Obama calls for ‘open hearts,’ ‘open minds’
Jenn Metz | Sunday, May 17, 2009
President Barack Obama’s Commencement address marked an important day in Notre Dame’s history, as the president, while recognizing irreconcilable differences on the issue of abortion, urged graduates and all Americans to seek a common ground.
A theme of his speech: “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair minded words.”
Obama called on Americans to help reduce the number of abortions performed and also to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.
In the 164th University Commencement address Sunday, Obama acknowledged the controversy surrounding his visit to Notre Dame to deliver the Commencement address and receive an honorary degree.
At least four protesters shouting against the president were removed from the Joyce Center by law enforcement.
The graduates erupted into a cheer of “We are ND” and turned to the back of the arena to overpower the protesters’ few voices.
Obama settled the crowd after these interruptions, saying “It’s alright.”
“We’re following [Valedictorian Brennan Bollman’s] adage that we don’t do things [because they are] easy,” Obama said to applause from the crowd. “We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.”
Addressing the complexities surrounding stem cell research, one of the issues that spurred the controversy surrounding his visit, Obama said: “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.”
Working through these conflicts, Obama said, is the main question that faces the nation.
“Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?” Obama asked. “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, as [University President Fr. John Jenkins] said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”
These questions arise most powerfully, Obama said, in discussions about the issue of abortion.
After telling the graduates about a letter he received from a doctor regarding the then-candidate’s stance on abortion, Obama spoke of the importance of extending “the presumption of good faith” to find commonalities with those who hold differing beliefs.
“Because when we do that,” he said, “when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe precisely what we believe – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
Obama continued: “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, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
To arena-wide applause, the president issued a call to “reduce the number of women seeking abortions,” “reduce unintended pregnancies,” “make adoption more available” and
“provide 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 not only in sound science but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women,” Obama said.
Noting the complex views of most Americans on the issue of abortion, the president acknowledged that “each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.”
“Surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.”
The president also called the graduating class to lead lives of service to “minds and hearts.”
“It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition,” Obama said to applause. “[University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh] has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads,” Obama said. “The lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where ‘… differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.'”
Obama, joining with Hesburgh and Jenkins, told the graduating seniors how inspired he is “by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding [Sunday’s] ceremony,” to which the students received a standing ovation.
The class of 2009 will enter the world facing great challenges, the president said.
“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,” Obama said. “It is a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations – and a task that you are now called to fulfill.”
Obama issued a call to the graduating class as they enter the world facing a troubled global economy and harmful climate change, charging them to lead their generation to reconcile these problems.
“In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family,” he said, to applause from the crowd.
These challenges, Obama said, cannot be overcome alone.
“[N]o 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,” he said.
Doubt should not act as a deterrent to continued faith, but should “compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame,” Obama said.
“Even as we cling to our faith 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,” he said.
The call to service is the “one law,” Obama said, that “binds people of all faiths and no faiths together.”
Praising the graduating class for its demonstrated commitment to service – noting that upwards of 80 percent of the class of 2009 “have lived this law of love” – saying it is an “incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.
“Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life,” Obama said, also noting the service work of Hesburgh in his speech.
After his address, Obama was presented with a copy of a now-famous photograph – one showing Hesburgh and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 civil rights demonstration – as a gift of thanks from University Provost Thomas Burish.
Pointing out Hesburgh in the crowd, Burish described the photo: “The minister and the priest, hand-in-hand, singing the civil rights anthem.”