Monday, May 18, 2009

The power of persuasion

President Obama entered the arena to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from many in the crowd of over 12,000, while just fewer than 300 anti-abortion protestors (most were not connected with the university) were outside the gates of the grounds of Notre Dame. Only about two dozen students refused to attend their graduation ceremony.

Obama's opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He does not. They want to reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refuses to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to an arrogant certainty. In his Notre Dame speech he opted for humility.

The thunderous and repeated applause that greeted Obama and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president who took enormous grief for inviting him to speak, stood as a rebuke to those who said the president should not have been invited. Jenkins said, "As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith. We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept" and do so "with love and a generous spirit."

The president courageously ceded no ground. He said that those on each side of the debate "can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions." He did all this without skirting the abortion question and without flinching from the controversy surrounding his visit there.

"Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. 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." Then he encouraged the two sides to find common ground: "Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term."

His discussion of faith tells us much about his own Christian beliefs and about his approach toward those who believe differently: "That which unites Americans is more essential that that which divides us. Our essential common values should allow us to reach compromise where we can and remain at least civil as we discuss what cannot be compromised. True faith, true respect for religion, requires actions that make this world a better place."

He spoke of doubt in Christian faith:

"In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is 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. 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."

I found Obama’s speech to be highly Christian in nature. Here are some more highlights:

A litany of sins:

"Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man -- our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism, in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. 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. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times."

The transformational role of good works in the realm of faith:

"And something else happened during the time I spent in those neighborhoods. Perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn -- not just to work with the church, but to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ."

Defining common values:

"For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the golden rule -- the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this earth

"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?"

A call for action:

"But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well-lived. Remember that in the end, we are all fishermen.

"If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God's providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union…"

In the book Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, with its premise that the most important power of the president is the power to persuade, Richard Neustadt wrote: "Persuasive power, thus defined, amounts to more than charm or reasoned argument. These have their uses for a President, but these are not the whole of his resources. For the individuals he would induce to do what he wants done on their own responsibility will need or fear some acts by him on his responsibility. If they share his authority, he has some share in theirs. Presidential "powers" may be inconclusive when a President commands, but always remain relevant as he persuades."

George W. Bush seemed to think that persuasion emerges from the exercise of power. But from Obama's first two commencement speeches, in fact from his body of speeches as president, it looks like he believes that power is through persuasion.

It was hard to square the messages given by Obama and Jenkins with the rage directed toward them by their detractors. Yet in raising the stakes entailed in Obama's visit, the critics did the president a great service. By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama showed great courage and helped to strengthen moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end.

Obama's opponents on the ultra-right placed a huge bet on his Notre Dame visit. In their delusion they may think they won, but they lost.