The speech I wish the vice president had given
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, August 23, 2017
It is great to be back home in Indiana and humbling to be here at Notre Dame.
I am happy to be here with you today, but I know that some of you are not happy to see me. And I can see that freedom of speech is alive and well at Notre Dame. I applaud you for exercising it and respect you for standing up for what you believe in. I wish you would hear me out, but that’s OK. I get it. As a politician, I am used to criticism and I have come to see disagreement not only as part of the job, but also as part of our task in these divisive times. It is important for us to listen to one another, and I hear you loud and clear.
Let me share with you why I did the things that have made some of you so upset that you are willing to walk out of your own graduation ceremony. Fr. Jenkins in his generous introduction spoke of balancing civil rights for all and respect for the free exercise of religion. And he’s right. That’s what I strive to do as a person of faith and as a politician. I try my best to do that every day, but you know what? It’s difficult. I don’t condone discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, and I condemn intolerance. I said that when I was governor, and I say it again to you today. That is not who we are as Americans. But you tell me, can the government force a person of faith to do something contrary to the teachings of their religion? Isn’t that why the First Amendment has not only an establishment of religion clause, but a free exercise of religion clause, as well? Isn’t this why your university felt compelled to seek recourse in court when the government required it to go further than it could go and still stay true to the teachings of the Church?
As Fr. Jenkins said, confronting these challenges calls for near-Solomonic wisdom. I am a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, but I am no Solomon and I don’t think anyone else in government is, either. As a politician and policymaker, I know how difficult it is to balance these great principles of freedom. It can be clear in your own mind and heart, but still create controversy when translated into legislation despite the best intentions. Policy is difficult. And that’s another reason I accepted your invitation.
What makes Notre Dame students different? I’ll tell you what I think as I’ve gotten to know you and especially as I listened this morning to the salutatorian’s inspiring invocation and that stirring valedictory address. As students at a Catholic university, you have fully engaged with these questions about living your faith, about government and religious freedom. You’ve studied them in class and you’ve discussed them with one another in your dorms. You’ve seen how they work in other countries when you studied abroad. You’ve learned from the service you’ve done and been humbled by the limits of good intentions. You’ve challenged others when you saw something wrong and at times you’ve discovered you were wrong when you thought you were right. You’ve questioned and you’ve prayed.
I want Notre Dame — its students and their families, your faculty, administrators, staff and alumni — to help me find the right ways to balance these great freedoms. Whether you studied political science or computer science, philosophy or physics, architecture or aerospace engineering, business or biology, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or none of the above, I know you will use your Notre Dame education to dedicate yourself to solving problems, creating policies and just thinking clearly and living right, treating one another with respect and decency. You will continue to talk, not only to those with whom you agree, but also to those with whom you disagree. As Fr. Jenkins said so well, speak the truth, but listen too.
Civil liberties are ultimately about how we get along with one another. How does the majority religion treat the minority — and vice versa? How can we practice our faith without restricting the rights of others? The way to work for the good of all is to find common ground. Let’s find it together. Let’s not walk out. Let’s walk together. Let’s talk. Let’s listen.
Your Alma Mater begins, “Notre Dame our mother, tender, strong and true.” That’s a good description of my Irish-Catholic mother who is here with us today, so I already knew something about how that works. Being with you this weekend I have learned more about what that really means. As governor of Indiana, I always supported Notre Dame. Today, I can say I not only praise you, I love thee, Notre Dame.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.