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Obama selection a betrayal of Notre Dame’s mission

Ben Linskey | Monday, March 23, 2009

This past Friday, the University announced that Barack Obama will deliver the annual Commencement address in May. Many students were understandably thrilled at the news that the President of the United States will be speaking on our campus, but the decision to invite Mr. Obama deserves serious reflection. The selection of a Commencement speaker is an important decision which carries significant practical and symbolic implications. Though Barack Obama’s lofty political position and worldwide celebrity status will certainly garner significant publicity for the University, the Notre Dame administration has made a serious error. Mr. Obama’s policy stances are enough to disqualify him from speaking at our University, but more importantly, Notre Dame’s longstanding practice of selecting sitting U.S. presidents as commencement speakers is inappropriate and should be discontinued.

As a Catholic academic institution, our University has a dual mission: the pursuit of both truth and justice. Notre Dame’s mission statement proclaims that “[t]he University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many.” These concerns should motivate all aspects of life at Notre Dame, especially the Commencement ceremony, which is intended to serve as a summation of the values and learning instilled in students throughout their time at the University. Accordingly, the administration has an obligation to choose a speaker who embodies Notre Dame’s mission of intellectual growth and Christian service to mankind. There are thousands of brave individuals throughout the globe who have devoted their lives to bettering the lives of others by fighting poverty, war and other injustices. The University administration should use the Commencement proceedings as an opportunity to recognize the achievements of these outstanding men and women and hold them up as an example for the Notre Dame community to imitate.

The United States presidency, sadly, has proven itself to be an office which is not conducive to the cultivation of virtue in its occupants. Modern presidents have all too often subordinated truth and justice to the worldly concerns of electoral advantage, partisan gain and the accrual of power. Government in general, moreover, is anything but an unqualified force for good. Throughout its history, the United States government has perpetrated numerous acts of unqualified evil, ranging from the legitimation of human slavery to the suppression of peaceful dissent during World War I to the detainment of Japanese Americans in internment camps and the use of nuclear weapons on innocent civilians in World War II. This is not to say that our nation’s government is inherently evil, but merely to point out the sad and undeniable truth that the coercive power of government, even in the freest country in the world, is often used to perpetrate gravely immoral acts upon innocent people.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that any person concerned with justice must not simply acquiesce to governmental authority and blindly endorse the actions of political leaders. Rather, we have a moral obligation to remain eternally skeptical of government. The 20th century presidency was characterized by a parade of senseless wars, rampant abuse of power and a disturbing disregard for our nation’s Constitution. Today, the United States is embroiled in two wars in the Middle East and facing a massive economic crisis at home. Our current predicaments are in large part a result of dishonest, corrupt and incompetent leadership. Now, more than ever, we must critically evaluate the actions of our government. The University of Notre Dame has a responsibility to instill in its students the values necessary for good citizenship: a concern for truth and justice, a healthy distrust of government power and a willingness to question and challenge authority.

Inviting Barack Obama to speak on our campus sends precisely the opposite message. The University administration is tacitly encouraging students to view the president with respect, awe and admiration simply by virtue of his election to political office. And perhaps most importantly, it is turning a blind eye to Obama’s support of state-sanctioned killing in the form of federal support for abortion and embryonic stem cell research, to his continuation of the Bush administration’s reckless foreign policy of interventionism and its disregard for civil liberties and to his irresponsible and destructive economic policies. Presidents are not heroes or walking embodiments of moral virtue. They are humans, often deeply flawed, who wield a tremendous amount of power which may be used for good or ill. For this very reason, they are the last people who should be addressing Notre Dame students on the verge of graduation. By inviting Mr. Obama to speak at commencement, the University administration is betraying Notre Dame’s great mission and doing a disservice to its students. Fr. Jenkins, do the right thing and rescind Barack Obama’s invitation. Notre Dame students deserve better.

Ben Linskey, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is co-president of the College Libertarians. He can be contacted at blinskey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.