"These things are old", Religion & American politics:

President Obama’s Catholic sensibility

posted by Michele Dillon


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Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

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President Barack Obama’s May 17 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame deftly demonstrated the president’s unique ability to elevate civil discourse and to eloquently incorporate a deep religious sensibility into the nation’s most divisive contemporary public debate. Many observers have rightly commented on Obama’s important emphasis that the abortion issue requires “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.” What is equally impressive is the religious repertoire that Obama used in articulating his vision of how that so-hard-to-come-by common-ground might be achieved. I am not thinking of Obama’s references to the “imperfections of man” and to “original sin,” or to the invocation of “God’s creation”—though these religious references are important. More striking was how Obama, a non-Catholic, showed his ability to think and to talk like a Catholic. He empathically did this by vividly using in his address very particular experiences as grounds legitimating the validity of universal claims. During his speech, Obama exemplified the translation that necessarily occurs in everyday lived experience between universal principles of morality and the particularistic ways in which those principles get worked out on the ground by (imperfect) human beings. This he accomplished not by abstract talk about lofty principles but by the stories he told, two in particular.

Obama was clearly attentive to the cultural and geographical significance of the site of his speech and, fortunately for him, was able to use the words and actions of Father Ted Hesburgh, that most iconic of Notre Dame figures (and the university’s president-emeritus), to demonstrate his own thesis that common ground is achievable if and once we recognize that despite the intrusive divisions that set individuals at odds with one another, we all share a common humanity. Thus, as Obama recounted, if Ted Hesburgh could first bring together people of sharply divided opinions on race (members of the Civil Rights Commission) and then get them to talk—and fish—with one another, with the result that they formed the foundation for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, change on other divisive issues, though a steep challenge, is also possible. Obama’s story about Fr. Hesburgh and his fellow civil rights commissioners was a vivid reminder that once we find we have some particular everyday thing in common with others who otherwise seem strange and even threatening, that particular commonality opens the possibility that the divisions that characterize our lives might be bridged, however unevenly, so that a universal good is achieved.

President Obama also drew on the late Cardinal Bernardin, another iconic figure in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bernardin is most well know for articulating what he called a consistent ethic of life, meaning that life needs to be protected and supported from the moment of conception through to the moment of death and at all moments along the way. Bernardin’s intent in articulating a consistent ethic was driven by his attempt to forge a meaningful common ground among Catholics in the face of their polarization over abortion. Subsequently, this ethic has been frequently invoked by politicians and activists who argue that abortion is just one among several moral issues for Catholics; consistency on the sanctity of life requires opposition not just to abortion but also to the death penalty, and strong support for social and economic policies that help alleviate poverty, homelessness, discrimination, etc.  One might well have expected President Obama to mention Bernardin in his address, in part to justify his own strong social justice leanings (policies which University of Notre Dame administrators have approvingly highlighted while expressing disagreement with his abortion views).

But what was especially intriguing about Obama’s speech was that he did not mention the phrase “consistent ethic.” Instead, in a masterful gesture, he told a moving story about his own personal encounter with Bernardin and of Bernardin’s exemplification of both the ethic and the common ground that he sought to foster. That story, from Obama’s time as a community organizer working closely with Catholic and other churches in Chicago, allowed Obama, once again, to demonstrate that universal moral principles get translated in particularistic local actions. It also allowed Obama to pay sincere tribute to Bernardin (and the Catholic Church at-large) while also finding support for his own call for a civil approach to abortion and other divisive issues. Obama noted that Bernardin was “unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS, and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground.”

Thus at Notre Dame, Obama demonstrated the practical sense that he has long been credited with and also unveiled a new religious sensibility, one that has heretofore been silenced by the moral complexity of issues (as on stem cell research, for example). Obama has put religion back in civil religion, and has achieved this not by simply invoking religious words in public setting (“God bless America”), but by deploying a narrative style that both fits with, and gives lived experience, to the theological argument that universal moral principles are a society’s foundation and anchor. Obama’s speech is unlikely to change the passions and fundamental moral divisions that exist around abortion. Nonetheless, his demonstrated appreciation of how universal moral claims get worked out in particular contexts can serve to remind us that interpretive diversity does not undermine but is part and parcel of the universality of human community. People can accept but disagree with each other’s differences while working together to achieve their discoverable, shared goals.

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10 Responses to “President Obama’s Catholic sensibility”

  1. avatar Rick Garnett says:

    With respect to the President’s invocation of Cardinal Bernadin, it strikes me as important to remember that, for the latter, the “consistent ethic” idea was never intended to minimize the importance of the abortion question or to excuse opposition to legal protections for unborn children. He said, for example, in 1988, “I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual.” And, in the same interview, he noted that “some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”

    The “consistent ethic” is a call to do *better* than contemporary politicians tend to do; it is not an excuse for doing worse than they should.

  2. A thoughtful post; certainly the Catholic themes were present in his address, but I hadn’t given them much consideration, so I thank you for drawing them out. I tend to see the kind of religious and civil sensibility in his address as somewhat more Rousseauian, as gesturing at a kind of civil religion which depends, above all, on the often difficult act of bringing people together and getting them to recognize their mutual dependence upon one another and the principles by which their community is governed. (More here, if you’re interested.) But of course, speaking more theologically, that could be seen as simply underlining the Catholic, universal, “mystical body” conceptual framework that even romantics, pietists and Protestants all rely upon when they connect their religious beliefs with the foundations of society, and then attempt to apply such to concrete matters.

    All in all, a fine and important speech–another good one from our president.

  3. avatar Thomas F. Farr says:

    It is, I think, disingenuous (and a sign of moral confusion) to argue that the President “showed his ability to think and to talk like a Catholic” by employing “particular experiences as grounds legitimating the validity of universal claims.” The universal claim most on display at Notre Dame was the Catholic Church’s teaching that all human beings are equal under the law, that protecting human rights for the least powerful is a requirement of both faith and reason, and that it is wrong, always and everywhere, to take innocent human life. There is no “particular experience” that can alter this teaching, which is, for Catholics, not optional. They can disagree over how to alleviate poverty and whether, or how, to prosecute a war. But not this. At Notre Dame Obama thought like Obama, not like a Catholic.

    It is also insulting to Catholics to repeat the President’s slur that some oppose “stem cell research.” That, of course, is not true. Virtually all Catholics support the several kinds of stem cell research that have actually cured diseases and reduced human suffering. What the Church opposes is embryonic stem cell research, which requires the sacrifice of one human life to help another.

    The great American Catholic John Courtney Murray once noted that what we call disagreement is often merely confusion. That is what we had at Notre Dame and seems to be what we have here.

  4. avatar Joe Murray says:

    I find it odd that in the search for common ground on abortion, or any other controversial issue for that matter, people who have made government their life’s work so often miss the most obvious source of common ground, namely the U.S. Constitution and the legislative process established therein. We may not agree on what our laws should be, but we should be able to find common ground on how our laws are to be made, and the notion that they are to be made by the courts out of whole cloth is hardly consistent with the vision of the Founding Fathers.

  5. avatar Christopher J. Eberle says:

    I find this paean to political power mystifying… and a wee bit disturbing. President Obama is a professional politician. Like any politician, he has interests, constituencies, debts to pay. As with any politician, we might want to keep those political interests in mind when we reflect on what he says. This might help us to identify contradictions between high-flying rhetoric and political reality. So, for example, it’s just possible that President Obama’s aspiration to search for common ground on the abortion issue serves to obfuscate his unwillingness to reach any real compromise on the abortion issue. This possibility raises a simple question: given that to compromise requires competing parties to relent on some issue that is really very important to them, how has President Obama’s aspiration to reach common ground on abortion led him to adopt particular policies that his pro-abortion constituencies find repellent?

    To my mind, a politician who ‘searches for common ground’ without actually forging compromise engages in the kind of ideological obfuscation that academics should be in the business of exposing.

  6. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    “Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.”

    —“The Speech of Saruman,” J.R.R.Tolkien, The Two Towers

    Towards the middle of his May 17th commencement address at Notre Dame, Barack Obama asked the following questions:

    “Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, 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?”

    Essential and vital questions, these, and the concise and straight-forward manner with which he proposed them reveals Obama’s rhetorical brilliance. But Obama did more than propose thought-provoking questions to his Catholic audience; he provided definite answers to these, at least for those in the audience not entirely spellbound. Obama’s answers, along with the philosophical and theological principles they presuppose, were deftly hidden behind his rhetorically honed, magical words; and when they are exposed to the light, they reveal a different incantation than the one that appeared upon the exquisitely polished linguistic surface.

    In the middle of the Address, Obama recounts the story of a Christian doctor who informed him that he would not be voting for him for President in the upcoming election, due not to Obama’s pro-choice position, but to the uncivil, ideological language in which this position was expressed on his website. Obama then told the audience how he immediately changed the wording, expressing his hope that “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.” This anecdote, I think, provides an interpretive key to understanding not only the essential point of Obama’s Notre Dame Address, but also his entire political project as expressed in his many addresses, writings, and acts since President.

    The anecdote is a microcosm of Obama’s macro-political vision: a multitude of people with irreconcilable religious and moral convictions living together in peace and reconciliation. “Irreconcilable” is not my word, mind you, it’s Obama’s. From the Notre Dame address:

    “Understand—I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. 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.”

    Of course, by definition there can be no “reconciliation” between irreconcilable views, but Obama means something entirely different here. In light of the doctor story, what it means to “reconcile the beliefs of each with the good of all,” is not to change or encourage others to change views on an issue, but simply to change the way the view is articulated, so as not to “caricature” any opposing view.

    The doctor’s “humble” request for rhetorical civility, and Obama’s ready acquiescence to it, is the model for such reconciliation. “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion,” Obama quotes the doctor as saying, “only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” A question arises, here, though: Why would someone who believes abortion to be the deliberate murder of a fully human and innocent person, as the pro-life doctor does, not ask everyone they meet, let alone a President with the most power to see it criminalized, to oppose abortion! That is, why would someone with such a “passionate conviction” judge the “fair-mindedness” of pro-murder language more important than truth, than speaking in such a way as most effectively to stop the killing? We are talking, after all, about a life and death issue here, not one’s view on the estate tax.

    In the speech, Obama urged all Americans to “align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age,” that is, not to change our values and commitments, whether secularist or religious, but merely align them. What this alignment entails must have something to do with the exchange between the doctor and Obama, our models of American virtue. Allow me to change the anecdote a bit to help discover the connection. The year is 1834, and the issue is slavery, not abortion. There is a law that allows a slave to be killed by its master for any reason whatsoever, and thus thousands of innocent slaves are killed every year. The “pro-life” doctor opposes this law, but his senator advocates it. The doctor, after mystically hearing Obama’s future Notre Dame speech in a prophetic dream, is mesmerized by Obama’s “fair-mindedness,” and recognizes that the “demands of the new age” require that he and every other opponent of the murder of slaves refrain from asking pro-slave-murder persons to change their views, but ask only that they improve their rhetoric. The senator has the same dream, which causes him to recognize that his highest obligation is being fair-minded when he supports the murder of slaves so as not to “caricature” any opposing views.

    I think the point is made: if being rhetorically civil were the extent of the required “alignment” for the nineteenth-century American citizen, we would still have legalized slavery, not to mention the genocide of tens of thousands of African-Americans. Needless to say, there would be no President Obama. Suppose the situation were a President proposing a mass genocide of “less-than-human” Jews? “Okay,” assures the anti-semitic President to the doctor, “I’ll be fair-minded and say that they are quite human, but we must still kill them.” One gets the point.

    I said at the outset that the questions in Obama’s speech at Notre Dame could be mined not only for Obama’s answers, but also for the theological and philosophical principles his answers presuppose. More space would permit me to treat these in some depth; for now, allow me to shed light on what I consider to be the central philosophical/theological reason that Obama would advocate a social and political ideal favoring conversational fairness over truth, and use as his main example what the majority of Americans consider to be a life and death issue. Here is the master key, as it were, that unlocks Obama’s speech:

    “But remember too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt…. 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. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.”

    I propose this more philosophically and theologically transparent translation:

    “Whatever “values” and “commitments” we may hold to be true, those that stem from or involve in any way our “faith” must be held with a certain amount of irresolvable doubt—for the “truth” in these sorts of matters can never be known. And this is why we should seek above all to continue, not ever resolve, the “moral and spiritual debate,” whose quite attainable goal is not the truth of any political matter, no matter how life-threatening, but “fair-mindedness.”

    I think this interpretation, or something like it, is best able to make sense of why a pro-life Christian doctor revealing his tolerance of the mass-murder of baby-humans in the womb is held up by the President of the United States as a model of civic virtue to a group of graduating Catholic college students. Needless to say, such a relativistic notion of faith and truth is completely irreconcilable with any genuinely religious worldview, and according to Obama, that means over 90% of the American people.

    What “fair-minded” voices, then, would be permitted to speak in this sort of “vigorous debate”? Would those who refuse to accept its relativistic presuppositions, and who say so plainly, be “caricaturing” their opponents? The kind of debate Obama’s “faith” would “compel” us to undertake is a mockery of debate, for it denigrates the point of any debate, the discovery of truth, and therefore it denigrates the human beings who participate in it, for our greatest desire is to know, love, and act upon the truth. But with truth eclipsed by “fair-minded” rhetoric as the political summum bonum, what is to prevent the strongest and must ruthless—but, of course, rhetorically “fair-minded”—from exerting power over the weaker? Sure, the pro-life doctors would be speaking quite nicely with all the pro-abortion abortion doctors, while the baby humans are slaughtered in their wombs.

    Pace the president of Notre Dame, I, fair-mindedly, or perhaps not, decline to participate in Obama’s “renewal” of political life, in solidarity with all the baby humans killed in the past and who will be killed in the future due to the amoral cultural, spiritual, and political climate only exacerbated by Obama’s cleverly cloaked relativism, wherein the weakest and most defenseless are given a, not-so-fair-minded, silent treatment. Obama asks us not to caricature other American citizens—fine—but let us ask, nay, demand that he not allow them to be murdered.

  7. avatar Keith Pavlischek says:

    Obama’s rhetoric at Notre Dame was all smoke and mirrors. Here’s what he said:

    “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let’s 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.”

    We’ve heard it all before, of course, but it is worth noting once again what is being masked by the “common ground rhetoric.”

    Note that Obama did not say that we all need to “work together to reduce the number of abortions.” He said, we all need to “work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.”

    Why is this important?

    Recall the “debate” over the Democratic Party’s abortion plank last summer:

    On the evangelical side, the key players were the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church, the Rev. Tony Campolo, a progressive evangelical who was on the Democrats’ platform committee, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Sojourners. Each was politically progressive in other ways but firmly anti-abortion.

    Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good were the leading Catholic advocacy groups for the pro-life position.

    On the pro-choice side, the key players represented the National Abortion Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women.

    At no point did the pro-lifers push hard for legal restrictions on abortions, including partial birth abortions. But they did push for clear language casting the Democratic Party as supporting a reduction in the number of abortions and not merely a reduction in the “need” for abortion. As Dr. Hunter explained, emphasizing a reduction in the need was backwards—making it sound like the real goal was stopping unintended pregnancies and abortions were a side effect.

    But the pro-choice forces adamantly insisted that the word “need” remain. “Reducing the need is the only terminology that the pro-choice community is comfortable with—for good reason,” says Ms. Laser, who conveyed those views to the Obama campaign.

    Ms. Laser was particularly concerned that language calling for a “reduction in the number of abortions would somehow stigmatize women who had abortions. It might give the impression, according to Laser, ‘that it’s a morally wrong decision.’”

    To describe the views of Jim Wallis or Tony Campolo or the Catholic groups Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good as being “firmly anti-abortion” is rather misleading, since their views are more along the lines of Mario Cuomo’s “personally opposed, but don’t impose.” However, they did argue (“fight” is too strong a word) for language seeking a reduction in the number of abortions before they got rolled by the pro-abortion lobby.

    So, if Obama wanted to signal “solidarity” with Hunter, Wallis, Campolo, Kmiec and the rest rather than the agressive pro-abortion lobby, he could very well have said, let’s work together to “reduce abortions,” period. But he didn’t. He chose instead carefully to craft his speech with rhetoric acceptable to the radical pro-abortion lobby over against EVEN HIS OWN ostensible “pro-life” supporters. He sided with the likes of Ms. Laser and the rest who don’t want to even concede that resorting to abortion is “a morally wrong decision.”

    And this, we are to believe, is a new and improved Catholic way of reasoning!

  8. avatar Ted Morgan says:

    Charles Hartshorne correctly noted many years ago that the Pope’s reality ceased to exist five hundred years ago. Oddly, the United States Supreme Court is packed with people who affirm this outmoded worldview—one that refuses to grant women reproductive freedom under the guise of a fantastic and unbelievable view of what defines a human person. I do not hear in President Obama’s address sensitivity to this problem.

  9. avatar Joe Murray says:

    Ted, I’m puzzled by your characterization of the current court, which has in fact continued to uphold the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments because they illuminate the risks posed to both the right and the left in entrusting legislative functions to the judiciary. Consideration of the full range of possibilities should be enough to make strict constructionists of us all.

  10. avatar Alexander Zarecki says:

    American civil religion can become a terribly complicated issue when it comes to potential inequality of understanding grounded in religious familiarity. I do not mean to attack the nature of American civil religion, nor to take away any of the great value of Obama’s skill with language and mature conversation. However, I believe the grounding of a civil religion in the Christian tradition unfairly weights both inter-religious dialogue and the credit Obama seems to be given for this accomplishment.

    As a result of the figures that founded and formed the nation’s politics, the Protestant Christian tradition lies most in line with American civil religion. The term “Judeo-Christian” has been used to both promote and downplay the significance of the role the Christian faith has played in politics. While there are clear ties between these two Abrahamic faiths – keeping discourse relatively breathable – there is not total agreement on the nature of the relationship between Judaism and American civil religion. While Catholicism has had its history of persecution in America, it is also far closer to Protestantism than eastern religions, Mormonism, agnosticism, etc.

    Thus, while it is fantastic that the president can step out of religious language and stretch over political differences, these are mere baby steps. The need for conversation both about and through religion across all kinds of faiths is a desperate one. America is plagued by religious illiteracy, so a president that could demonstrate both clear individual religious views and clear inter-(as opposed to quasi-intra-)religious dialogue might help open windows to a more breathable and potent religious and political atmosphere.

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