Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama's Notre Dame Graduation Speech

I wish that I could have seen Obama's graduation speech at Notre Dame this weekend, and I am sorry I missed it. While reading his speech (text here), I thought Obama hit two important notes. First, in recognizing that his presence, because of his pro-choice stances, caused controversy, Obama discusses how well-intended people can have legitimate and profound disagreement over issues:
And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, men and women of principle and purpose, can be difficult.

The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved.

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? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?
Obama's answers to these questions, seen through personal email conversation between he and a pro-life doctor, is not to demonize and caricature opponents, but to approach respectful dialogue with "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."

Next, while discussing the historic levels of uncertainty within our future, Obama calls us to hold to the values and faith that makes us strong. He adds:
But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is 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.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us 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, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.
Doubt is not anathema or mutually exclusive to faith, and it is a healthy part of our spiritual journeys. Doubt, however, should lead us to humility, especially given the premised incomprehensibility of the divine. In an ever-shrinking world, bombarded with a plurality of voices and ideas, however, we should hold fast to faith and not approach the diversity of thought with imperial and hegemonic certainty. Instead, we must appeal to reason and change hearts through good deeds.

Did you listen to or read the speech? What did you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was a powerful speech. I tend to think whenever Obama is confronted with a very polarizing issue, he tends to be at his best. Two of his best speeches, in my view, were the one on race and the one he delivered at Notre Dame. I know some people thought his DNC speech in 2004 was great but I don't think it matches either the one on race or the one at Notre Dame. I agree with your analysis of the speech.