“Let the little children come to me, Jesus said, and do not hinder them – for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
This was President Obama, speaking to the residents of Newtown, Conn., this week. After naming each child slowly and solemnly, the President continued: “God has called them home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory.”
In this speech he used more religious references than he normally does, certainly than he did in the campaign.
There were many who felt that he should have talked more about his faith during the campaign, given the fact that some 15 percent of the country believe he is a Muslim and many actually believe he is an atheist. For some reason, the president resisted, even though it might have helped him. Perhaps because he didn’t want to pander to the religious right, or he didn’t want to use religion to get elected the way so many politicians feel they must. Perhaps he didn’t want to turn off his liberal base, some 15 percent of whom are “nones” — those who, when asked about religious affiliation, reply “None.”
Certainly, there were the references to God in closing speeches and even the occasional references to Jesus, as at the National Prayer Breakfast and the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. But they were few and far between. Even when Obama did make religious references during the campaign, some of his secular supporters would assert that he was being cynical and that he had to do it to get elected.
It’s almost as if he has decided that it is okay to really come out of the closet about his beliefs now that the election is over.
“For we know,” he said in Newtown, “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 hearts.”
This week, the Brookings Institution hosted a conference on religion, keynoting the opening panel with Joshua Dubois, the young Pentacostal pastor who is special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It was the first conference of its kind in which controversial issues surrounding the office were discussed. In fact, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, one of the moderators, suggested that this was a coming-out party for the office.
So what’s going on?
I think that the president has evolved. Not that he wasn’t religious before, but there is something about the office of the presidency that brings its occupants to their knees, literally. Think of what he has been through in the past two months alone as the nation’s first black president: winning a grueling and close election while still functioning as commander in chief; welcoming home the bodies of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans killed in Benghazi and comforting their families; overseeing aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and comforting those who lost everything, including loved ones; speaking to the families of those who were killed in Newtown and comforting them.
Meanwhile, he is writing condolence letters to the grieving relatives of those Americans who were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars in which he had personally sent those young men and women into harm’s way.
This is something you can’t do alone.
As with Holocaust survivors or survivors of other tragedies, people who confront inexplicable evil and suffering often reject the idea of God, feel abandoned by God — or they seek comfort in God. It would seem that the president has chosen the latter course. Certainly, he has his wife and close friends to comfort him, but that’s really not enough for the burdens of the highest office in the land, or really the world.
Obama is the most pluralistic president we’ve had in recent times. He never fails to mention, in listing those of different faiths, those of no faith as well.
Who knows how any one of us would react to the pressures of his job. But one thing is for sure. No matter whether we are people of any faith or no faith, if the president finds comfort in his faith, that should comfort us all.
“May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place,” the president said at Newtown. “May he grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community and the United States of America.”
Related content on On Faith:
* Thistlethwaite:Obama gives voice to the new national determination on gun control
* National Cathedral dean: ‘… the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby’
* Graham: Why the shock and awe?
* Pace: Comfort the grieving
* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope
* Quinn: Where was God?
* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting