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.