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Washington – As President Obama addressed a nation suffering from economic crisis and waging two foreign wars on Tuesday (Jan. 20), he turned to a familiar source of presidential oratory amid hardship: St.
“We remain a young nation but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” Obama said in his inaugural address, citing St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Obama’s reference to Paul was taken from his famous chapter about love, a favorite for countless weddings. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways,” St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:11.
For Obama, the “childish” reference was his way of saying that the challenges ahead must mean the end of juvenile politics. No more “conflict and discord.” No more “petty grievances and false promises.” No more “recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Put another way: adult-sized problems demand adult-sized attitudes.
The first-century saint seems to be the consoler-in-chief to presidents, if their public addresses are any indication. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, for example, both cited Paul when speaking to a nation reeling from terrorist attacks.
“As St. Paul admonished us,” Clinton said in Oklahoma City after a bombing there killed 168 people in 1995, “let us `not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'” Bush echoed those words after 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.
Christian leaders say the Bible’s Psalms give vent to human anguish and the Book of Job frames the question of evil, but it’s Paul who provides solace amid sorrow.
“We turn to Job for the questions, we turn to Paul for the answers,”
said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the former Washington director for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Part of the reason for Paul’s popularity, scholars say, is that he lived in turbulent times himself. And as one of Christianity’s first theologians, he provided answers to the fledgling church about basic questions of faith, including the role of suffering.
In fact, many of Paul’s letters address communities divided over nascent practice and theology and in constant danger of persecution.
“Since they were undergoing troubles, (Paul’s letters) are appropriate for troubled times,” said Catholic intellectual and writer Gary Wills.
At a National Cathedral service three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, evangelist Billy Graham turned to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, in which Paul writes of the “mystery of iniquity.” At the same ceremony, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Houston United Methodist minister and spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush, read a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
Bush himself quoted Paul in his 2002 National Day of Prayer proclamation, saying, “I encourage Americans to remember the words of St. Paul: `Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.'”
Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., called Paul a “practical theologian, not just an ivory tower thinker.”
“It’s very obvious that he is relating to real human beings in the congregations in the midst of lives. He’s addressing concrete experience. So are the Gospels, but it’s not as easy to see that. People can read the Gospels as if they’re disembodied. With Paul, it’s very obvious that he’s addressing human experience.”
It might surprise some, however, to see Paul cast in the role of consoler. For many years, he was seen as a theological hardliner who was thought to condone anti-Semitism and misogyny.
Thomas Jefferson called Paul “the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said he had “a genius for hatred,” and playwright George Bernard Shaw said “it would have been better for the world if Paul had never been born.”
But a careful reading of the Bible reveals that the most controversial letters bearing Paul’s name are actually the work of someone else, Wills argues in his book, “What Paul Meant.”
“For years I winced at the presentation of Paul as anti-Semitic and misogynistic,” Wills said. “Given the chance to fight it, I took it.”
Some of Paul’s prominence at times of tragedy may be simply because his writings comprise such a large portion of the New Testament, said Jeffrey Weima, a professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Paul gets a fair amount of attention because there are so many letters. He may have the greatest voice, percentage-wise” in the New Testament, Weima said.
Meanwhile, Cizik said Paul’s message resonates because he was a “hopeful theologian.”
“Paul gives us the Christian response to death: There is life thereafter,” Cizik said, “`and the life that really matters only comes through death.”
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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