A Conversation with the President

(Note: When Mr. Potter sent me this piece for consideration, he said, “I can think of several reasons why you might decide not to post the piece I am attaching for your consideration. If you so decide, there’ll be no upset feelings at my end.” He’s a magnanimous gentleman, Gary Potter. Although some superficial folk will doubtless object to the remarks that follow as “pro-Obama” (which they are certainly not), I think this risk worth taking. Gary’s remarks are worth considering — which implies they must be read carefully and thought about — especially by those conservatives whose conservativism conserves nothing in particular; nothing, that is, other than victory for Republican candidates and whatever their agenda might be, foreign or domestic, pro-life or not, jingoist or no. As I recently tried to point out, we Catholics are not called to be ideologues, but disciples. And we are certainly not called upon to be party cheerleaders. —Brother André Marie)

There are four things I should like to say in the lines which follow, written in real time somewhat more than a month after President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame and also following his speech at Cairo University. The first has to do with his Notre Dame appearance.

Opposition to it may have served to rally pro-lifers, but casting it in terms of a protest against Notre Dame somehow suddenly betraying the mission of Catholic higher education was preposterous. There has been no serious connection between the teachings of the Church and what is taught on most U.S. Catholic campuses for decades. That is exactly why, thanks purely to the efforts of activist lay educators, schools like St. Thomas Aquinas College in California and Christendom College in Virginia came into existence in the early aftermath of Vatican II.

Over the years, one of the ways ordinary Catholic schools have regularly manifested their sorry state has been by honoring men and women who would be ignored by a truly Catholic institution. Indeed, if the honorary doctorate received by the President at Notre Dame wasn’t typical of most U.S. Catholic schools, how was it that one was also given the same day to New York City’s pro-abortion Mayor Michael Bloomberg by Fordham University? And where, by the way, was any protest over that? Its absence underlined the preposterousness of the furor over President Obama’s appearance in South Bend.

Of course the U.S. President, any U.S. president, is a more prominent figure on the national stage than the mayor of New York City. On that score, let me observe what political partisans, especially faux conservatives, will not: We have not had a truly pro-life president at any time since Roe v. Wade. That includes Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom also received honorary doctorates from Notre Dame, but without anybody protesting.

As governor of California, Reagan signed one of the first permissive abortion laws in the nation. Once he was President nothing practical was ever done by him to save the lives of pre-born babies except the adoption of the “Mexico City” policy. Even then, I am not aware of an historical record that makes clear whether the policy was adopted at the actual direction of Reagan or, as I suspect, was more the initiative of former U.S. Senator and then Assistant Secretary of State James Buckley, who led the U.S. delegation at the Mexico City conference where the policy was announced. Reagan may well simply have signed off on it without being much interested.

As for George W. Bush, yes, he ended federal funding for some embryonic stem-cell research, but only some. It is too often ignored that his prohibition pertained only to new stem-cell lines, not existing ones. (To their credit, the U.S. bishops were highly critical of Bush at the time because of that.)

Oh, the White House did allow recorded remarks by Bush to be played to the crowd at the annual March for Life, but how much political risk did that involve? More to the point, how many babies did it actually save?

“Mexico City” and the ban on funding for some embryonic stem-cell research may not have amounted to much, but both, an attentive reader will be thinking by now, have been undone by President Obama. True, and that brings me to the second thing I have to say.

Let us put it aside that: a) President Obama publicly stated in May that the expansion of abortion “rights” is not high on his agenda; and b) his administration has so far done nothing to give traction in Congress to the heinous Freedom of Choice Act. It remains, the Vatican has repeatedly made clear over the past thirty-five years that no Catholic should cast his ballot for an avowedly pro-abortion political candidate, as 54% of Catholics who voted for president in 2008 cast theirs for Obama. However, it is equally so when the candidates are fellow Catholics like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, et al. The grim truth is no politician is going to be elected to national office today, or rise to national influence in a lesser one, unless he or she supports “women’s rights,” the code for a mother’s “right” to kill her own offspring. That’s today. Very soon, if not already, none will be elected who does not support at least civil unions, if not “marriage,” for same-sex couples.

All that said, I believe Catholics serious enough about their Faith and pro-life not to vote for Obama but who have also been demonizing him have been wrong to do so. The man is not the Anti-Christ.

In war, demonizing the enemy is wrong because it is too likely to lead to atrocities. I.e., against the Devil anything goes. Similarly, it is at least unwise to demonize a political leader because even as none is going to be right about everything, it is a rare leader who is always wrong. However, if you have portrayed the leader as a veritable demon, or accepted such a portrayal, you make it difficult for yourself — a sudden and sharp u-turn is needed — to support him when he is correct on an important issue.

In his speech at Cairo University, and even before then, President Obama could not be more correct than in striving for even-handedness in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The present Israeli government and Israel-Firsters in the U.S. clearly are outraged by this. You have to wonder how long the President will be able to continue on the course he has tried to set. It won’t be very long if he finds no political support to counter the outrage.

My own concern is that by elevating the question of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the degree he has, the President may expose himself to the Israelis eventually saying, in effect: “Fine. We’ll freeze construction of the settlements if the United States join us in an attack on Iran, or at least greenlight an attack by us.” That, however, is not the point here. Rather, it is that anyone bent on demonizing the President during his first six months in office — anyone portraying him, not simply as wrong, but as a wicked Socialist or other form of Evil Incarnate — is now going to find it hard to show support for his effort to strike a real balance in the Middle East — an effort which deserves support.

But let me come now to the third thing I want to say. I am very far from wanting to demonize Barack Obama. In fact, though I could not vote for him, but considering a) someone was going to be elected, and b) the alternative in 2008 — a candidate who called himself Christian but had never bothered to get baptized, called himself pro-life but has never actively supported the cause, and has enthusiastically supported every overseas U.S. military adventure since he first entered Congress — I find Barack Obama more tolerable as President than many or most who would make it, or be allowed to make it, to the top of the political heap in today’s United States. Further, apart from his policies, whatever all of them may yet prove to be, I quite simply like his style and admire his grace. Doubtless my feeling arises in large part because Washington D.C. is my home, and the city, though it has taken on a real life of its own during the four decades I’ve been here, remains in important respects a company town. In such a place, and even if you don’t work for the company, it matters what kind of man runs it. After eight years of a president who was so obviously, pathetically out of his depth as George W. Bush, it lifts the spirit to see in the office someone as comfortable being there as Barack Obama appears. In a word, it’s a whole lot less grim seeing a man on top of the job instead of the job being on top of him.

It also helps, from the point of view of a Washingtonian, that the President and his wife get out into the city the way they have been doing. I’m not aware of George W. Bush ever leaving the White House compound except, grudgingly, to the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony and a few other like events. Certainly he was the first president on whom I never laid eyes somewhere around town during my years here, and I’ve been in D.C. since Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

There is another element in the picture that colors my reaction to Barack Obama, the man. It used to be said that the secret of George W. Bush’s electoral success was that voters could imagine having a beer with him. Well, I can imagine having a conversation with President Obama. He reads. He writes. He has ideas.

What would we talk about? Judging from an interview he once gave to David Brooks of the New York Times, the President has read a great deal more of Rinehold Niebuhr than have I. I’d like to hear him talk about this important Protestant theologian and philosopher. Why has he called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers” and who else is?

I know enough about Niebuhr to have heard echoes of him in the President’s Notre Dame speech, especially in this passage: “Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos, and the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin.”

What? Man is imperfect, and bound to be so by his fallen nature? What about American Man — all of us collectively? Aren’t we supposed to be “a shining city upon a hill”? That’s what the ultimate “conservative,” President Morning-in-America, Ronald Reagan, used to tell us and that we loved to hear. He also said (it’s engraved on his tomb): “I know in my heart that man is good”.

In his heart? “The heart is deceitful, and wicked are its ways.”

I don’t know, but would not be surprised to learn, that this could be the first time in the annals of presidential speechifying that those words, “original sin,” have been uttered by a Chief Executive.

They bring me to the fourth and last thing I want to say here. I want to speak of what troubles me about President Obama. It is his Christianity, which he again affirmed at Cairo University by declaring simply, and with dignity: “I am a Christian.”

At least in his public utterances, as heard, for instance, in South Bend and Cairo, the President’s Christianity has often sounded like the version of the religion first introduced in the 18th century by the Enlightenment. Of course one recognizes that if it was the only version of it acceptable to Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is by now what many still calling themselves Christian — perhaps the majority — imagine the religion to be. It is the Christianity that says: “It doesn’t really matter whether you accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God or believe he was a prophet or simply a great teacher. What matters is that we respect one another and all try to do good. We can all agree on that.”

On the basis of that view of Christianity, not simply will the dialog sought by the President between thoughtful pro-lifers and advocates of the “right” to abortion be impossible, it can become positively immoral for a man to fight for what he believes, unless his belief is in “freedom” and equality.

I put “freedom” in quotation marks because our man, the one who would fight, will not be free to say — not without risking a visit from the thought police — “It does matter whether Our Lord is accepted as the Son of God. Otherwise He cannot be believed when He says, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth,’ and if He is not believed when He says that, His power will never be recognized — His power on earth. If it is not, men will continue to look, as they have for two centuries, only to their own power — men filled, because of original sin, with selfishness, pride, stubbornness, acquisitiveness, insecurities, ego. As long as that is the case, there is no good that can be done by anyone, nor laws enacted by any government, that may not be undone. To be sure, even when His power on earth is recognized — as it was for more than a thousand years in what used to be called Christendom — evil will still exist because some men, being imperfect, will always prefer their own will to God’s. However, the mischief they do will be greatly limited when His eternally fixed justice and mercy, instead of the passing notions of men, are the standards governing the life of society.”

Something like that is what I should say to the President, were I having my fantasy conversation with him. What would be his response? I can guess, but obviously am not sure. He could be surprising in this as he has been in other ways. I am morally certain his response at least would not be, as with more than one of his recent predecessors in office, simply a blank stare. That is something.

A final note: Many commentators have claimed to see a similarity between Barack and Michelle Obama and John and Jackie Kennedy. That is nonsense. We now know that the marriage of the Catholic Kennedys, as widely suspected even at the time, was essentially a political charade. The Obama marriage gives every sign of being one that really works. As a couple they are a good example to a nation with a 50% divorce rate. So-called pro-family groups are hypocritical not to acknowledge this.