I’ve been reflecting on the controversy over Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at commencement this year. The decision has re-opened wounds within the Catholic community from the last election that have barely started to heal.
As the veteran of a number of battles over campus speakers during my undergraduate years, I’ve come to believe that efforts to prevent invited speakers from speaking do more harm than good. They inevitably shift the focus from the issue at hand to the issue of free speech, one’s willingness to engage in dialogue, and other virtues that both liberal societies in general-and universities in particular-rightly value.
I feel compelled to add that I am somewhat weary of organizations and individuals-whether on the Left or on the Right-who specialize in the “outrage” business. It reminds me of my children, who tend to pop up so many times after bedtime that I am no longer inclined to take their reasons seriously. Every time I hear the latest expression of outrage, I want to say to these folks what I say to my kids: “is this really an emergency?”
Having said that, I find that I am nevertheless conflicted about Notre Dame’s decision. Part of this is that I am finding the arguments for inviting President Obama somewhat weak.
Yes, he is the President and, yes, Notre Dame has invited a number of past presidents. Are we certain that this is necessarily a good thing? There was a time, of course, when Catholics were on the outside looking in at mainstream American society. The fact that Notre Dame could entice a president to speak was a mark that we had arrived and were part of the mainstream. Is that the message we want to send? That the nation’s leading Catholic university has “bagged another one,” so to speak? Is our ability to attract the attention of the powerful a mark of our success as followers of Jesus Christ?
Let’s not kid ourselves. There is a reason that President Obama accepted this invitation and turned down the hundreds of others that he surely received. It has little to do with how wonderful Notre Dame is. It has a lot to do with the desire of the president to convey that at least some portion of the Catholic community is “okay” with him. I don’t blame him for this and it doesn’t particularly upset me. This is what politicians do. The question is how comfortable we are with this.
I raise the question, but in my own mind I don’t have a clear answer. I was “okay” enough with Obama to support him last year, given the choices I had. I even put a bumper sticker on my car. His broad vision has always inspired me and sometimes even moved me to tears. He was my surgeon of choice to cut out the cancer that the previous administration had become. But it was always a “two-and-a-half cheers” kind of thing. I couldn’t forget–and didn’t want to forget–that there was an entire class of human beings that were outside his circle of moral concern.
There is a difference between a hiring decision–which is what I think a choice for president is–and holding someone up as a person to be emulated. When I think of the kind of commencement speaker I’d want students at a Catholic university to hear from, I’d be looking for someone a bit different. I’d want someone who could offer a critique of the ways that our political system forces us to choose between, say, victims of torture and victims of abortion. I’d be looking for someone willing to look those graduates in the eye and tell them that it was their job to change that system, not merely to find an accommodation with it. For all his many gifts and skills, and for all the leadership he has brought to our country at a difficult time, President Obama is not that person.