The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95, 672 pp.
I sat a few feet from President Barack Obama for almost three hours just over a year ago. True, we never spoke. Or even shook hands. And sitting next to me was a Secret Service agent carrying a large gun concealed beneath his borrowed-for-the-occasion academic robes.
Welcome to graduation at the University of Notre Dame.
The intersection of religion and national politics is often fraught. When President George W. Bush spoke at Notre Dame’s commencement in May 2000, he annoyed some Catholics by invoking the late Dorothy Day. But Bush’s effort to enlist Day in the ranks of compassionate conservatives—we can be grateful that the often acerbic Day was not in the audience, because her reaction might have delayed her path to canonization—drew upon genuine strands in Catholic social thought, notably the instinct to address social problems through voluntary agencies, not simply the state. Bush and his advisers arrived at Catholic social thought less through experience than through texts. His speechwriter Michael Gerson once described the process as an evangelical search for a “compelling philosophy of public engagement.”
Obama’s exposure to Catholic social thought comes less from texts than from experience. More than any other American president—including the one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy—Obama encountered Catholic social thought as a lived tradition after he graduated from college. In this sense the president’s speech at Notre Dame, especially his...