Ginnetty: After Sandy Hook tragedy, Barack Obama becomes pastor-in-chief

President Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil

President Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Dec. 16, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

President Barack Obama's remarks during the memorial service at Newtown High School were a powerful example of what sociologist Robert Bellah has called civil religion.

The term refers to the generic shared belief system that undergirds our democracy and sense of community. It is successful precisely because it is nondenominational and remains fairly nonspecific, reflecting widely held but usually implicit assumptions about our living under the shadow of God's providence and being the beneficiaries of divinely endowed rights and blessings. America's civil religion has its tacitly agreed upon saints (such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln), sacred seasons (Memorial Day and Thanksgiving), spaces (Arlington National Cemetery), and rituals (the singing of "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America").

The profound influence of civil religion is never more evident than in times of national tragedy. In those moments of deeply shared shock and grief we tend to naturally look to our president to emerge, however briefly, as our pastor-in-chief. We long for his words of solace and hope and need to perceive him as an icon of our solidarity.

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Some of the most poignant presidential oratory has occurred at such moments. One thinks of Ronald Reagan's stirring words after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, as he challenged the nation to emulate the spirit of their seven countrymen who had "waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' " George W. Bush more than rose to the civil religion occasion with his citation of the 23rd Pslam in his Oval Office address on the evening of 9/11.

Obama's comments at the Newtown prayer vigil hit all the right notes. He shared the hopeful conviction of sacred scripture that "though outwardly we are wasting away . . . inwardly, we are being renewed day by day." He convincingly expressed the solidarity of all Americans with the citizens of this small Connecticut town: "Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown, you are not alone."

He also spoke as the parent-in-chief, capturing the anxiety felt by every mother and father who sends a child out into an uncertain world each morning.

And then he did something expected but nevertheless extraordinary. He dared to articulate the obvious observation that we have, through our collective neglect and cowardice, failed to keep our children as safe as they might be. "We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."

It was not the time or the place to get into the specifics of that change, but it was clear that part of it had to do with taking an honest, sober look at this nation's near-psychotic relationship with firearms, even if that meant dancing on one of the third rails of American politics.

To have said such things in a stump speech, or even in the course of a State of the Union address, would be one thing. But to speak such words within the context of a memorial service for 20 slaughtered children and six of their devoted educators is quite another. When a president stands behind the pulpit of civil religion and says, "We can't tolerate this anymore," he will be held to a higher standard than had he made such statements in any other venue. To not follow through would be truly sacrilegious.

I hope that the president was deeply aware that, as he spoke, he was "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." It is certain that Olivia and Dylan were listening. As were Chase, Emilie and Grace. And all of their friends. As were we all.

Paul Ginnetty is a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's College and director of the college's Institute for the Study of Religion and Community Life.

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