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Obama's Subversive Critique of Certainty

Obama at Notre Dame. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

President Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame yesterday is appropriately being recognized as a powerful attempt to de-escalate the nation's culture wars. Obama took advantage of an opportunity that abortion opponents had hoped to stoke into a conflagration to instead coolly call on Americans to open their hearts and minds to people who disagree with them and find common ground.

But at the same time, Obama cast that common ground in explicitly progressive terms -- and he put forth a powerful and subversive argument against the religiously-derived certainty that has played such a major role in right-wing politics in general, and the presidency of his predecessor in particular.

He embraced the controversy over abortion as the jumping-off point for a discussion of how "we must find a way to live together as one human family."

So what's the obstacle to reaching humanity's common ground? "[P]art of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man -- our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. 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. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times."

Former president Bush often attributed his certainty to his religious convictions, and consistently injected religiosity into the White House.

But Obama had this to say yesterday: "Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It's the belief in things not seen. It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

"And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The vast majority of the 12,000 in attendance at the Joyce Center basketball arena gave the president several loud, sustained ovations, and the crowd rallied to his defense when people attempted to interrupt him at the start....

"Obama did not engage in the debate over when life begins, nor did he attempt to justify his beliefs about abortion or embryonic stem cell research, positions that some said should have disqualified him from Notre Dame's honorary degree. Instead, the president took aim at the loud and angry rhetoric that he said too often dominates the discussion.

"The failure of both sides to use 'fair-minded words,' he said, overly inflames an important debate. As an example, he described his own 2004 campaign Web site, which at one point referred to 'right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.'

"It was not until a doctor e-mailed him about the phrase that Obama ordered it taken down, he said.

"'I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site,' he told the crowd. 'And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that . . . that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.'"

E.J. Dionne writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "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....

"[I]n 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."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic about Obama's extraordinary ability to address complex issues -- in this case, "the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides."

And blogger Ezra Klein, debuting on, calls attention to Obama's language shift on climate change: "'Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it,' Obama thundered."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 18, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
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I believe that we should allow each individual to make their own choice about their health and their family. There is no choice more profound than whether to terminate a pregnancy. The decision to do so should be made with counsel from the father, immediate family, doctor, and your religion. I would not presume to make as important a decision as whether to have a child for anyone and I hope that they would not presume to make that decision for me.

Posted by: fletc3her | May 18, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

An impressive speech and an impressive analysis.

Posted by: sm11 | May 18, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

It's my uterus. End of discussion.

Posted by: NYCartist | May 18, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

He may not want to use the term right wing ideologues, but it seems like that is exactly the group that has the primary worldview of life as a zero sum game. It is a narrow, self defeating point of view, which is unfortunately hurting everyone.

Posted by: csaether | May 18, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add something about the subversive character of the speech: it tells us that it's perfectly possible to think of a religious belief that contains a sound dosis of skepticism toward its own assumptions. This is not only subversive, it's visionary.

Posted by: bacigalupo | May 18, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

How very refreshing to have an adult in the White House.

Jacques Berlinerblau expressed it perfectly last year when he said that Obama can do "Advanced God Talk." Just imagine, a pro-choice president getting wild ovations from a Catholic audience.

It just keeps getting better ....

.. 'cept for the 21-percenters, facing their own doom.

Posted by: chrisfox8 | May 18, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

"It's my uterus. End of discussion."

That WHOOSH! sound was Obama's point going right over your head.

(I do agree with your position, by the way)

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 19, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

just giving props to bacigalupo's comment... well said!

Posted by: 4afreepress | May 19, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Had President Obama graciously declined the honorary degree from Notre Dame, he would have taken the proverbial "wind out of the sails" of his critics before he ever uttered the first word of his commencement address. Those critics would have been immediately seen for what they actually are - intolerant, moral absolutists who don't want to entertain contrary opinions, and who have no desire to seek common ground in an effort to solve the very problems to which they profess their dedication.

Such a gesture by Obama would have added even more strength to a very effective, conciliatory and eloquent speech.

Posted by: MillPond2 | May 19, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

President Obama's speech was a carefully crafted piece pressing all the right buttons in a young and idealistic audience but also subltly undermining their catholic morality and offering instead the moral relavitism that has caused so many of today's problems. He pleads with them to take up the challenge of protecting God's creation by taking up the cause of climate change yet freely admits he will not change his support for pro abortion measures which threaten God's greatest creation -the human being.
He talked of the need for fair minded words but here is nothing fair minded in his withdrawal of funds to support pro life measures, He spoke of cruelties large and small-what could be crueller than abortion? He spoke of cultural divides being the biggest obstacle to overcoming the world's problems implying that it was rigidity and demonisation of opposing views that was the problem in many situations.The implication being that pro life and pro abortion views could find a compromise by dialogue and courteous discourse.It sounds very appealing -after all we all want peace and harmony but is it being honest? Abortion is a death sentence You can't be brought back to life if you are aborted.The crux of the matter is whether or not deliberately killing a little defenceless babe in the womb is an evil act. Forget about the surrounding circumstances and when you consider this point remember that once each one of us writing into this post were a small collection of vulnerable cells in a womb and we were allowed to live! Once you recognise that it is evil you have to do all that you can to make sure this evil is stopped Don't fall for the argument you will never stop abortion You will never stop murder or theft but that does not mean we should ever have laws that make it legal Next don't fall for the mention of rape or incest cases Think again of that new little person in the womb Did they commit the rape? Did they commit incest? They are innocent of any crime Why should they be executed? The President said he is against abortion but won't change his support for pro abortion policy changes This is not being honest It is like saying I am against slavery but I will fight for the proslavery forces If something is evil you cannot help those who are trying to spread that evil practice.Many innocent people have been caught up in this practice Many poor girls and women traumatised by the violence of abortion When you cast your vote in the future remember to consider am I helping this evil to continue or am I telling my part I want a pro life candidate to vote for?

Posted by: marymack77 | May 25, 2009 1:19 AM | Report abuse

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