Hearts, Minds, and Fair-minded Words

by Bret Kincaid

I just finished listening to the 30-minute speech President Obama gave last weekend at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.  It had been controversial since Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins invited Obama back in March to make the commencement address. Many thought Father Jenkins was wrong to invite Obama because of his views on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. And predictably, there were many protesters outside the arena and a few hecklers inside the arena.

If one puts aside the controversy—if one focuses on the forest rather than the controversial trees—one can't help but be inspired by the wisdom of the President's words. His speech was essentially about the epistemological humility of faith and what it offers to a society marked by so much difference. Recognizing the deep, intractable divisions that characterize the human experience, he implored his audience to "find a way to live together as one human family." He went on to point a path toward that goal: seek out and cooperate in those spaces of shared values. I quote at length the part of his speech that introduced this point:

"…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?"

Then Obama, probably the most pro-choice president since Roe v. Wade, turned to the hardest, most controversial subject—abortion. Speaking to a community that opposes Obama's policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research (as Father Jenkins described the university in his introduction of the president), Obama described how he had learned through the respectful chastisement of a pro-life Illinois doctor that he must seek civility by having an "open mind" and an "open heart" and by using "fair-minded words" in public debate about such paramount issues.

Not wanting to smooth over the challenges of difference even while striking a hopeful note, Obama went on to say:

"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.

"It's a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition. Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. 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.'"

These are not words of a relativist, one who resigns himself to the easy notion that all truth claims are equal. After all, he chose to accept the invitation to speak to a crowd who adamantly opposes him on abortion. No, these are the wise words of one who recognizes that we must live together in the midst of competing but overlapping visions of truth, and it is in exploiting the intersections of our different visions that we will find—if not unity—a way to live peacefully together. But we won't seek nor exploit these common spaces unless we humbly open our minds and hearts and use fair-minded words. Rather than channel our energies into winning a culture war, Obama rightly calls us to seek the common good.

Bret Kincaid is associate professor of political science at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.



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