Is the President our national pastor?

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

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    It is wrong in that “pontiff”, a term for pope, is derived from pontifex maximus which gradually transformed from a purely religious office to a political one, as Rome transitioned from a Republic to an Imperial state. We’re already far enough down that road, we don’t need any additional trappings of statolatry, even in the the earthly kingdom.

  • SKPeterson

    It is wrong in that “pontiff”, a term for pope, is derived from pontifex maximus which gradually transformed from a purely religious office to a political one, as Rome transitioned from a Republic to an Imperial state. We’re already far enough down that road, we don’t need any additional trappings of statolatry, even in the the earthly kingdom.

  • Random Lutheran

    A case, however, could be made that the President really is our national pastor — pastor, pope, & priest of our national cultus. The state will naturally, due to its claim on power, begin to take on religious trappings. It could be argued that DC is full of shrines, like any ancient pagan city; that the various ceremonies, laws, and practices concerning the US flag are religious in nature, if not explicitly so; that government will always head down the Imperial path, and that that path inevitably leads to a pinch of incense, lest the State not get its due; that in the continued references to places of import in earlier and more recent US history where people died (e.g., CW battlefields, NYC) as “sacred ground” the words mean exactly what they say, as per the American Religion. But these things could be said of any nation with a significantly long history. The problem is when the population starts to believe in the national religion; that is real concern here.

  • Random Lutheran

    A case, however, could be made that the President really is our national pastor — pastor, pope, & priest of our national cultus. The state will naturally, due to its claim on power, begin to take on religious trappings. It could be argued that DC is full of shrines, like any ancient pagan city; that the various ceremonies, laws, and practices concerning the US flag are religious in nature, if not explicitly so; that government will always head down the Imperial path, and that that path inevitably leads to a pinch of incense, lest the State not get its due; that in the continued references to places of import in earlier and more recent US history where people died (e.g., CW battlefields, NYC) as “sacred ground” the words mean exactly what they say, as per the American Religion. But these things could be said of any nation with a significantly long history. The problem is when the population starts to believe in the national religion; that is real concern here.

  • S. P.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Sounds like somebody had a deadline and had to think of something quick, like most of the term papers I wrote. It isn’t worth taking seriously.

  • S. P.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Sounds like somebody had a deadline and had to think of something quick, like most of the term papers I wrote. It isn’t worth taking seriously.

  • Susan

    This post juxtaposed against this morning’s email from the Obama campaign struck me as funny. Here’s the excerpt:

    “Today, just 72 hours after joining the GOP ticket, Paul Ryan is making a pilgrimage to the Sands’ Venetian casino in Las Vegas to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who’s already donated more than $35 million to Republican groups in this election.”

    The “making a pilgrimage to kiss the ring” allusion to Catholicism seems to say the pastor-in-chief thinks Adelson is the Pope not a Jewish businessman. There sure is a lot of confusion afoot! ;)

  • Susan

    This post juxtaposed against this morning’s email from the Obama campaign struck me as funny. Here’s the excerpt:

    “Today, just 72 hours after joining the GOP ticket, Paul Ryan is making a pilgrimage to the Sands’ Venetian casino in Las Vegas to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who’s already donated more than $35 million to Republican groups in this election.”

    The “making a pilgrimage to kiss the ring” allusion to Catholicism seems to say the pastor-in-chief thinks Adelson is the Pope not a Jewish businessman. There sure is a lot of confusion afoot! ;)

  • Stone the Crows

    What’s wrong with this picture is to imply that one needs a national figure as a spiritual leader in a time of crisis or calamity. It is an unbecoming sign of our self absorbed times that we expect the holder of the highest political office in our nation to have an opinion on everything, to care about every detail of our lives in order to have a sense that all is well. Which is to say that it isn’t that the President is acting as the national pastor, but that far too many look to the government for their security and the President is treated as a demigod

  • Stone the Crows

    What’s wrong with this picture is to imply that one needs a national figure as a spiritual leader in a time of crisis or calamity. It is an unbecoming sign of our self absorbed times that we expect the holder of the highest political office in our nation to have an opinion on everything, to care about every detail of our lives in order to have a sense that all is well. Which is to say that it isn’t that the President is acting as the national pastor, but that far too many look to the government for their security and the President is treated as a demigod

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I think it is a more accurate assessment of the state of things than we would like. As a good Lutheran who understands the two kingdoms, I want to scream and pull my hair out. However, watching various debates and screeds by folks of all sorts of religious backgrounds, people do view the president as they would a religious figure ala bishop/pastor/etc. Why else would people care if he hosted the National Day of Prayer or not?

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I think it is a more accurate assessment of the state of things than we would like. As a good Lutheran who understands the two kingdoms, I want to scream and pull my hair out. However, watching various debates and screeds by folks of all sorts of religious backgrounds, people do view the president as they would a religious figure ala bishop/pastor/etc. Why else would people care if he hosted the National Day of Prayer or not?

  • Grace

    Is the President our national pastor? The idea is absurd!

    USA TODAY

    Obama, Romney opposed to Boy Scouts ban on gays
    Aug 08, 2012

    By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY

    “President Obama and Mitt Romney may be on opposite sides when it comes to same-sex marriage, but they both disagree with the Boy Scouts of America’s policy banning gay scouts and troop leaders.

    ANOTHER EXCERPT

    Last week, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the Associated Press that Romney’s position hasn’t changed from what he stated in 1994. At that time, during a political debate, Romney said: “I support the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue. I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.

    ANOTHER EXCERPT

    “The Boy Scouts reaffirmed its policy banning gay members last month, following a two-year review. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the organization could bar gays from being scoutmasters.

    Since 1910, the president of the United States has served as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had urged Obama to reconsider his role in light of the policy.

    READ THE REST: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2012/08/barack-obama-boy-scouts-gays-mitt-romney-/1#.UCQpMaA8Wo0

    Read the article below from USA Today

    Boy Scouts reaffirming ban on gays
    Updated
    7/17/2012

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-07-17/boy-scouts-gays/56271606/1

  • Grace

    Is the President our national pastor? The idea is absurd!

    USA TODAY

    Obama, Romney opposed to Boy Scouts ban on gays
    Aug 08, 2012

    By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY

    “President Obama and Mitt Romney may be on opposite sides when it comes to same-sex marriage, but they both disagree with the Boy Scouts of America’s policy banning gay scouts and troop leaders.

    ANOTHER EXCERPT

    Last week, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the Associated Press that Romney’s position hasn’t changed from what he stated in 1994. At that time, during a political debate, Romney said: “I support the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue. I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.

    ANOTHER EXCERPT

    “The Boy Scouts reaffirmed its policy banning gay members last month, following a two-year review. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the organization could bar gays from being scoutmasters.

    Since 1910, the president of the United States has served as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had urged Obama to reconsider his role in light of the policy.

    READ THE REST: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2012/08/barack-obama-boy-scouts-gays-mitt-romney-/1#.UCQpMaA8Wo0

    Read the article below from USA Today

    Boy Scouts reaffirming ban on gays
    Updated
    7/17/2012

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-07-17/boy-scouts-gays/56271606/1

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Good sleuthing, Grace! Given that the (USA) President is the honorary BSA president, it would be absurd for him to also be our national pastor, since all good Lutherans know that pastors won’t have anything to do with the Boy Scouts, given their official stance as a pantheistic religious organization.

    (This comment is humor of the Lutheran inside-baseball variety, and I really don’t expect Grace to get it. But, with any luck, she will claim that she does and get offended, anyhow.)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Good sleuthing, Grace! Given that the (USA) President is the honorary BSA president, it would be absurd for him to also be our national pastor, since all good Lutherans know that pastors won’t have anything to do with the Boy Scouts, given their official stance as a pantheistic religious organization.

    (This comment is humor of the Lutheran inside-baseball variety, and I really don’t expect Grace to get it. But, with any luck, she will claim that she does and get offended, anyhow.)

  • Grace

    I have a heavy schedule today, as I did yesterday. I’m not only disappointed, but grieve over the attitudes of our Christian leaders. It isn’t just the people I admire as Christian’s, but all groups and denominations which are going off the cliff regarding moral standards, be it the ELCA, PCUSA, or the USUAL group of liberals, from denominations that have taken another road years ago.

    Our children and grandchildren are at stake here.

    Our country has become so accustomed to believing we can take something that is evil and make it good.

    God help us!

    Christianity Today

    Is the President America’s Pastor in Chief?
    Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism does matter

    Judd Birdsall
    8/13/2012

    Editor’s Note: This piece is a response to “Our American President: The ‘Almost Pastor’ of an ‘Almost Chosen’ Land.”

    “Against the backdrop of “can I vote for a Mormon?” unease among many religious voters, the Romney campaign has downplayed the relevance of religion for the presidency. We’re told not to worry about a candidate’s faith because the President is not a “pastor in chief.” In 2012, that may be a politically savvy truism, but is it really true?

    With a Mormon challenging President Obama, a Protestant, several Christian leaders have urged voters to consider credentials instead of creed. Franklin Graham spoke for many when he told ABC News: “Listen, we’re not voting for the ‘pastor in chief’ of the Unites States. We’re voting for the President. We’re looking for the person that is the most qualified, a person that shares common values, a person that loves the country, a person who can lead this nation out of the economic mess that we’ve gotten ourselves in, and that’s I thinkthe main thing for most people today.”

    Romney, a former Mormon bishop, has been emphatic in response to questions posed about particulars of his religious beliefs: “I’m not running for pastor in chief. I’m running for commander in chief.”

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/august-web-only/is-the-president-americas-pastor-in-chief.html

  • Grace

    I have a heavy schedule today, as I did yesterday. I’m not only disappointed, but grieve over the attitudes of our Christian leaders. It isn’t just the people I admire as Christian’s, but all groups and denominations which are going off the cliff regarding moral standards, be it the ELCA, PCUSA, or the USUAL group of liberals, from denominations that have taken another road years ago.

    Our children and grandchildren are at stake here.

    Our country has become so accustomed to believing we can take something that is evil and make it good.

    God help us!

    Christianity Today

    Is the President America’s Pastor in Chief?
    Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism does matter

    Judd Birdsall
    8/13/2012

    Editor’s Note: This piece is a response to “Our American President: The ‘Almost Pastor’ of an ‘Almost Chosen’ Land.”

    “Against the backdrop of “can I vote for a Mormon?” unease among many religious voters, the Romney campaign has downplayed the relevance of religion for the presidency. We’re told not to worry about a candidate’s faith because the President is not a “pastor in chief.” In 2012, that may be a politically savvy truism, but is it really true?

    With a Mormon challenging President Obama, a Protestant, several Christian leaders have urged voters to consider credentials instead of creed. Franklin Graham spoke for many when he told ABC News: “Listen, we’re not voting for the ‘pastor in chief’ of the Unites States. We’re voting for the President. We’re looking for the person that is the most qualified, a person that shares common values, a person that loves the country, a person who can lead this nation out of the economic mess that we’ve gotten ourselves in, and that’s I thinkthe main thing for most people today.”

    Romney, a former Mormon bishop, has been emphatic in response to questions posed about particulars of his religious beliefs: “I’m not running for pastor in chief. I’m running for commander in chief.”

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/august-web-only/is-the-president-americas-pastor-in-chief.html

  • Grace

    Many churches have their own groups for boys and girls, .. eliminating Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts. For all the other parents who are unaware of the core values in some of these groups, send their children off to join. It is these children I’m concerned with.

  • Grace

    Many churches have their own groups for boys and girls, .. eliminating Boy Scouts, or Girl Scouts. For all the other parents who are unaware of the core values in some of these groups, send their children off to join. It is these children I’m concerned with.

  • SKPeterson

    Is the USUAL the Union of Socially Un-Adjusted Lutherans?

  • SKPeterson

    Is the USUAL the Union of Socially Un-Adjusted Lutherans?

  • Grace

    SKPeterson @ 11

    ‘Is the USUAL the Union of Socially Un-Adjusted Lutherans?”

    What do you think? Would that include all Lutherans?

  • Grace

    SKPeterson @ 11

    ‘Is the USUAL the Union of Socially Un-Adjusted Lutherans?”

    What do you think? Would that include all Lutherans?

  • Tom Hering

    Not this Lutheran. I’m quite well-adjusted, as far as society on a prison asteroid goes. Except for the internet time machine that allows me to interact with people back in 2012. I kind of hog the thing.

  • Tom Hering

    Not this Lutheran. I’m quite well-adjusted, as far as society on a prison asteroid goes. Except for the internet time machine that allows me to interact with people back in 2012. I kind of hog the thing.

  • SKPeterson

    Tom Hering is a malcontent.

  • SKPeterson

    Tom Hering is a malcontent.

  • Tom Hering

    True. And I’m not happy about it.

  • Tom Hering

    True. And I’m not happy about it.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    GRACE-
    is it not interesting- I posted last Friday that romney was for homosexual Boy Scout leaders-
    some of my ‘loyal followers’ did not really read the post and – being true advocates of romney-
    thought that he was against homosexual Boy Scout leaders…
    SO-I appreciate knowing that there are others who are NOT BLIND FOLLOWERS of the supposed conservative – ronmey—

    as to this post- NO- the founders got RID OF ROYALTY- the motto of the Revolution was “NO KING BUT KING JESUS”–
    the pres is not above any other Christian —;

    It’s getting late- so- have a good sleep everyone!
    Carol-CS
    LA Lutherans for Life

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    GRACE-
    is it not interesting- I posted last Friday that romney was for homosexual Boy Scout leaders-
    some of my ‘loyal followers’ did not really read the post and – being true advocates of romney-
    thought that he was against homosexual Boy Scout leaders…
    SO-I appreciate knowing that there are others who are NOT BLIND FOLLOWERS of the supposed conservative – ronmey—

    as to this post- NO- the founders got RID OF ROYALTY- the motto of the Revolution was “NO KING BUT KING JESUS”–
    the pres is not above any other Christian —;

    It’s getting late- so- have a good sleep everyone!
    Carol-CS
    LA Lutherans for Life

  • Grace

    Carol-CS @ 16

    I doubt very much that anyone realizes that both Obama and Romney agree on the Boy Scout issue. It’s shocking, but how many other things do these two agree on?

  • Grace

    Carol-CS @ 16

    I doubt very much that anyone realizes that both Obama and Romney agree on the Boy Scout issue. It’s shocking, but how many other things do these two agree on?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Question: WHY on earth would we even acknowledge the possibility that the President-whoever he may be-has a pastoral office?

    I don’t recall Paul doing that with Nero.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Question: WHY on earth would we even acknowledge the possibility that the President-whoever he may be-has a pastoral office?

    I don’t recall Paul doing that with Nero.

  • helen

    tODD @ 8
    since all good Lutherans know that pastors won’t have anything to do with the Boy Scouts, given their official stance as a pantheistic religious organization.

    Must be an inside WELS joke…
    My sons earned their Eagles, and one became an LCMS pastor (and assistant Scoutmaster).
    His son, an Eagle, is in his senior year at CTS. :)

    The Boys Scouts are a volunteer organization. One district in Houston, TX was/is run by a Mormon Stake.
    Non-Mormon boys could join but not be in any leadership role. They ran pretty independently of the Council.

    Our boys were always in Troops with effective/ predominant Lutheran leadership. But they didn’t go to Scouts for religion; they went to church for that.

    Anti Boy Scout groups have succeeded in pushing the BSA off the military base which traditionally hosted National Jamboree. The “anti’s” were chagrined to find that the Scouts were able to buy property in the same general area. The military cooperates with the Scouts because well trained Scouts become good officer material, (e.g. my second son, carrier pilot in the first Gulf war).

    [The President may have an "honorary" position; it's worth as much as the "tin star" (aka "honorary" )doctorates sported by most LCMess district presidents.]

    And no, he’s not my “pastor”, no matter what the occasion!

  • helen

    tODD @ 8
    since all good Lutherans know that pastors won’t have anything to do with the Boy Scouts, given their official stance as a pantheistic religious organization.

    Must be an inside WELS joke…
    My sons earned their Eagles, and one became an LCMS pastor (and assistant Scoutmaster).
    His son, an Eagle, is in his senior year at CTS. :)

    The Boys Scouts are a volunteer organization. One district in Houston, TX was/is run by a Mormon Stake.
    Non-Mormon boys could join but not be in any leadership role. They ran pretty independently of the Council.

    Our boys were always in Troops with effective/ predominant Lutheran leadership. But they didn’t go to Scouts for religion; they went to church for that.

    Anti Boy Scout groups have succeeded in pushing the BSA off the military base which traditionally hosted National Jamboree. The “anti’s” were chagrined to find that the Scouts were able to buy property in the same general area. The military cooperates with the Scouts because well trained Scouts become good officer material, (e.g. my second son, carrier pilot in the first Gulf war).

    [The President may have an "honorary" position; it's worth as much as the "tin star" (aka "honorary" )doctorates sported by most LCMess district presidents.]

    And no, he’s not my “pastor”, no matter what the occasion!

  • http://owenstrachan.com Owen

    Gene,

    I’m surprised by your characterization. My point, which is pretty clear in my essay, is that the president is definitely a symbolic figure, an important one in religious terms. But I clearly point out that pastor is a local church office. Judd and I disagreed in our thinking on this issue.

    I’ve really enjoyed your writing and thinking for years now, by the way. Your material on faith and work is superb.

    OS

  • http://owenstrachan.com Owen

    Gene,

    I’m surprised by your characterization. My point, which is pretty clear in my essay, is that the president is definitely a symbolic figure, an important one in religious terms. But I clearly point out that pastor is a local church office. Judd and I disagreed in our thinking on this issue.

    I’ve really enjoyed your writing and thinking for years now, by the way. Your material on faith and work is superb.

    OS


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