The Notre Dame commencement address is history. How did it go?
On the night it happened, basically one narrative circulated throughout the mainstream media online. This one.
“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion
can or should go away,” Obama said. “Each side will continue to make
its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can
do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”
“Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking
abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption
more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry
their child to term,” Obama told the crowd of 12,000 at a huge athletic
Let’s remind the ‘pro-choice’ movement that carrying an unintended pregnancy through is one of the choices. The pro-life movement has been promoting adoption for decades. Promotion of that is a welcome change.
Where did Reuters and others come up with the headlines about the “fair-minded” language?
From the plea of a Christian doctor that impressed Obama and stayed with him, as he recounted.
“How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and
fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as
strongly held convictions on the other side?”
“Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.”
The President then discussed a letter received from a Christian,
pro-life doctor who was bothered by a phrase on Obama’s campaign site.
It said that he would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take
away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor then said that he assumed
Obama was reasonable, but that if he “truly believed that every
pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict
suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable.”
The doctor wrote: “I do not ask at this point that you oppose
abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”
“Fair-minded words,” repeated the President.
He explained that after reading the letter, the President changed
the words on his website and prayed that he might “extend the same
presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.
Because when we do that – when we open our hearts and our minds to
those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when
we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
There will be much analysis over the next few days. Some initial thoughts…
President Obama is actually more engaging (if not brilliant) than
his opponents may want to believe in his rhetorical engagement of
issues. An Archbishop recently said it’s nearly impossible to debate
him on moral issues because he agrees with you on everything you’re
saying. But his actions and policies do not follow his rhetoric, so
there’s a tension between what he says and what he does.
What he said at Notre Dame was high-minded and ‘fair-minded’ and
expansive and inviting. But his actions and policies in this short
presidency have run counter to the words in this eloquent public
address. And when he referred to opponents of “stem cell research”, I
noticed he didn’t specify that he was referring to embryonic stem cell
research, which is the controversial and unsuccessful therapy, as
opposed to adult or cord blood stem cell therapies that are both moral
Overall, he reached for the right tone to reconcile deeply divisive
factions of Catholics and Christians and people of goodwill. He did it
well throughout his campaign, has commanded an unprecedented control of
the press in his short tenure as president, and delivered yet again at
Notre Dame a tone and message that just makes people feel good. In a society that places a premium on feelings, it has capital appeal.
For all the good, fair-minded, prayerful and reasonable protestors
in and out of the arena, the attention grabbers were the ones who
staged more dramatic demonstrations. Randall Terry made the media
rounds and did the Church and the pro-life movement no favor with his
zealous attacks on those who disagree. (He recently set up a Vatican
official by capturing his comments on canon law in an interview, and
calling a press conference afterward to portray that official as
rebuking his brother bishops for not following that law.)
At the beginning of this commencement address at Notre Dame, Obama
took another jab (second one this week) at Arizona State University
which earlier this week gave him the opportunity to address its
graduating class while choosing not to confer an honorary degree on
him, for practical reasons. He joked that these things are hard to come
by, and he’s now one for two.
At Notre Dame, he took the fullest advantage of that one.