How to talk when we don’t agree – an object lesson from President Obama

Originally published on 20 May 2009

Last week, President Obama spoke at the graduation ceremony of Notre Dame university. This was made controversial by the 24 hour media, as they pointed out that Obama is “pro choice” and Notre Dame is Catholic, opposing abortion. I don’t want to deal with that particular issue in this blog. But I do want to say that I think the President hit exactly the right note in HOW he dealt with the issue.

He did not sweep it under the carpet. He did not step down from his own position. But he did show how we can still talk, even when we don’t agree. He showed that there is a way to engage in which we honour all viewpoints, and work towards outcomes that make sense for everyone.

You can read a transcript here. And you can watch it on YouTube, starting here.

In Part 1 on YouTube, notice how he deals with the hecklers (and notice how none of the students heckled!!). The best bit about faith and love is in Part 3.


The point I want to make though, are how he dealt with one of the greatest issues facing us today: Our ability to live together as one human race. If you want to look at the speech video, pick it up after about 8 minutes, and watch for about 15 minutes.

There are some key points:


  • The man can speak – well crafted, brilliant use of story, delivered with unbelievable cadence and authority… a master of the craft
  • It’s nice when the leader of the free world sounds like one of the cleverest guys you’ve met – it’s been a while!
  • He is unashamed of his Christian heritage, but has found a way to talk about it without sounding like an idiot, an idealogue or a raving fundamentalist
  • He knows his theology – “the irony of faith is that it requires doubt…” – indeed!
  • Fair minded debate is the way of the future.
  • When last did hear a world leader talk about love as a guiding principle? The man is right!

Here are extracts from the transcript of the relevant bit. I have enboldened some of the very best bits.

Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and the world – a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It is a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations – and a task that you are now called to fulfill.

This is the generation that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit – an economy where greed and short- term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.

We must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. We must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity – diversity of thought, of culture, and of belief.

In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. It is this last challenge that I’d like to talk about today. For the major threats we face in the 21st century – whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease – do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.

Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.

Unfortunately, finding that common ground – recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” – is not easy. 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.

We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education you have received is that you have had time to consider these wrongs in the world, and grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. 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?

Nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion. As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called The Audacity of Hope. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that’s not what was preventing him from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website – an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”

Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn’t change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that – when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

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. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.

….

You are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You will be called upon to help restore a free market that is also fair to all who are willing to work; to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or someone who simply insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communications than have ever existed before. You will hear talking heads scream on cable, read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and watch politicians pretend to know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, you may also have the great fortune of seeing important issues debated by well-intentioned, brilliant minds. In fact, I suspect that many of you will be among those bright stars.

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.

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.

So many of you at Notre Dame – by the last count, upwards of 80% — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. That is incredibly impressive, and a powerful testament to this institution. Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life. Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community, it makes you a part of your community. It breaks down walls. It fosters cooperation. And when that happens – when people set aside their differences to work in common effort toward a common good; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another – all things are possible.

….

I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away. Life is not that simple. It never has been.

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 and 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. Congratulations on your graduation, may God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

6 thoughts on “How to talk when we don’t agree – an object lesson from President Obama”

  1. When this was originally posted, there were some good comments added. I’ll reproduce these below – they’re worth reading.

  2. An anonymous entry from “doubter”:

    An object lesson in moral evasion
    by doubter – 5 Jun 2009 – 16:15

    The President began his address with a call for common ground, noting that the generation represented by the young Notre Dame graduates would face daunting challenges. “Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone,” said Mr. Obama. “Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.”

    Yet, even as he called for common ground, he also warned: “We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.” Everyone knew that the President was referring to abortion. Once again, he called for common ground. “That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.'”

    In virtually every way imaginable, the Notre Dame speech represents the quintessential Obama. By now, Americans should understand that this President is going to take positions and shape policies that are at odds with the sanctity of human life. He has already done this with respect to federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research and, as a candidate he pledged to do far more — even to sign the Freedom of Choice Act if passed by Congress.

    At the same time, the President wants to claim common ground and respect for those who differ with him on these issues. He calls for others to do the same:

    I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because 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. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

    Mr. Obama went on to call for “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.” In the end, the President’s comments were entirely about how Americans should discuss or debate abortion. There was no serious consideration of abortion itself. President Obama merely talked about talking about abortion.

    This was a moral evasion and an insult to the importance of the issue. If the President had actually addressed the issue of abortion — if he had actually even offered a defense or rationale for his own position — he would have dignified the issue. Instead, Mr. Obama issued what amounted to a call for civility.

    When the President called for Americans to agree that, while differing on abortion, “we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually,” he failed to make clear why this is so. If the unborn baby is not a person who possesses an intrinsic right to life, why is the decision to abort so “heart-wrenching?” If the fetus is just a collection of cells, why the angst? Furthermore, does the fact that a decision is “heart-wrenching” make it right or rational?

    When the President acknowledged that, in the end, the two positions on abortion are irreconcilable, he was on more solid ground. Both sides frame the issue as a question of rights — specifically a woman’s “right” to control her reproductive destiny by any means, including abortion vs. the unborn child’s right to live. The weakness of the pro-abortion (or “pro-choice”) position becomes evident at this point. The claimed right of control over reproduction is not commensurate with another person’s right to live, and not to be killed in the womb.

    If President Obama had actually spoken of abortion itself, rather than addressing abortion only as an issue of controversy, he would have found himself defending the indefensible, which explains why he avoids this discussion at all costs. Yet, now that he is President, he cannot get by with claiming that this question is “above my pay grade.”

    The President also called for a certain humility on contested issues. “And this doubt should not push us away our faith,” argued the President. “But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness.” In itself, this is a good and responsible warning. But, as President Abraham Lincoln made clear in his second inaugural address, avoiding arrogance and self-righteousness does not mean failing to take a clear and costly stand.

    This President is entirely predictable on the issue of abortion and related issues of human life, such as embryonic stem cell research. He is framing policies that are completely consistent with what he said and promised during his campaign. It is embarrassing to see some evangelicals who claim to be pro-life running public relations for the Obama Administration’s policies and positions. It is not uncivil to protest the President’s positions as subversive of human dignity and the sanctity of human life.

    At the University of Notre Dame President Barack Obama talked about talking about abortion. One day, he will have to talk about abortion itself. He will put that day off as long as possible.

  3. A response to “doubter”
    by Graeme Codrington – 5 Jun 2009 – 17:54

    Dear doubter,

    Firstly, why be anonymous? I seriously, seriously do not understand why you don’t give us your real name. You have made some fabulous points, obviously are passionate about your position. So, just own it! This is part of the problem with discussions in the church at the moment – not enough ownership of positions and the implications of those positions.

    Now, to your response. This blog is not the place for a discussion about abortion. I run the blog, I get to decide (only occasionally) that some things will not be pursued. The issue of abortion is not the issue here. (I say this because you have brilliantly and succinctly laid out one side of the debate).

    But, you make the point I wanted to make (which is the point Obama made): “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” Agreed. So, what do we do? What would Jesus do? Let us assume that no amount of argument or persuasion (or shooting dead of opponents) is going to change the two camps and find a common ground. Now what?

    Obama’s solution is the libertarian solution, and it allows people to have freedom of conscience and activity. Is this not an approach that Christians living in a secular nation can support? I understand in Obama’s speech that he was clear – in fact, in the paragraph just before he talked about irreconcilable positions, he said:

    “So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

    The basis of a policy is clearly there. I don’t think it’s fudged, and I do think it’s not just talking about talking about abortion. He wants abortions reduced. He supports birth control. He wants to make adoption easier (as a parent of an adopted child, I heartily endorse that one!). He wants to create a system that has “opt out” options for people who don’t agree – in other words, he will ensure that no-one is forced to do something they don’t want to.

    How much clearer did you want him to be, especially since this was a graduation speech, not a policy announcement?

    But, again, we’re not debating abortion. The issue is WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THERE IS NO HOPE OF RECONCILING YOUR POSITIONS? How do Calvinists and Arminians connect? How do those who oppose women in leadership interact with those who don’t? Do we “refuse to have fellowship”? Or do we say “to the Jew I become as a Jew, and to the Gentile I become as a Gentile”?

    That’s the question at the heart of this blog entry. I’d be interested in (non anonymous) contributions.

  4. Dale Ellis then replied:

    Look Graeme I will not argue
    by Dale Ellis – 8 Jun 2009 – 17:52

    Look Graeme I will not argue about a need to be civil however I am concerned at how he talks about issues, as if our greatest aspiration should be to talk about issues rather than honestly engage the differences between them. Important issues like abortion and embryonic (not adult) stem cell research.

    I am even more concerned that he creates a false dilemma in his speeches rather than addressing the core problem. His policy decisions are anything but nuanced or seeking a middle ground, but he seems to want us to believe he has found common ground.

    For example, from his speech last Sunday:
    “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, bringing together men and women of principle and purpose — even accomplishing that can be difficult. . .

    . . . Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an 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.”

    We should not be drawn into such a spurious argument as not wanting to relieve the suffering of a child with a disease like diabetes. Of course we want that – the difference is that it should not come at the expense of another person’s life. This does not make it “an admirable conviction.” It makes it a core principle of protecting the weakest among us from those who are more powerful and would do them harm.
    Content is ultimately crucial.

    Take a look at what Joe Biden had to say on the topic of abortion during the 2008 campaign.

    Kate Phillips of The New York Times explained Biden’s predicament this way: “In the interview, Mr. Biden tried to walk the line between the staunch abortion-rights advocates in his party and his own religious beliefs. While he said he did not often talk about his faith, he said of those who disagree with him: “They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life — I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception.””

    Sen. Biden may have been attempting to “walk the line” politically, but a closer look at his actual argument is truly horrifying.

    Sen. Biden says, and we must take him at his word, that he accepts as a matter of faith that human life begins at conception. But, he argues, he is perfectly willing to support a woman’s right to choose to end that human life.
    The killing of human life is called homicide. Murder is the willful taking of a human life. The senator has here stated that he believes abortion to be homicide, but he defends a woman’s right to kill the unborn human life within her because he would not impose his beliefs about human life (and thus about homicide) on others.

    In other words, if we take Biden seriously, he would defer to others who believe otherwise when it comes to the law.
    How can he live with this? There are significant questions about the extent to which some matters can properly be legislated. But there is no question that the government – any government – must take a stand on the question of human life.

    I believe Vice President Biden to be a serious man, and that is what is most frightening about this. Can a morally serious man really say that he believes that unborn babies are human beings, but that it should be a protected right to kill them?

    You said in your first posting, “He [President Obama] showed that there is a way to engage in which we honour all viewpoints, and work towards outcomes that make sense for everyone”

    I would submit that this is misguided, that he clearly does not share these concerns, and it is unclear what he means by respecting the point of view of those who rightly understand the issue as tax-supported homicide.

    I believe that given the opportunity (however unlikely) I could say this in a rational and civil way to the man (without shooting anyone as you pointed out). Civility is possible, always possible but I refuse to be seduced by clever sounding but empty promises of fair minded debate that devalue every human life.

  5. So, what do you we do?
    by Graeme Codrington – 8 Jun 2009 – 18:43

    Dale,

    Thanks for taking the time to interact so thoughtfully.

    I am going to ignore anything said during the campaign (by Biden, as you quote above), and focus on the current issues. The key question is, how would you like things to proceed? You say you’re unhappy with Obama’s approach. What would you prefer? A total ban on stem cell research? Where is the middle ground?

    In fact, in this issue there is brilliant middle ground.

    Not all stem cells are embryonic stem cells. In fact, because of the previous ban, almost all stem cells in the US are NOT embryonic. Even embryonic stem cells are harvested mainly from umbilical cords, as far as I understand.

    The key here then is a rational scientific debate that restricts the use of stem cells to a certain type of stem cells that are not taken from the products of abortion. I don’t know enough to argue this line as a scientist, but know that it is possible to make such a stipulation.

    Isn’t that the type of middle ground that would work for everyone?

    A less attractive “middle ground” for yourself would be to force all stem cells to stipulate their origin, therefore giving users of the end product the right to choose what type of stem cells they will use.

    What say you?

  6. But Graeme, replace the issue of abortion with slavery and the idea that Obama offers insight in terms of how opposing sides can better approach one another becomes clearly preposterous.

    Personally, one might not think that abortion is as grave a moral issue as slavery, but those on the pro-life side of the debate *DO* see abortion as a moral evil that is comparable to slavery. To suggest that pro-lifers should “engage in a way that honours all viewpoints” is akin to telling them to honour a political position that is–to them–as morally repulsive as supporting slavery.

    Both responses to this post are shocked by how the issue of abortion itself can be seemingly bracketed off in order to focus on how we engage with those with whom we disagree. There’s obviously *something* to be said for the value of civil discourse, but can one really expect a pro-lifer to take instruction on love and respect from someone who defends a person’s absolute right to end the life of their child? Would that not be like asking an early 19th century abolitionist to learn about compassion from someone who supports the slave trade?

    To illustrate, I have taken your various comments above, and replaced all references to abortion with references to slavery. As I said, you personally might not equate the two, but this is how a pro-lifer would likely read your argument:

    ******

    Last week, President Obama spoke at the graduation ceremony of Notre Dame university. This was made controversial by the 24 hour media, as they pointed out that Obama is “pro choice” on the issue of slavery and Notre Dame is Catholic, opposing slavery. I don’t want to deal with that particular issue in this blog. But I do want to say that I think the President hit exactly the right note in HOW he dealt with the issue.

    Now, to your response. This blog is not the place for a discussion about slavery. I run the blog, I get to decide (only occasionally) that some things will not be pursued. The issue of slavery is not the issue here. (I say this because you have brilliantly and succinctly laid out one side of the debate).

    But, you make the point I wanted to make (which is the point Obama made): “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” Agreed. So, what do we do? What would Jesus do? Let us assume that no amount of argument or persuasion (or shooting dead of opponents) is going to change the two camps and find a common ground. Now what?

    Obama’s solution is the libertarian solution, and it allows people to have freedom of conscience and activity [when it comes to choosing to own a slave or not]. Is this not an approach that Christians living in a secular nation can support? I understand in Obama’s speech that he was clear – in fact, in the paragraph just before he talked about irreconcilable positions, he said:

    “So let’s work together to reduce the number of slaves by increasing the price of slaves, and making wage-labour more available, and providing economic support for employers who choose not to use slave-labour. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with slavery, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our labour policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of slave-owners.”

    The basis of a policy is clearly there. I don’t think it’s fudged, and I do think it’s not just talking about talking about slavery. He wants the number of slaves reduced. He supports economic alternatives to slavery. He wants to make hiring wage-labour easier (as an employer of someone who earns a wage, I heartily endorse that one!). He wants to create a system that has “opt out” options for people who don’t agree – in other words, he will ensure that no-one is forced to do something they don’t want to.

    ******

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.