The Right To Choose (and to Protest)

There’s room for intellectuals and Obama at Notre Dame

While Harvard’s Class of 2009 issued a collective “Huh?” on Tuesday when it was announced that television personality Matt Lauer would be this year’s Class Day speaker, other colleges have seen far more spirited reactions to their graduation orators. Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame this May. Far from being overjoyed at the news, many Catholics are fuming at the choice. Since the decision was announced, groups and individuals inside and outside of the Notre Dame community have made their opposition clear: Because of Obama’s status as a pro-choice politician, these “defenders of the unborn” oppose the invitation extended to (and accepted by) the president to be Notre Dame’s principal commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree.

It is no surprise that staunch religious conservatives are less than keen on the idea of having a Democrat as the speaker and honorary degree recipient at one of the best-known and highly regarded Catholic universities in the United States. That news became old news faster than the average Boston College freshman gets drunk on his first St. Patrick’s Day sans parents. The defenses given for the choice were equally predictable: It was not intended to reflect the majority opinion held by members of the Notre Dame community on the issue of abortion, but rather to honor a president committed to principles of social justice that Catholics also espouse. The media flurry that chased the protests illuminated the arguments of supporters and opponents of Obama but has missed the larger question here: Why are people so surprised (and indignant) that Catholics are pissed off about this?

It is intriguing to me that so many find the opposition to Obama incomprehensible. My gut reaction to this dissent was disbelief: Notre Dame affiliates had a lot of nerve to protest the president’s appearance as I searched Matt Lauer on Wikipedia and prayed that I might still catch a glimpse of Michelle Obama (and her phenomenal biceps) at commencement. I can only hope that Steven Chu is equally toned.

Yet this knee-jerk response ignores the role that faith plays in the lives of many Americans—including intellectuals at institutions such as Notre Dame.
While many agnostics might be loath to admit it, intense religiosity is not entirely antithetical to intellectualism. It might be hard for the card-carrying pro-choice Democrat at Harvard to comprehend that a young, bright college student or university scholar would object to Obama as Notre Dame’s commencement speaker. It is nearly impossible for many Ivy League  intellects to associate him with anything but progressivism, hope, change, and various other inspiring motifs that the vast majority of young coastal dwellers and I happen to buy into wholeheartedly. For many of us, Obama is the first Democrat we could vote for and feel proud to call our president. That he is pro-choice does not conflict with our partisanship and political leanings the way it might for Catholic liberals who feel torn between the party’s commitment to social justice and its support of a woman’s right to choose.

A coalition of university-sponsored student groups (including the Notre Dame Right to Life, the Notre Dame College Republicans, and the University of Notre Dame Anscombe Society) has made it clear on its website that opposition to Obama’s presence and degree is not a matter of political partisanship. Rather, “Obama’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages” spurs the coalition’s ire. The university’s decision, it argues, violates the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which prohibits the honoring of pro-choice politicians.

That the “University of Our Lady” should be a site of contention over a woman’s right to legislate control over her own body seems almost too perfect a coincidence. For many of us, the words that the protesters use to describe the university’s decision in their online petition—“outrage,” “scandal,” and “travesty”—would better connote the curtailing of federal funding for safe abortion procedures, the outlawing of taxpayer-funded stem-cell research, or the barring of marriage equality than the sins they attribute to Obama. Moreover, not every commencement speaker or honorary degree recipient at Notre Dame needs to espouse political beliefs that conform to Catholic doctrine. Presumably, the university awards degrees to students who are pro-choice.

Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama does not imply that the university condones his positions on abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage, but rather that Notre Dame recognizes and appreciates its status as a premier institution that should facilitate intellectual exchange—including debate on this issue itself. Critics of Notre Dame’s choice have chosen to engage the issue intelligently: One image designed to protest the speech depicts a Shepard Fairey-style fetus underlined with the word “HUMAN,” invoking the popular representation of Obama during the election. This deployment of popular liberal imagery against a Democrat suggests that opponents to Obama’s speech are cognizant of the iconographic profile of their political adversaries.

Although the critics who oppose the university’s choice to honor Barack Obama might be misguided in their complaints, they warrant our reasoned skepticism, not our total disbelief. How soon have we forgotten how it feels to be expected to honor a president whose personal convictions and political maneuvers run so contrary to our morals?

Emma M. Lind ’09, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.