Amidst great expectations, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17, 2009. Despite the understandable excitement of hosting the nation’s dynamic, young chief executive at its graduation ceremony, there was also dissension over the Catholic university’s choice to confer an honorary doctorate on a man who so conspicuously promotes abortion. Yet, while everyone knows that the president gave the commencement address, it seems that almost nobody has noticed what he said.
President Obama’s main theme in the address was religion and American democracy. From John Winthrop’s first introduction into political idiom of the shining “city upon a hill” trope to its revival by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, America’s Presidents have linked our political identity and fortunes to God’s Providence and to the American people’s faith. Some time shortly after World War II, however, the longstanding consensus that religion was essential to America’s identity and prosperity began to totter. For the first time in American history, major political figures (starting with the Supreme Court), began to assert that secularism was the anchor of our political culture, and the presupposition of our government institutions.
At Notre Dame, President Obama took this project in a novel direction. His unprecedented contribution was not to give new meaning to secularism, but to redefine the meaning and nature of faith, tout court. This new departure explains a great deal about his Administration’s narrow view of religious liberty as manifested, for example, in the HHS contraception, sterilization, and early abortion mandate. This important underpinning has been scarcely noticed.
The commencement address was full of musings about religious faith, and its tone and substance were remarkably faith-friendly. The president spoke winsomely of his own faith journey, and credited “the church folks” with whom he worked in Chicago as a community organizer with showing him the way to religious faith. Throughout his speech, Obama showed how the Christian tradition supplies him with a vocabulary for describing and understanding realities that he previously glimpsed without the eyes of faith.
The faith of which he spoke was not, however, the faith of our fathers. Therein lies the novelty of Obama’s initiative. He would protect the state from the church, not by privatizing faith, but by redefining it. In a bold and unprecedented challenge to the churches, Obama told believers, not what they believe, but what it means for them to believe it.
Here (in italics) are the three key paragraphs of the president’s address, each one followed by my commentary.
In this world of competing claims about what is right and 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. Stand as a lighthouse.
In these solicitous words the president affirmed a strong religious indifferentism and moral relativism. Obama endorsed all of his listeners’ “values” without qualification, and without reference to what those “values” might be. All those present should hold onto their “values,” defend them, and be guided by them in a world of moral disagreement. The same goes for “faith,” as well—whatever that faith might be. Faith per se is a reliable guide, a lighthouse.
Perhaps at Notre Dame the president was prescribing as well as describing. Perhaps he was exhorting his listeners to treat faith or religion as no more than a personal narrative arc (an earlier major speech on religion at a 2006 Sojourners conference is evidence that Obama conceives of faith in precisely these terms himself). Just to that extent, however, President Obama would be flatly instructing believers that, no matter what they presently think or what their Church teaches, they should think that their religion has no true propositional content. On this reading of his Notre Dame speech, President Obama would be guilty of breathtaking presumption. He would also be mistaken.
But 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.
For President Obama, any conviction about, or grounded in, faith is a subjective assurance, which is indefensible against alternatives. That suggestion is confirmed by the president’s earlier advice to “hold firm” to an indiscriminate “faith.” Here, Obama conveyed the message that one cannot be practically certain about any conviction that is held by faith. He thus implicitly rejected many essential truths of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic faith, including the truth that it is rationally defensible to assent with certitude to the tenets of the faith. There is no question either of “trust[ing]” that God’s “wisdom is greater than ours.” The existence of a Creator God can be known with certainty by reason alone. This God cannot be other than much wiser than us. There is no need for “trust” or faith that God is wiser than His creatures.
Obama seemed to dismiss without argument the whole possibility that unaided reason can know certain truths about divine realities, such as those truths upon which the founders founded this country: the existence of a creator God who providentially cares for humankind and whose moral law for the guidance of human affairs can be discerned by human persons without help from revelation. Obama also ignores the likelihood (which reason suggests) that such a God would engage humankind in further divine-human communication which such an omnipotent Being could surely make effective.
The second sentence of the excerpt above is clearly intended as a reference to Hebrews 11:1. Faith is indeed belief in things not seen. We know very little about divine realities. Those realities that we grasp by revelation exceed our comprehension. The things of faith are above the human intellect, Aquinas wrote. Now we see through a glass, darkly. But it is precisely in revelation that God connects us to these realities. Revelation involves the divine communication of genuine truths about these things. In revelation God makes the otherwise unknowable, known.
President Obama used the incomprehensibility of God as his basis for claiming that what we think we know about God is, and should be understood by us as, inherently doubtful. But the president’s reasoning is unsound, and his conclusion is false.
Obama was guilty in this part of his Notre Dame remarks of a failure to quantify, in the logician’s sense of distinguishing between some and all. There are many things about God that we cannot know with certainty (such as what happens to unbaptized infants, or when Christ will come again). But there are some things that we can and do know with certainty. We can and do know for sure that God does not want us ever to intentionally kill an innocent person, and that we are never to commit adultery. We know that we can be saved if we seek the Kingdom, love God, and keep His commandments. We know, too, that being saved is very desirable, especially compared to the alternative.
And this doubt should not push us away from 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…
These sentences, together with the earlier excerpts, draw out the implications that seem to have been the president’s key lessons for the graduates assembled before him. The message of this complex of ideas (passion, self-righteousness, and humility in the context of a “world of competing claims about [the] right and [the] true”) is unmistakable. It is the familiar rationalistic argument that, only if believers internalize the relativism (“doubt”) of which the President spoke at Notre Dame, can we avoid the intolerance, oppression, and even slaughter that history teaches are the perennial tendency of religion.
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.
The contrast here between a doubt-addled “faith” to which we “cling” and which involves “parochial” principles on the one hand, and “universal” “reason” on the other, further suggests that, in its native form—sans infused “doubt”—religion is beyond the sphere of the rational.
The president did not come to Notre Dame to urge his Catholic audience to “doubt” transubstantiation. He came to Notre Dame to sow the seeds of doubt elsewhere. He mentioned abortion to illustrate a wider problem of political conflict rooted in diversity of thought, culture, and belief:
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.
Other irreconcilable conflicts mentioned by the president included the opposing views of “the soldier and the lawyer” on matters of national defense, and of the “gay activist” and the “evangelical pastor,” despite their common concern over the “ravages of HIV/AIDS.”
But the convictions that persons begin at fertilization or that marriage is the union of a man and a woman do not depend upon faith. The former is a truth of philosophy, informed by uncontroversial facts of biological science. The latter is part of common morality (“common” in the sense of known by reason and, until very recently, “common” also in the sense that everybody believed it). The meaning and import of the president’s Notre Dame speech depend upon denying these truths too. After all, the president of the United States did not travel to South Bend to engender “doubt” about transubstantiation or the Nicene Creed.
Obama thus doubled down on doubt, first by claiming these truths of reason for faith, and then by relativizing them as faith.
The possibility that AIDS activists and Planned Parenthood might be dogmatic, and need to be more “humble” of mind and heart, never crossed President Obama’s lips at Notre Dame. The deeply partisan effect of his own remarks passed largely unnoticed.
The most arresting of the president’s remarkable assertions at Notre Dame was that he presented his remarkable assertions about faith, not as implications of our political system, but as true. He did not say that, in a democracy, one should act as if one had “doubts.” He did not suggest that those outside the household of faith should view religious belief as a set of hypotheses. He did not discuss the Constitution, and nowhere indicated that he was speaking from the legally constricted viewpoint of the judge. He spoke as an insider, as a man of faith, and he told his faith-filled auditors what their faith—and his faith—really amounted to.
Obama delivered the same message in 2006. His theme then, too, was “reconciling” “faith and democratic pluralism.” The key conciliatory move was that which he proposed at Notre Dame. “Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts,” he told his Sojourners audience. In 2006, then-Senator Obama expressly brought his dubiety to bear upon the matter of contraception. He used contraception as an example of a “culturally specific” and contingent Christian belief that “may be modified to accommodate modern life.” Then he added: “The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control.”
The president never used the word “contraception” in his Notre Dame commencement address. Some people think otherwise. Some people think that the president promised at Notre Dame that he would back a “sensible conscience clause” on contraception, and that Obama reneged on that promise when he promulgated the HHS “contraception” mandate. Not so. In fact, the mandate fulfills his pledge at Notre Dame. He said: “Let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies.” And he said “let’s . . . make sure that all our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as in respect for the equality of women.” No one then or now suspects that the president had in mind a partnership to promote abstinence programs. Anyone who did not understand Obama to be inviting his Catholic audience to a contraception party has been living in a dream world.
The president did back a “sensible conscience clause” at Notre Dame. But that had nothing to do with contraception. It was Obama’s way to (in his words) “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.” Anyone who is now surprised that the president considers the morning- and week-after pills to be “contraceptives,” and not abortifiacients, has been living in a dream world, too.