When times are tough, presidents turn to St. Paul.
“We remain a young nation but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” President Obama said in his inaugural address.
Obama's reference to Paul was taken from 1 Corinthians 13:11, 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.”
Put another way: Adult-sized problems demand adult-sized attitudes.
Solace amid sorrow
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 the 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, former Washington director for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Part of the reason for Paul's popularity, scholars say, is he lived in turbulent times. As one of Christianity's first theologians, he provided answers about basic questions of faith, including the role of suffering.
Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., called Paul a “practical theologian.”
“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.”
Messages still resonate
For many years, Paul was seen as a hardliner who was thought to condone anti-Semitism and misogyny.
Yet the Bible reveals that the most controversial letters bearing Paul's name are actually the work of someone else, Garry Wills argues in his book, “What Paul Meant.”
Cizik said Paul's message resonates because he was a “hopeful theologian.”