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Notre Dame should not invite President Trump to speak at Commencement

| Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I read Eddie Damstra’s “An open letter to Fr. Jenkins” in the Dec. 7 edition of The Observer. While I respect his well-stated position, I cannot agree with his conclusion. I believe Notre Dame should not invite President Donald Trump to speak at Commencement.

I did not expect to write this letter. In March 2009, Notre Dame announced Barack Obama would speak at my commencement ceremony in May. I could hardly contain my glee at having the first African American President of the United States and a personal political idol of mine, since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, speak at my graduation.

My glee was short-lived, however, as for months, groups protested and argued it was inappropriate for a Catholic institution to invite a pro-choice President to speak and be honored at its commencement.

I have to confess: I found the whole situation baffling. Would Notre Dame seriously decline to invite the president to speak at our graduation? Surely, an invitation to speak at Commencement need not equate to an endorsement of all of the president’s policies, and a snub seemed like a close-minded refusal to engage with anyone whose political beliefs did not align with Catholic teaching.

When President Obama addressed our class, he invoked a favorite expression of the late University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh about what it meant to be a lighthouse and a crossroads — to simultaneously shine unwaveringly for your beliefs and bring people together with all of our differences. I was inspired by that charge, and for many years, I knew I wanted to write to graduates feeling politically conflicted about a different president speaking their Commencement and pass on the lessons I learned at the time: Hold your beliefs dear, but respect for the presidency is a duty of every American and do not let our divisions blind us to our shared humanity.

Thus, I realize this letter must make me seem hypocritical. Though I truly would prefer to write a letter similar to the one Mr. Damstra composed, I cannot bring myself to write it because I believe it is Mr. Trump who needs those lessons. Mr. Trump has flaunted the norms of our democratic system, including through his tweets criticizing the rights of assembly and the free press, his refusal to disentangle himself from his vast business holdings and their attendant conflicts of interest and his debunked allegation that illegal votes prevented him from winning the popular vote. Mr. Trump has also done much to divide us, including his comments on immigrants and Muslims, his refusal to distance himself from or forcibly denounce the white supremacist right (the so-called “Alt-right”), his continued refusal to take any responsibility, even indirectly, for pulling us apart.

An invitation to speak at Commencement might not equate to an endorsement of Mr. Trump’s policies, but it does at least partially endorse Mr. Trump, the man. It would be wrong to decline to invite Mr. Trump because of legitimately held political differences, but it would be worse still to invite Mr. Trump following the concrete actions he has taken that threaten to corrode the foundation of our democracy and rip apart the ties that bind us together. I would prefer Notre Dame act as a crossroads, but I believe we should stand as a lighthouse on this occasion.

Michael Folger
class of 2009
Dec. 7

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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