Monday, May 18, 2009

Orignal sin at Notre Dame

In November 2007, Andrew Sullivan saw this promise in the prospect of an Obama presidency:

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

On Sunday, at Notre Dame, Barack Obama held out that olive branch.

Speaking to the graduating class in the face of protests that a pro-choice politician had been invited, Obama aimed his speech squarely at the core challenge of democratic governance:
the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?

To answer that question, Obama spoke from within his own professed faith, at the same time setting limits to the authority of that faith. The speech was built on paradox, on the need to balance opposites that began with faith and doubt. As a cornerstone, Obama used a metaphor of the former President of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who "has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads." In Obama's telling, the lighthouse became a figure for faith, and the crossroads for the humility that is born of doubt. He told the graduates that faith finds its strength in doubt -- and its authority (where others are concerned) in reason:

And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.

But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. 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.

Obama has often said, as above, that faith is only relevant in politics insofar as it appeals to universal values and reason. This speech was about that limit - but also pushed against it, as Obama professed his own belief in one uniquely Christian doctrine:

Unfortunately, finding that common ground _ recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny" _ is not easy. And part 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 (my emphasis).

That reference to original sin gave the speech its charge. Ultimately, it was about how to act for good in a fallen world. It crackled from the first with dialectic energy, contrasting the ills of the world with the challenge to the fallen to do good:

Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity _ diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief.

It was about battles within as well as external challenges and conflict between ideological adversaries:

you've had time to consider these wrongs in the world; perhaps recognized impulses in yourself that you want to leave behind.

we know that the views of most Americans on the subject [of abortion] are complex and even contradictory...

It acknowledged, with startling honesty, irreconcilable differences:

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.

Obama projected calm at the center of the storm, standing as a President comfortable with protests against his very presence on the podium, using that conflict itself as a model for e pluribus unum:

And I want to join him [Father Hesburgh] and Father John in saying how inspired I am by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding today's ceremony. You are an example of what Notre Dame is about.

How can a President profess a faith in original sin without "Christianizing" the public square? Obama did so by differentiating clearly between the specific doctrine that informs his own world view and the universal values that inform policymaking:

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It's no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule--the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.

Obama has alluded to the Golden Rule and politicians' obligation to appeal to universal values in many, many speeches. What was unusual here -- I won't say unique, I'm sure he's done it in prior speeches -- was counterpoising that universalism with profession of a specific doctrinal belief. It was one more window into the way faith may inform Obama's worldview.

I say 'may' because I've always suspected that there's some mental gymnastics involved in Obama's embrace as an adult of specifically Christian faith. That process is described in Dreams from My Father as an emotional and social one. And indeed, at Notre Dame on Sunday, Obama held up his conversion as one more mystery of faith:

And something else happened during the time I spent in these neighborhoods [as a community organizer] perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.

Culture wars never end entirely. They burn high and low. But our generation is weary of them. And Obama is doing his utmost to hit reset on the hot buttons.

See also: The Gospel according to Obama

1 comment:

  1. Please do another speech analysis as you did with "Gospel according to Obama". As a Buddhist unfamiliar with many specific passages of the Bible, your analysis is....yes...enlightening. As always these speeches leave me feeling that I've heard an adult speaking to me as an adult. Wonderful.