President Barack Obama spoke at the 164th commencement at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana this weekend. The speech was freighted with political controversy, primarily because Notre Dame is affiliated with the Catholic Church, which uniformly opposes the abortion rights and protections that the president supports. These weeks of tension leading up to the speech held an ironic quality—though many, but not all Catholic Americans are opposed to the woman's legal right to choose an abortion, Obama had worked with Catholic churches in his early days as a community organizer in Chicago when, as he said with a laugh, "I was really broke and they fed me."
On the day of the speech, there were only a few dozen protesters out front, and some hecklers in the audience, but the real story seems to be the careful and nuanced way that Obama spoke about religion and American life—particularly when it came to the subject of abortion. Watch:
Recall that during the campaign season, Obama got into hot water with Republican antichoice activists and the religious right for calling questions of fetal life and death "above his pay grade" at a forum with with megachurch pastor Rick Warren and then-candidate John McCain. In Indiana, Obama, sounding more like a preacher than a persident, took on the abortion issue as though it were now part of his job, recounting a story from his 2004 Senate bid, about an antichoice doctor who called him out for intolerance in campaign literature:
After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. 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—when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe—that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, 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. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.
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.
As THE ROOT has reported, Obama's White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships has flagged "abortion reduction" as one of its key concerns, alongside poverty reduction, promoting responsible fatherhood and fostering interfaith dialogue globally. This new frame, with its focus on "common ground" advances the Bill Clinton-era formulation that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"—and had its genesis in the planning and scripting of the Democratic platform on faith during last summer's Democratic National Convention. The updated language, crafted before Denver by political hands like penetecostal minister Leah Daughtry, reflects Democrats' attempt to retake the political center in what recent polling shows is an incredibly contentious debate. Obama, who has empowered Faith Office Director Joshua Dubois to make dynamic changes to the way faith groups work with Washington, and met last week with House Majority Whip James Clyburn to discuss issues of faith, appears to be taking seriously the notion that faith and works can coexist in government.
Watch more of the president's speech here:
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.