum... so... Mr. Prothero believes in "channeling" a spiritualist new age belief. Sick!

    April 18, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
    • ..

      Ummmmmm.....what??

      April 18, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • ME II

      I'm almost certain that he was speaking metaphorically.

      April 19, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  16. The Creed-

    Creed

    We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin.
    We believe everything is OK
    as long as you don't hurt anyone,
    to the best of your definition of hurt,
    and to the best of your knowledge.

    We believe in s e x before during
    and after marriage.
    We believe in the t herapy of sin.
    We believe that adu ltery is fun.
    We believe that s o d o my's OK
    We believe that taboos are taboo.

    We believe that everything' s getting better
    despite evidence to the c o ntrary.
    The evidence must be inves ti gated.
    You can prove anything with evidence.

    We believe there's something in horoscopes,
    UFO's and bent sp oo ns;
    Jesus was a good man just like Buddha
    Mohammed and ourselves.
    He was a good moral teacher although we think
    his good morals were bad.

    We believe that all religions are basically the same,
    at least the one that we read was.
    They all believe in love and goodness.
    They only differ on matters of
    creation sin heaven hell God and salvation

    because when you ask the dead what happens
    they say Nothing.
    If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
    then it's compulsory heaven for all
    excepting perhaps H e t l e r, S ta l e e n and Genghis Khan.

    We believe in Masters and Johnson.
    What's selected is average.
    What's average is normal.
    What's normal is good.

    We believe in total disarmament.
    We believe there are direct links between
    warfare and bloodshed.
    Americans should beat their guns into tractors
    and the Russians would be sure to follow.

    We believe that man is essentially good.
    It's only his behaviour that lets him down.
    This is the fault of society.
    Society is the fault of conditions.
    Conditions are the fault of society.

    We believe that each man must find the truth
    that is right for him.
    Reality will adapt accordingly.
    The universe will readjust. History will alter.
    We believe that there is no absolute truth
    excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

    We believe in the rejection of creeds.
    Steve Turner

    April 18, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • .

      Who. Is. "We"??

      April 18, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • New Atheist

      you got it about half right.

      April 19, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  17. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    This is a silly analogy. They both made great speeches. That's the end of it.

    Reagan's successes were due to a hugely high stakes gamble in foreign affairs. He won the bet – but everything was riding on the bet.

    Domestically he had a congress that stood up to him, but at the end of the day were willing to do the right thing for the country – unlike the present congress.

    His second term was mired in palace intrigue and corruption and many might suspect – the preliminary onset of a crippling disease that would later take him. I think it is silly and pointless to compare the two, unless it is a matter of speechmaking style.

    April 18, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • .

      What's totally hilarious is that Reagan WAS a Dem for many years, only switching sides so he could run for CA Governor.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  18. to the religiously confused scholar

    Steve P, Do tell us, how do you cope with grief when you are religiously confused?

    April 18, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • .

      You are such a disingenuous twat, Chad. How do you cope with your stupidity? You don't. You're obsessed with Prothero. Seek help.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • The Creed-

      Creed

      We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin.
      We believe everything is OK
      as long as you don't hurt anyone,
      to the best of your definition of hurt,
      and to the best of your knowledge.

      We believe in s e x before during
      and after marriage.
      We believe in the t herapy of sin.
      We believe that adu ltery is fun.
      We believe that s o d o my's OK
      We believe that taboos are taboo.

      Steve Turner

      April 18, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • .

      Lol. Is that the Royal "We?"

      April 18, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • The Creed-

      We believe that everything' s getting better
      despite evidence to the c o ntrary.
      The evidence must be inves ti gated.
      You can prove anything with evidence.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • The Creed-

      We believe there's something in horoscopes,
      UFO's and bent sp oo ns;
      Jesus was a good man just like Buddha
      Mohammed and ourselves.
      He was a good moral teacher although we think
      his good morals were bad.

      We believe that all religions are basically the same,
      at least the one that we read was.
      They all believe in love and goodness.
      They only differ on matters of
      creation sin heaven hell God and salvation

      April 18, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • The Creed-

      We believe in Masters and Johnson.
      What's selected is average.
      What's average is normal.
      What's normal is good.

      We believe in total disarmament.
      We believe there are direct links between
      warfare and bloodshed.
      Americans should beat their guns into tractors
      and the Russians would be sure to follow.

      We believe that man is essentially good.
      It's only his behaviour that lets him down.
      This is the fault of society.
      Society is the fault of conditions.
      Conditions are the fault of society.

      We believe that each man must find the truth
      that is right for him.
      Reality will adapt accordingly.
      The universe will readjust. History will alter.
      We believe that there is no absolute truth
      excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

      We believe in the rejection of creeds.
      Steve Turner

      April 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • The Creed-

      because when you ask the dead what happens
      they say Nothing.
      If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
      then it's compulsory heaven for all

      April 18, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  19. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    There is no worst hinduism, terrorism than hindu secular ism, criminal self center ism, denial of truth absolute God, foundation of American cosnti tution, nothing else , but he spewed his hindu soul ignorant desire, just like a hindu monkey, ignorant secular by nature on a tree, nothing will change hindu secular s, stupid self centered, until and unless, they learn to live by truth absolute in life, way of GOD, foundation of American consti tution.

    April 18, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF PRESSURE COOKER BOMB

      hey take your camel and run, filthy secular, cooker ism

      April 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      word fondu is based on Latin word dippity doo, hot gooey, chips, great, chip dip, to be in greatness, pita chip, to be creamy to both of them, fondu, a noun in yummy, fonduism, way of yumminess.

      Visit dippingisfun.com to learn about fonduism, deliciousnessity of fondu's, deliciousness to impose fonduism, veggie dipping on humanity by fonduism, cheese skin of truth absolute by dipper. Be a dipper, not a fondu, lactose intolerant like a fondu, double dipper.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • meifumado

      ^^^^^^^^^^^^

      Great job!!!!!

      April 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  20. Oh Stephen, really?

    Echoes of Reagan?

    This is what happens when you allow yourself to believe in super invisobuddies. You start imagining all sorts of things that aren't there.

    April 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • The joy of invisobuddies

      If their gods do not exist, then they are truly bowing to no one and nothing....a state most of us can only hope to achieve.

      April 18, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • meifumado

      Are these inviso buddies butt buddies?

      April 19, 2013 at 2:55 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.