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Obama Scores at Notre Dame

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Posted on May 18, 2009
Moses at ND
Flickr / Paul J Everett

This commanding statue of Moses is one of many biblical fixtures on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Facing down protesters who didn’t want him there, President Obama fought back at Notre Dame not with harsh words but with the most devastating weapons in his political arsenal: a call for “open hearts,” “open minds,” “fair-minded words,” and a search for “common ground.”

There were many messages sent from South Bend on Sunday. Obama’s opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn’t. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

He did all this without skirting the abortion question and without flinching from the “controversy surrounding my visit here.” The thunderous and repeated applause that greeted Obama and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president who took enormous grief for asking him to appear, stood as a rebuke to those who said the president should not have been invited.

For his part, Obama gave what may have been both the most radical and the most conservative speech of his presidency. Acknowledging the Catholic Church’s role in supporting his early community organizing work, the president drew on the resources of Catholic social thought. It combines opposition to abortion with a sharp critique of economic injustice, and thus doesn’t squeeze into the round holes of contemporary ideology.

“Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism,” Obama declared. “The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.”


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Yet his argument drew on very old ideas, notably original sin and the common good. Obama was as explicit in talking about his faith as George W. Bush ever was about his own, but with distinctly different inflections and conclusions.

The former president often emphasized the comfort and certainty he drew from his religious beliefs. Obama said that “the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt.”

“This doubt should not push away our faith,” Obama preached. “But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness.” It was a quietly pointed response to his critics.

Obama sent many signals to Catholics, extolling such heroes to progressives and moderates as the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s former president, and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

He also tried to undo mistakes made early in his administration, making clearer, for example, that his revisions of an earlier Bush executive order on the rights of health professionals would continue to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.”

He paid more respect to opponents of stem cell research—he spoke of their “admirable conviction about the sacredness of life”—than he had in his original announcement altering Bush’s policies.

And on abortion, the issue that ignited the protests against him, Obama endorsed a broad agenda: “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.”

Almost as significant as Obama’s speech were the words of introduction offered by Jenkins. Rather than cower before his critics or apologize, the Notre Dame president warned against the tendency of competing political camps to “demonize each other” and praised Obama for appearing despite the university’s opposition to “his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”

“As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith,” Jenkins said. “We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept,” and do so “with love and a generous spirit.”

Although Jenkins made no reference to them, the scriptural readings at Catholic Masses on Sunday drew on St. John’s emphasis on the law of love. “This I command you: Love one another,” Jesus declares in John’s Gospel.

It was a hard message to square with the rage directed toward Obama and Jenkins by their detractors. Yet in raising the stakes entailed in Obama’s visit, the critics did the president a great service.

By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama’s opponents on the Catholic Right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Epicurienne, May 21, 2009 at 9:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jim Yell - will you marry me? grin

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By AnalogKid, May 21, 2009 at 7:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great, an auditorium full of people that think space fairies are real.

Humanity is doomed.  The majority of us can’t tell the difference between objective reality and subjective reality.

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By ardee, May 21, 2009 at 3:02 am Link to this comment

Michael Maier, May 19 at 3:53 pm #
(Unregistered commenter)

I find it interesting that, in a post in which you castigate the left shamelessly and in such general terms as to make your criticisms worthless, you plead for understanding and honest dialogue.

You first.

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By rollzone, May 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

hello. applause to the performance, as it was the first appearance of a man in politician’s shoes. he expressed a level of faith that illustrated a belief, and if this was the only glimpse of the man for the remainder of his term; i know more of him: and found something in him i can like. he now has potential, in my opinion, to realise that he is the distant wealthy and priviledged that he alludes to; and do more than lip service. his politics remain unaffected and disagreable, and i do not now think he is at all true to himself- the genuine political puppet. if he ever realises he is the president…

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By bluzmstr2, May 20, 2009 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Let us remember, moses was a criminal murderer, that was one of the reasons why he was escaping into the desert in the first place, fleeing from justice.

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By downriverdem, May 20, 2009 at 8:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What many of the above posters miss is, ND invited other presidents that they did not agree with and where were the protests then?  Cater and Clinton were pro choice too and they spoke at ND. George W. Bush spoke at ND and he supports the death penalty which the Catholic Church is against just as fervently as abortion.

My point is too many of the above posters have lost what our country is all about. We are a secular nation. Obama is the president.  Wake up.

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By ardee, May 20, 2009 at 4:49 am Link to this comment

In 1845, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in a report to the Virginia legislature that honorary degrees amounted to “literary almsgiving…of spurious merit and noisy popularity.” To this day, MIT has awarded no such honors.

MIT isn’t the only school that eschews honorary degrees. The University of Minnesota , Rice University, Cornell University and University of Virginia, among others, ban the practice on the grounds that academic merit should be earned.

Even as far back as the 1800s, university founders already felt that honorary degrees were awarded too lightly. The University of Virginia hasn’t granted an honorary degree since its founding by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Cornell’s policy dates back to its founding in 1865 by Ezra Cornell.

...Am I the only poster who notes that the statue of Moses seems to have horns?

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By Inherit The Wind, May 20, 2009 at 3:53 am Link to this comment

I move that the Notre Dame forfeit its status as the leading Catholic university in favor of Georgetown.

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By samosamo, May 19, 2009 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

You know, looking at the accompaning picture of who, moses, it sure looks to me as if he if flipping the bird finger to heaven and with that perfectly coiffured hair and beard and the buffed out body, man oh man would he have a seat in the left hand of god forever.

Reminds me of florida’s new religious license plates with christ’s long blonde surfer hair coiffed so pleasingly how could anyone doubt the existence of such beautiful men from those old religious days and who better than the catholics to know how these ‘hunks’ would look, after all these are not your average ordinary graven images, but who’s looking?

But someone seems to be missing here, oh, but that’s right elvis is NOT dead yet, is he?

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thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, May 19, 2009 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

re: hippie4ever, photoshock, and everyone else

I found this quote in my e-mail box:

“Our new authoritarian corporate state, our declining empire, was built on using force against anything in its path, whether it be directly, as with the red Indians or by Israeli proxy against the Palestinians. There is surely no way to “work within the system” and do that. The system IS the problem.”

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By Michael Maier, May 19, 2009 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Why, oh why, do the Far Right Wing Nuts think that it is their job to be the arbiters of the dialogue, when dialogue is a word that implies listening as well as speaking, in a civil and loving manner.”

Yes… let us sing the praises of the tolerant Left.  They’re all so kind and loving and understanding!

Well… unless they hear about someone with a contrary opinion of gay “marriage”.  Then the bigot must be savaged and their life threatened.

Or disagree with a totalitarian President on any subject… in which case they’re a racist.

Trying to control the dialogue?  You mean like the gently euphemistic “Pro-Choice” instead of the truthful “Pro-abortion”? (Come on, at least a little honesty would be nice!)

Leftists have no room to speak of tolerance.  Wanda Sykes wished Limbaugh dead for disagreeing with policies and the President laughed.  Real class, Barry!

So please: let me know when a tolerant Leftist shows up.  It would be a welcome first.

I also find it very amusing Obama only pleaded for “understanding” and “compromise” after promising Planned Parenthood that he would get rid of parental notification for minors.  He’s such a moderate, tolerant man!

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By dihey, May 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm Link to this comment

Rice University does not hand out Honoris Causa degrees to anyone because that always smacks of brown-nosing.
The only reasons why N.D. invited Mr. Obama as a commencement speaker is because he is the President and because he is black.
What they got is a producer of hot-air. All words, no action. Disgusting.

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By hippie4ever, May 19, 2009 at 11:03 am Link to this comment

The beerdoctor’s diagnosis is correct and religion should be a private matter. Worse, religion miraculously turns into snakeoil once it hits a politician’s tongue. Obama is comfortable with W’s “Faith Based” initiatives and is pals with Rick Warren, a homophobe, so don’t expect a righting of past wrongs regarding separation of Church and State. Odd, since in many ways Obama is a Statist, but that snakeoil can really blow you mind with its hallucinations and delusions. The dead rising, angels spinning, doomsday prophecies, fire and brimstone. Evil, nasty, paranoid—give me psychedelics any day!

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By jr., May 19, 2009 at 10:10 am Link to this comment

With obama expanding the bush-era practice of checking the immigration status of all persons being locked-up to local jails, watch the numbers of false arrests greatly increase just in order that peoples immagration status can be verified.  Experience has proven, the police will doctor arrest-papers to make what they are doing look legitimate, to achieve what they are wanting, and to create profiles, even, on innocent people.  The courts don’t care, their salaries are guaranteed.

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By Bean, May 19, 2009 at 9:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This president has never been within a thousand miles of humility.  The most arrogant man ever elected in the United States.

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By tropicgirl, May 19, 2009 at 7:59 am Link to this comment

As an alumnus of Notre Dame, I found it extremely weird what Obama did. Its like going to the Mormon Church and speaking against some of their dogma. Sure, there are Mormons that do not comply, perhaps for good reason, but why is HE doing it? The whole thing was presumptuous and I think there will be a backlash. It seemed unnecessarily incendiary.

But the larger question, and some have mentioned it here, is what in the world is Obama speaking on religious matters for? He claims to be “religious”, but his layperson approach lacks the wisdom and courage of someone who is really qualified, regardless of particulars. It is juvenile for him to even put himself in this arena. Notwithstanding its faults, the Catholic Church has taken courageous stands on life issues, torture, war, poverty and world politics that put Obama to shame, and they have done it for many years, consistently. For that matter, so has Reverend Wright. With Obama, its religious amateur hour and it shows.

Truth be told, as spoken about here on this very blog, he lacks moral courage himself with regard to human life, in perpetuating a tragic American/Israeli War Against Muslims, drone-bombing families, phosphorus-burning children. He can’t even take a moral stand for gay rights and capital punishment.  And he is developing a real problem telling the truth, misrepresenting himself to the American public time and time again.

He hasn’t even passed Morality 101 yet himself. Trust me, this is what really burns people. “Open your heart” to what? Abortion? Polls say what we have in law now is pretty much accepted by the public, despite growing numbers of people who look down upon abortion, and will likely stay that way. So this was off-target, insulting and obviously politically-motivated.

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By Jim Yell, May 19, 2009 at 7:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We are forced to observe that men have always tried to control women and the results have historically been disappointing, as the great responsibilities that men take on themselves are so frequently used for brutal purpose and just plain meanness.

So here we have a paternalistic Cult which demands that women must carry pregnancy to term regardless of the womens interest.

I must admit that I think society has some interest in this as a whole. We have to clean up the mess made by increased poverty tied to irresponsible reproduction. The church says procreate. Let us have a special tax on churches that want to control women, a tax to create a fund to support all of the pregnancies brought to term by their teachings. It seems only fair.

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By Amon Drool, May 19, 2009 at 7:31 am Link to this comment

ardee:  “Hmmm, one post in four that actually speaks to the article itself.  What, I wonder, does that say?”

in my case it sez that i found the subject matter of the article so marginally interesting that i didn’t even bother reading it.  but when i glanced at the comments, samosamo’s post got me thinking about “lefty” websites.  his post gave me a chance to vent a bit about the short-comings of various sites.  i thought maybe i could kick off a discussion on the plusses and minusses of political sites…a subject that might be more interesting than the article itself.  ha…i guess i didn’t succeed.  and if u feel it necessary to remind us that we should keep “on point” i guess that’s your choice.

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By photoshock, May 19, 2009 at 7:27 am Link to this comment

re: thebeerdoctor,  You have made the most salient point so far in the responses to this article.
A country that gives way to demeaning speech and unreasoning logic, is on the way to destruction. No more of the ideal of ‘live and let live,’ we must now control the fate of everyone, including those who do not wish to participate in the system.
Why, oh why, do the Far Right Wing Nuts think that it is their job to be the arbiters of the dialogue, when dialogue is a word that implies listening as well as speaking, in a civil and loving manner.
No longer do we in this country live by rules that would make sense, we are guided by an unreasoning and
unthinking rush of verbal nonsense. It is high time that the people of love and reason took back the stage and therein bring back dialogue in the way it should be, reasoned and responsible.
All is not lost, but we are surely sinking at a faster rate then one would wish for, people reach out to those who disagree with you, for you may learn
that these people are just like you, people who care what happens to the world and its inhabitants.
President Obama, for all his faults and foibles, has done just this, has started discourse in a time when,
this is not happening and should be.

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thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, May 19, 2009 at 5:22 am Link to this comment

Some surely admire President Obama’s decision to meet the controversy at Notre Dame with dignity. But I think that misses the point. I would prefer a president who sees faith, or the lack thereof, as John Kennedy once said, to be a personal private matter. Dragging an invisible God into a world filled with so many clearly visible problems, gets to be a tiresome bore. Religious invocations by political leaders is a sign of weakness, rather than strength. A true sign of a civilization in decline is when superstitious ritual replaces reason.

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By ardee, May 19, 2009 at 2:56 am Link to this comment

Hmmm, one post of four that actually speaks to the article itself. What, I wonder, does this say?

I would respond to folks who question the actions of a government (Israel) by referring to them as Jews, not Israelis, but this is certainly not the place for such as that.

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By samosamo, May 18, 2009 at 8:40 pm Link to this comment

By Amon Drool, May 18 at 11:12 pm

Yeah, I wish there was some control but this is an outpost of what is remaining of free speech so I don’t like commenting against all jewish people like they are all the same because I have some good friends that are jewish and it irks me to have to differentiate or by writing, exclude my friends from the total verbal abuse I try to give the izraeli fundamentalist, I call them fundamentalist because they control that government and they are overboard on their defense AND they control the U.S.A.

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By Amon Drool, May 18, 2009 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment

samosamo…yeah, this site is too heavy with washpo libs.  ich is good…just wish the site controller would pull down the ugly anti-jewish comments (as opposed to anti-israeli expansionism comments)  counterpunch and global research both seem to be in denial about global warming.  craig brown at common dreams went on an ugly power trip around election time.  there’s no political website nirvana out there, but i’m thinking that’s probably a good thing…keeps us on our toes

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By Bboy57, May 18, 2009 at 4:38 pm Link to this comment

“As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith,” Jenkins said. “We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept,” and do so “with love and a generous spirit.”

It’s about faith to God about his natural law. When you are doing that you are serving your country as well. When you put country ahead of God and faith, it does nothing for the country you serve. It only brings divisiveness, not love and a generous spirit.

After Jesus Christ was crucified, shortly after all of his apostles together were summoned before the sanhedrin and asked to give an account. Then they were admonished and told never to speak the name of Jesus openly. They said that between God and Jewish autority they needed to obey God’s will and not mans/Country’s divisive laws.

Where is the generous spirit of over 50 million pre-term and term deaths here in the land of the dillusioned and irresponsable?

All can not accept accountability to truth. Every day it’s trampled in this country, legally.

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By samosamo, May 18, 2009 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment

Truthdig sure is losing its luster. The content of posts are becoming lame, the posts are left to take up space the inordinate lengthy stays and commentor clog the site with overly lenghty comments that use copy and paste when a link would suffice.
Thank goodness for ich.

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