No, the president is most emphatically NOT a national pastor, such an understanding betraying a deadly confusion of God’s Two Kingdoms and completely distorting the nature of the pastoral office. But the normally circumspect Christianity Today has two articles that say, yes, the president kind of is a national pastor.
See Owen Strachan,“Our American President: The ‘Almost Pastor’ of an ‘Almost Chosen’ Land” and Judd Birdsall, “Is the President America’s Pastor in Chief?“. A sample from the latter:
Ironically, the curious American integration of piety and the presidency largely stems from our separation of church and state. Without an established religion led by an archbishop, ecumenical patriarch, or grand mufti, the President acts, for better or worse, as the nation’s senior religious figure.
Cambridge University professor Andrew Preston makes this point in his massive, 815-page work Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy: “There is no official hierarchy in the American civil religion, but as the nation’s head of state as well as its chief executive … the president has acted as its de facto pope.”
What exactly are the President’s papal duties? Preston explains: “Since George Washington, the president has been the interpreter of rites, symbols, and meanings of the civil religion, with some—particularly Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman—significantly recasting it under the pressure of war.”
Obama’s and Romney’s faith-infused interpretations of the Aurora shooting are case in point, and the most recent chapter in the long history of the presidential pastorate. Both politicians denounced the killing as “evil,” and both turned to the Bible for meaning, solace, and hope.
In his public statement after meeting with victims’ families in Aurora, Obama quoted the famous eschatological promise found in Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Focusing on the here and now, Romney encouraged his audience to “mourn with those who mourn,” a reference to Romans 12:15. In poignant remarks packed with Christian language, Romney expressed his prayer that “the grieving will know the nearness of God” and “the comfort of a living God.” Citing the apostle Paul by name, Romney quoted from 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “blessed be God, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble.”
Many commentators applauded Romney for sounding “presidential.” Especially in times of tribulation, Americans expect their President to be their pastor—not in any formal sense as a leader of a church but in the general sense as a provider of spiritual care and theological perspective for the nation.
The president as our archbishop, since we’re not allowed to have a state church? Our pope? A provider of our spiritual care? These writers, of course, are speaking by way of analogy. The workings of the “civil religion,” not to be confused (though it often is) with Christianity, though I’m not sure these articles finish that point. They describe how the presidency functions and how the public responds, not how things should be. But still. . . .
What is wrong with this picture?
HT: Paul McCain