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E.J. Dionne on Obama’s Speech at Notre Dame

May 18, 2009

E.J. Dionne on Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame:

For his part, Obama gave what may have been both the most radical and the most conservative speech of his presidency. Acknowledging the Roman Catholic Church’s role in supporting his early community organizing work, the president drew on the resources of Catholic social thought. It combines opposition to abortion with a sharp critique of economic injustice and thus doesn’t squeeze into the round holes of contemporary ideology.

“Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism,” Obama declared. “The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.”

Yet his argument drew on very old ideas, notably original sin and the common good. Obama was as explicit in talking about his faith as George W. Bush ever was about his own but with distinctly different inflections and conclusions.

The former president often emphasized the comfort and certainty he drew from his religious beliefs. Obama said that “the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt.”

Dionne rightly points out that Obama used the controversy over his appearance at Notre Dame to outline an approach to religion that differs markedly from his predecessor: one that is more comfortable with the notion that faith and doubt must go hand-in-hand; one that values both faith and reason but accords each its own separate sphere; one that encourages people of faith to join the political process but does not accord the faithful a veto over secular policy; and a faith that sees social justice and support of the less fortunate as essential components of religion.

Obama was opposed by vehement abortion foes who attempted to portray his visit to the nation’s premier Catholic institution as a betrayal of the principles of the Church. Without managing to convert the opposition, Obama may have nonetheless reassured the vast crowd of moderates who are uncomfortable with rigid applications of dogma and who are searching for a more humble faith that stresses “loving thy neighbor” and that “he who is without sin [may] cast the first stone.”

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