Thoughts on Obama's Notre Dame Address

By Jim Wallis 05-18-2009

After weeks of controversy surrounding Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama to receive an honorary doctorate as this year's commencement speaker, we have seen both the American democratic tradition at its best and the worst examples of those who would rather wage culture wars than engage in that democratic tradition. Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, in his introduction of the president, reiterated the university's position on life and abortion while also praising the president for coming in spite of the controversy: "Others might have avoided this venue for that reason, but President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him."

Some students and others exercised their right to publicly and peacefully disagree with the president on an issue of importance to our country. The health of our democracy depends upon the right of students to protest and dissent with the policies of our government and any administration with which they disagree. I hope, however, that there were not any protesters who were yelling so loud that they did not hear the words that the president spoke.

He confronted head-on the controversy surrounding his visit and also articulated a vision for how the people of our country can disagree with each other on fundamental issues while still finding common ground to work with one another on areas of agreement.

On abortion, the issue that fueled the controversy, the president 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 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 children to term. 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 not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do.

Now, understand -- understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because 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.

He also underscored another value of democracy: that we seek first to understand and be understood, even if we do not agree.

For too long in our country, generations have yelled past each other at "straw men" and engaged in battle with stereotypes of those with whom they disagree instead of taking the time to listen and understand others. The only way we will be able to progress in any kind of moral dialogue is to actually engage with those with whom we disagree, not just yell louder than them.

The president shared the story of the Civil Rights commission whose work formed the basis for the Civil Rights Act, and whose diverse and divergent members were able to find consensus on such a contentious issue. Former Notre Dame President Fr. Ted Hesburgh was a member of that commission:

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