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At Notre Dame, Obama Urges Civility in Public Life

4 years ago
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Notre Dame students cheered President Obama Sunday when he said that both those who support and those who oppose embryonic stem-cell research do so on moral grounds -- and that is news that ought to eclipse the many thousands of words that will be written about whether or not he was welcomed on campus, or addressed Topic A. (He was, and did.)

With its applause, the crowd was thanking the president for putting those who oppose such research on the same moral footing as those, like Obama, who support it. And in return, the audience was showing the same respect for the president's position. To express how big a deal this is, on this strongly pro-life campus, imagine a NARAL rally at which a speaker draws wild applause for saying that those who oppose abortion rights care just as much about women as those who support them; no, right?

Obama was preaching – there's no other word for it – that we'll never get where we need to go as a country until we stop demonizing people who disagree with us, on abortion and more: "The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. 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.''

Because the president supports abortion rights, his invitation to speak and be honored at Sunday's commencement ceremony at the country's best-known Catholic university had been debated non-stop since March. (Those opposed: "Murder...ashamed...Virgin Mary!'' In favor: "Death penalty...Bush...pedophiles!'' Did I leave anything out? Sadly, no; it was rinse and repeat for six weeks solid.)

In his introductory remarks, Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, essentially argued for diplomacy rather than armed conflict, and engagement rather than treating those who disagree with Catholic teaching on abortion the way the last administration treated Iran and Cuba. "Easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge'' of our time, Jenkins said. "If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.'' Only four years into this job – though I guess the last six weeks must have felt like 20 years – Jenkins' leadership seems very much in keeping with that of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, who retired in 1987.

I'm not sure I agree with the way Jenkins lavished praise on Obama for just showing up: "Others might have avoided this venue'' over the fact, spelled out by Jenkins, that the Catholic Church and the president are far apart on the abortion issue. (Others who don't care about the Catholic vote, maybe.) "But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him. Mr. President, this is a principle we share.''

When the president took the podium, the ovation from graduates and their families at my deeply conservative alma mater left no doubt that they were – politics aside -- pleased and proud to have him, and hoping the Notre Dame family would be on its best behavior. When one of the handful of protesters who were led away by security during the exercises began shouting, "Abortion is murder!'' the students responded by shouting him down the way that came naturally -- with a football cheer: "We are, N.D.!'' (And you, sir, are not.) In fact, it was Obama who cooled the crowd's reaction to the protester, again drawing cheers when he said, "We're fine, everybody...We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.''

A friend asked me earlier today, before I had heard or read the president's remarks, what I hoped Obama would say at Notre Dame, and I said my biggest hope was that he would communicate that he gets it, gets us, does not consider everyone with moral qualms about abortion a Neanderthal who spends his weekends throwing rocks at pregnant teens. And on that score, the president more than delivered:

"As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy,'' he said, "how do we engage in vigorous debate? 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.

"As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign...an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that's not what was preventing him from voting for me.

"What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website – an entry that said I would fight 'right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.' The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, 'I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.' "

Obama also said straightforwardly that he is not out to destroy the conscience clause that allows pro-life health care workers to keep their jobs. When he quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the "single garment'' of our common destiny, I wondered if it was a subtle reference to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's "seamless garment'' view of a holistic, broadly defined pro-life agenda, and later in the speech, when he described being inspired by Bernardin as a young community organizer, it became clear that yes, the reference was intentional. (In fact, he came close to saying that it was Bernardin who had brought him to Jesus -- though if that were the case, we surely would have heard about it back when video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were on TV around the clock.)

Now, the vast majority of Notre Dame students do consider themselves pro-life to one degree or another. (Yes, there are degrees, as was evident in last week's Gallup Poll suggesting a shift toward the pro-life position; in fact, the terms pro-life and pro-choice are so much fuzzier than is generally acknowledged that I think it's far likelier that it's only the label preferred by those in the muddy middle that has shifted. I find it hard to believe that so many Americans changed their minds on the underlying issue in just a year. Because an Obama-packed Supreme Court won't overturn Roe v. Wade, calling yourself pro-life just got easier; nothing's going to happen, so drape yourself in whatever word you like. Which is why so many pro-choice Catholic pols go back to calling themselves pro-life after they retire.)

Both the N.D. students and the president accomplished something important and uncommon just by showing warmth and respect to those of the opposing view on this hottest of hot-button issues. And all you commenters out there, do you really have to respond by reverting to "Murder...Mary!'' versus "Death penalty...perverts!''?
Filed Under: Barack Obama, Education
Tagged: abortion, obama

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