Was President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame a “game-changer?” Has he now moved the abortion debate from the polarized “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” one and its focus on the Constitution to the pragmatic one which asks, “How do we work together to reduce the number of abortions that take place every year in the United States?” Is Obama a new Moses leading the United States out of its decades-long bondage to the Culture Wars and toward a Promised Land of pragmatism and progress? Or is he a new Pharaoh, subjecting religious people to the power of civil authorities?
To answer “yes” to such assertions would probably be to claim too much for the President’s commencement address at Notre Dame. After all, Obama’s position on abortion is much the same as Bill Clinton’s. Still, it’s not the 1990s and the electorate seems to be signaling its own support for less division and more conciliation. That or the economic problems have so overshadowed the cultural or “values” issues that voters prefer a President who solves public policy problems to one who leads moral crusades.
We’re still getting to know our new President and the Notre Dame speech tells us a number of things about him. First, Obama doesn’t mind stepping into the lion’s den or into the muck of complex and highly-charged issues. In fact, he seems to enjoy it. He doesn’t avoid conflict, vexing issues, or audiences that may not be made up of exclusively of “his” people. As with his now famous speech on race in Philadelphia last year, Obama went to Notre Dame and spoke to the explosive issue of abortion directly. This is a man who is confident of his abilities to take on tough challenges and reframe polarized debate. Obama seems able to do so without ever getting “hooked” by attacks, personal, or otherwise. He manages to enter the fray and yet stay above it.
Able leaders do reframe the way challenges are viewed and described. That’s what Obama is up to on abortion. The losers are, in a sense, both sides of the long-standing, polarized debate. If Obama succeeds, they lose air time, fund-raising ability, and ultimately power. No wonder some, on both sides, are grumpy.
A second thing we learn about President Obama is that he sees the world as made up of different people who need to figure out how to live and work together. This came through at Notre Dame when he stated that the “major threats we face in the 21st century . . . Do not recognize borders . . . See color . . . Or target specific ethnic groups.” In this sense Obama recognizes all the usual markers of difference (race, gender, ethnicity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, but he seem un-interested in identity politics.
These themes were re-iterated and expanded when Obama recalled his experience as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. He described the “quite eclectic crew” that took part in the Developing Communities Project. “Catholic and Protestant . . . Jewish and African-American . . . Working-class and black and white and Hispanic residents. All of us with different experiences. All of us with different beliefs.” This is the world according to Obama, a world where difference is taken for granted and alliance is sought. That’s a different world, or view of the world, than the one held by conservative Catholics or Protestants. Such groups fear that Obama’s world is necessarily one of moral relativism. Their concern is that everyone is welcome at Obama’s table — everyone except those who believe there is true and false, right and wrong.
At the heart of this discussion are differing views of faith and religion. One view sees faith as maintaining clear absolutes and rests on the conviction that God’s truth has been revealed with clarity and certainty. Another view, expressed by the President as his own, is that there is to faith an inevitable element of not-knowing, of encounter with human limits and mystery. “But remember too,” said Obama, “that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt . . . It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.”
Personally, I would prefer that instead of “doubt” Obama spoke of “mystery.” But faith, at least in this second construal, holds that we humans cannot know the will of God wholly or perfectly. Therefore, faith is more about humility than certainty. The other view claims that faith means just the opposite, that humans do know God’s will and have the obligation to fulfill it. Both perspectives harbor dangers and downsides. For Obama the dangers of faith morphing into ideology and consequent “self-righteousness” are the the greater perils.
Third, this is a man who is committed to respect for opposing views and the people who advance them. He related the story, told in his book The Audacity of Hope, of the pro-life physician who was supporting Obama in his senatorial campaign in 2004 until the doctor read, on Obama’s website, something that described pro-lifer’s as “right-wing ideologues.” The doctor protested to candidate Obama, “I do not ask you at this point to oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Obama agreed with the doctor and had his staff change and tone-down the website‘s rhetoric.
With respect to abortion, Obama proposes to bracket the ultimate questions and attend to the pragmatic and policy ones. “Let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” In urging such measures, Obama creates standards by which he will be, and should be, judged. Are there fewer abortions? Is adoption easier and more common? Is birth control more available to at-risk populations and is it being used?
Some Catholic commentators like George Weigel have responded to Obama’s speech at Notre Dame by claiming that Obama has injected himself and the Presidency into the inner world and debates of the Church, a place no President should be. It strikes me that there’s another way to look at Obama’s speech and positions: that he prefers to leave ultimate moral judgment to others. As President he prefers to pursue a more limited agenda in a more limited realm of public policy. He will leave it to others to decide if abortion is ultimately or absolutely right or wrong, but while they debate that he will try to see that there are fewer abortions to worry about.
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