Unpacking Obama’s Notre Dame Address

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It would be judging Barack Obama by a pretty low standard to give him credit just for showing up to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. But it’s also a mistake to dismiss Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins’ introductory comments about Obama as just so much puffery. “President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research,” said Jenkins, mincing few words. “Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.”

I know, you’re rolling your eyes. What Democrat, well-aware that Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate, would pass up the chance to speak to a top-notch Catholic university? Michael Dukakis, for one. In 1988, his campaign made the decision to turn down all invitations to speak at Catholic institutions. The memory of 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro spent much of the campaign defending her support of abortion rights from the criticism of Catholic leaders, was fresh in their minds. Dukakis’ advisors figured that any speech before a Catholic audience ran the risk of becoming all about abortion and that was a fight they didn’t want to have.

John Kerry’s senior advisors made the same calculation in 2004, turning down the opportunity for their candidate to give a speech about his faith at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school outside Cleveland. They worried that protestors might disrupt the event or that someone might ask a question about the senator’s position on abortion. (In 2000, Al Gore’s staff tried to convince Joe Lieberman to turn down a chance to speak at Notre Dame for the same reasons, but he gave the speech anyway.)

In many ways, Sunday’s commencement at Notre Dame was once a Democratic political pro’s nightmare. Anti-abortion posters? Check. Blood-covered baby dolls and Alan Keyes? Check. Graduates with cut-outs of baby feet on their mortar boards? Check. Protestors interrupting the president’s speech? Check. So like Father Jenkins, I give Obama some credit for showing up. 

But as the president learned at last summer’s candidate forum at Saddleback Church, showing up is just the start. What really matters is what you say once the audience has taken its seat. This time Obama was more prepared. But his task was also more complex, with several different themes intended for several different audiences:

Catholics. Whenever a president gives a commencement address, he’s not really speaking to the people physically gathered before him. So while Obama did address the controversy surrounding his visit, it was mostly as an opening to his larger point about how to deal with disagreement in a democratic society. But that isn’t to say that he ignored his Catholic audience. In fact, the protestors may have done Obama a favor by bringing so much attention to the speech and guaranteeing wall-to-wall coverage. 

The danger in caricaturing your opponent is that the reality rarely matches the outsized monster you’ve constructed. Catholics who tuned in to hear Barack “Baby Killer” Obama, the “most pro-abortion president ever,” heard this: “Let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” And this: “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away.”

And just as they might have wondered whether this was all just talk from the man who has spent the first few months of his presidency shoring up abortion rights, they heard Obama change his position on conscience exceptions for health care workers: “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

Social Conservatives. As I said, when Obama did address the controversy, it was to lay out his alternative to the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality that often characterized the Bush administration’s approach to domestic and foreign opposition. Think of it as more of a “If you’re not with us, then let’s sit down over cookies and talk about it” mindset. On Sunday, Obama didn’t try to argue that anti-abortion protestors were wrong in their position on abortion, but that their response to his visit wasn’t constructive.

“We must find a way to live together as one human family,” said Obama. “Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because he’s been on the interconnectedness train for a while. Just remember “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” from the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote.

Obama’s emphasis on finding common ground is often dismissed as the moral relativism of a man who wants to be excused for holding positions some of his supporters find troubling. On Sunday, he did two things to challenge that judgment. First, instead of his traditional focus solely on all the things we have in common, Obama acknowledged that barriers can prevent us from overcoming differences: “Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved.” 

He also tethered his argument to the example of the Civil Rights Commission appointed by Eisenhower after the Brown decision. No one would argue that Obama takes no moral side on the question of school segregation or universal voting rights. But his message was that in the face of intractable differences, there is no alternative but to sit down and talk and try to arrive at solutions. Social conservatives may scoff at the idea, but a smarter course of action would be to hold Obama to it.

The World. Obama couldn’t have foreseen that his speech would take place the same day that GQ released images of intelligence report covers emblazoned with Christian crusader Scripture verses that were prepared by George W. Bush’s DoD. (My favorite so far: “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Wow.) But the timing just made his final point more relevant–and necessary.

Obama has spoken before about his belief that faith does not come without doubt and should therefore require some amount of humility. He’s done it well–in his 2006 speech at Sojourners. And not so well–in the “above my pay grade” quip at Saddleback. This time it was quite good and worth quoting in full:

The ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own. This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Obama and Bush when it comes to faith is not any one opposing position it leads them to but this fundamental question of whether religious belief gives you certainty in the rightness of your actions or doubts born of your understanding of human fallibility. Both are very Protestant ways of thinking about faith–raising the theme at a Catholic university was an unusual choice. But with parts of the world now wondering whether one American president launched a war in the Middle East because he thought God wanted him to, it couldn’t hurt for Obama to underscore that this White House doesn’t subscribe to the theology of certainty.

Update: One additional point worth making–the protest surrounding Obama’s visit to Notre Dame was not really about Obama. It was about Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor a pro-choice politician. That made it just the latest front in an ongoing battle within the American Catholic community. Obama couldn’t–and really shouldn’t–weigh in on that. But Father Jenkins did in his introduction, taking up the Bernardinian mantle of engagement against those who accused Notre Dame of “embarrassing” Catholicism by choosing to honor Obama. To that, Jenkins responded with a quote from Gaudium et Spes, the chief document to come out of Vatican II:

Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.