Notre Dame, Obama & my own inconsistencies

by Kristin on April 24, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Moses statue at Notre Dame, photo by Paul J. Everett

I woke up this morning to more Morning Edition news about the Notre Dame-Obama debacle. As this subhead so plainly puts it, “Anti-Abortion Groups Decry Obama’s Graduation Speech, Majority of Catholic Voters Support President.”

As the issue has escalated the past couple of weeks, angry opponents started a website,, with a petition that reads “Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality.” (“Help Stop the Scandal at Our Lady’s University!” the website cries. “Sheesh, can anyone say “overly-dramatic?” I think.)

“Ugh. This whole issue just makes me cringe,” I said to Jason when the news report had finished. “How closed-minded and stuck in the past do Catholics want to be? First the Pope telling Africa that condoms won’t help slow the spread of HIV, now this—our nation’s president isn’t welcome at their university because he didn’t run on a Pro-Life platform. Can’t any university just be pleased to have the President of the United States visit?”

Almost as soon as I said it, I spotted my own hypocritical and inconsistent self, plain and clear. Man, I hate it when that happens.

My own alma mater’s invitation to a different president

On April 21, 2005, I was sitting in this very cafe when a friend—a fellow Calvin College graduate who happened to live in this Central Illinois town at the time—arrived at my table and said he had to show me something. He sat down, slid my laptop in front of him, typed something into Google, then showed me the page me brought up. It was the Calvin College homepage, with a big splash that read something like this: “President George Bush to speak at Calvin College commencement.” (Here’s a lame press release on the subject.)

As I looked at my computer screen with those words on it, I experienced a visceral, physiological response. My heart rate picked up, and I felt hot and dizzy. Moreover, I was speechless.

We had just passed the two-year mark in the war in Iraq, and widespread national anger over George Bush was growing. January 26, 2005, was the deadliest day for the U.S. since the war had started. The Rassmusen Reports, on June 23, 2005, said 49 percent of Americans said President Bush is more responsible for starting the war with Iraq than Saddam Hussein. Only 44 percent believed Hussein was more responsible.

I was pissed. No, actually, there really aren’t words to describe how I felt about George Bush at the time. And then my Christian College alma mater—where I had a very good educational experience, by the way—seemed pleased as punch that the President was going to grace them all with his presence.

I was angry on principle, because war is something that goes against all of my Christian beliefs. I was also embarrassed. It was a Christians Against Christians moment. By inviting Bush, Calvin College was extending the stereotypes that I, and many Christians I know, work against every day.

As it turned out, many people were angry. They started lots of conversations, and mobilized people into action. More than 800 Calvin faculty, students and alumni signed a letter that ran in the Grand Rapids Press, saying, in part, “Your deeds, Mr. President—neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment and misleading the country into war—do not exemplify the faith we live by.” In the end, the whole visit to Calvin College didn’t go as swimingly as Karl Rove expected.

The power of pissed off people

Of course, the dialogue and action has been stirred up at Notre Dame and among Catholics, too. Hundreds of Notre Dame students have mobilized in support of President Obama.

And maybe that’s all that really matters, in all of this. Not that everyone’s happy all the time with everyone else’s decisions and beliefs, but that we’re willing to get worked up about something, on either side of the debate. We’re willing to react strongly and publicly to something we believe in strongly, whether it be a pro-life or anti-war stance.

In the process, I hope we can learn to respect opinions that are different from ours. I know I need to work on that. I also hope, while we’re at it, we can put our close-minded stereotypes about certain groups of people to rest, and just be thankful we live in a world where everyone doesn’t agree with us.

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  • Blackwasp19

    I do not agree with the response of some individuals, but I also do not agree with having Obama speak at commencement. Notre Dame is an incredibly ideologically diverse institution. Their professors come from a number of stations in life, they are by no means giving a monolithic education Also, ND a private institution they can – and should – be able to choose who they wish to speak on campus.

    In my opinion, the administrators slipped up on this one. They had to realize that this choice would evoke backlash. Commencement is not the right venue to have someone who is ideologically opposed to something the institution is adamantly for. If Obama couldn’t speak on campus at all, then I believe there is an issue.

    Just because Obama is the president does not mean that his words are or should be valued everywhere. It is possible to avidly disagree, but yet still acknowledge someone as a leader. That, in my mind, is what ND should have stood on.

    Just as many were upset with Calvin, so ND alum and constituencies are upset with ND.

    I want to know why you believed Calvin’s invitation to Bush reinforcing stereotypes? On the base level I understand – that does not need clarification. But I think assuming that something will reinforce stereotypes and speaking as if it will actually does more to fortify stereotypes and mis-persepctions than it would if we just accepted it as part of the culture – that doesn’t mean we have to like it..

    I personally wouldn’t have asked Bush to speak – it was a dumb move by administration.I also believe that Calvin had the right to invite bush and constituencies had the write to protest, just like this ND situation.

    We have to be careful, if we are allowing people to stand up for what they believe in that means we have to be OK with Bush speaking at Calvin and Obama not speak at ND. Though they may disagree with own on views, people honestly do have that viewpoint.

  • The Modern Gal

    Well, for what it’s worth, I’m pretty staunchly Catholic, but I’ve never understood this kind of outrage. I understand what Blackwasp is saying, with “Commencement is not the right venue to have someone who is ideologically opposed to something the institution is adamantly for,” but I respectfully disagree. If he’s not talking ABOUT abortion one way or the other during the commencement (and why on Earth would abortion be an appropriate commencement speech?), what the heck does it matter that his beliefs about it are different? I don’t see that allowing him to speak translates into an endorsement of his views on abortion. I would hope a Notre Dame-educated graduate would be smart enough to make the same distinction.

  • Mark

    I am curious how you deal win your Christians against Christians issue and the last paragraph of your post? Are you trying to move past that tension?

  • Kristin T.

    Blackwasp19, when I first read your comment a couple of days ago, my thoughts were very similar to what The Modern Gal ended up writing. I guess what I’m thinking, the more I ponder this, is that no matter how ideologically clear an institution is, it will still be filled with people who disagree with one another. I saw that plainly at Calvin College, where the Young Republicans were a ridiculously strong organization, but where most of my professors (at least in the humanities where I took most of my courses) were openly liberal. My point is that you will never find someone to invite to commencement that everyone agrees with. And part of what education is all about is challenging people, and encouraging debate. The interesting question is where to draw the line. An atheist speaking to graduates at Calvin College? A KKK leader speaking at the commencement at an historically black university? Clearly, there are lines, and common sense. I just don’t think Notre Dame came anywhere close to crossing that line.

    Regarding how I think having Bush at Calvin reinforced stereotypes, I think the stereotypes are pretty basic: Christians are all Republicans; Christians might be pro-life when it comes to abortion but they’re just fine with sending people off to die in unjust wars; Christians talk about helping others, but when it gets down to it, they’re greedy and want to keep their hard-earned money to themselves and in their churches and private schools, rather than paying more taxes to help those with less money, education and opportunity. You might think that by bringing this up I’m reinforcing stereotypes, but many non-Christians have told me how amazed and relieved they are to find out where I stand on these matters. The stereotypes are alive and well; being quiet about them only reinforces them.

    The Modern Gal, thanks for doing my job for me! :) I know you were actually speaking for you, not me, but you summed up where I stand quite nicely. If Obama was planning to go in there and try to convince people to give up their pro-life stance, that would be a big problem, but he’s obviously not going to do that, just like Bush didn’t come to Calvin to convince people that God wants us to fight for freedom in Iraq. (Ack! I can hardly type that!) It seems to me that generally, when people feel uncomfortable listening to someone who disagrees with them, it’s because they’re less sure of their own stance than they’d like to be, and they don’t want more seeds of doubt to be planted.

    Mark, good question. I guess referencing “my own inconsistencies” in the headline was doubly fitting. In some ways, maybe I am trying to move past that tension. Or maybe I’m trying to reframe it. The problem isn’t that I disagree with many Christians on many issues (even though I do, and much of what I hear Christians proclaiming doesn’t line up with my understanding of Jesus, at all). The problem lies with how that majority is able to make more noise, so those are the voices non-believers end up hearing most clearly. I don’t believe it’s a fair representation. Ultimately, I want everyone to be more open-minded about what it means for someone to be a Christian. There is no such thing as a “normal” Christian. (Just curious—do you think I should give up my recurring Christians Against Christians theme?)

  • Mark

    I think the concept is great, I wonder about the method. Gregory Boyd (pastor from MN who wrote “Myth of a Christian Nation) referred to himself as a follower of Jesus when Tom Ashbrook asked him if he was a Christian on “On Point” (WGBH). Pretty interesting that a minister would avoid the Christian label. I think he avoided it because he moved past the label to what is really important–the radical love, thoughts and actions of Jesus. I hear some of that radical love and grace in your and Jason’s story. Maybe you should stick with that, move THAT forward (the examples of the transformative grace and peace). I hope people who have had a poor religious experience, seen the hypocrisy, can someday understand that that is us just being us–that is, imperfect, weak humans. Everyone falls into this category–Christians, Jesus followers, Buddhists or atheists (no Christians don’t have a corner on the hypocrisy market).

    So maybe I don’t think the Christians against Christians works if what you are talking about is what it means to want to try and follow the Jesus Way. Even that phrase “the Jesus Way” will make people cringe. In the end, the words fail; only our actions will ultimately fulfill.

  • Blackwasp19

    Modern Gal – I agree, I don’t think Obama would speak about abortion, but making these decisions aren’t as pure as you – or I – would want them to be. Commencement is an expression of an institution’s culture, which is why I also disagreed with Bush speaking at Calvin. Obama’s beliefs don’t fit ND’s culture and either did Bush’s beliefs fit Calvin’s culture. Administrators have to take in consideration the culture, history and constituencies of the institution. Good administrations do not make decisions based upon their own ideology, but on the influences of a variety of stake holders. It isn’t clean and clear, but it the ambiguous reality (which isn’t easy to balance).

    Kristen –

    I argue that Christians do ALOT for the world – though I also believe we are to be doing a lot more. Just I don’t see other organizations like Christian Community Development Association, World Vision, Salvation Army are making a huge impact. Christians are in the developing world and the inner-cities. I do think some Christians are behind on some issues (primarily environmental), but as far as sacrificial living many Christians (but not enough in my mind) live up to it.

    Look at Champaign, who is in inner-city Champaign? Churches, and the Empty Tomb, they are the organizations making a difference. I desperately believe Christians are called to do more and I believe we struggle with being more American (which manifest in a multiplicity of ways) than Christian, but I also believe that we already to a great deal. This makes me think of atheist, Matthew Parris’ writing about the need for missionaries to Africa over non-Christian aid (

    Are there a ton of greedy, self-righteous, self-serving Christians? Yea, there are. But there are also many, perhaps more than people realize, who aren’t even close to that assessment. I think it is easy for our critiques to becoming bashing – I am included. Christians need to be calling one another to be more righteous, not calling each other out to the world. Greed and Self-righteousness are sins, as are lust, pride etc. we have to realize that and realize that the family who lives in a 2 million dollar house with two kids are – in my mind – dealing with sin and in like fashion, the family who has individuals on drugs, in gangs and mismanages money is also dealing with sin.

    Here is my worry about stereotypes. People comment negatively about fundamental Christianity all the time. I personally have my disagreements with the movement, but I also know a lot of WONDERFUL people who are doing incredible things (look up the Unlikely Disciple the story of a Brown student who went to Liberty University and was actually amazed by the genuineness of the people there and exposed man of the faulty stereotypes of his friends as Brown). Stereotypes of all types usually occur when we don’t know people. I think we need to be who we are and in that way debunk stereotypes, I don’ believe it is our job to try to say “Oh that is stereotypical . . . fill the blank” because the group we are referring to be it religiously, ethnically, culturally etc. is then lumped into that stereotype. In a sense we saying “that is those people, I am not like them”.Defending ourselves from being stereotyped by those who know us, should be unnecessary, because they know who we are and they trust us.

    I guess, working against stereotypes seems inconsequential to me. As I black male I cannot concentrate on making sure people realize I am not a stereotype (I struggle with not doing that) I have to simple be who I am. My Christian walk seems similar.

    Sorry for the long response.

  • Nate

    This conversation is fascinating. I wonder how the idea of tolerance fits into all this. I wonder if tolerance isn’t the short term answer, the cease fire that allows the understanding to begin. Tolerance has always seemed tepid to me, but I think that’s the point: it isn’t a fiery response, but a mild one. I once had a professor at UIUC who was a lesbian, and she posited that it wasn’t enough to be tolerated, that she wanted to be accepted. On it’s face, this seems like a reasonable feeling, but the more I think about it the more I realize that that isn’t the way the world works. People tolerate each other until they get to know each other, then get to like each other, then learn to love one another. I know that I am big and loud and opinionated, and there are people every day who just tolerate me. Sometimes even the people who love me just have to tolerate me because I’m doing something they don’t like. Tolerance, to me, seems like the kindest form of disagreement. If the conservatives at ND had simply tolerated Obama, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Same for Bush at Calvin. Some things, some actions, some ideas, shock the conscience and should not be tolerated, but I wonder if there is any human anywhere who is fundamentally intolerable? I don’t know, but I haven’t met them yet.

  • Kristin T.

    Mark, you put it just right: what matters is moving past the label to what is really important. And yes, when it comes down to it, people of all beliefs fall into the category of being imperfect, weak humans. I do hope that my own stories and experiences end up saying what needs to be said—showing, rather than telling. Sometimes, though, I feel like I need to get people to do a double-take and stick around long enough to hear the stories, even if they initially think this blog isn’t for them.

    Blackwasp19, it’s true—Christians do a lot for the world. I even know quite a few of them personally (including you!). My church’s commitment to mercy and justice issues was THE reason I decided to visit in the first place (and one of the main reasons I have stayed). I want to tell these stories and just go about showing who I am by how I live, but I don’t want to just preach to the choir here. My fear, particularly on my blog, is that people who have had bad experiences and strongly rooted stereotypes will catch a whiff of religion and go running off, never to return and hear the stories I want to tell. As I said in my response to Mark, I want them to know I might offer an approach to God that’s different from what they know and expect. Fighting the stereotypes isn’t my ultimate, final goal, it’s just the first step in encouraging a variety of people to stick around and hear a bit more.

    Nate, thanks for jumping into the conversation! “Tolerance” is an interesting idea to introduce. It’s funny, I went through the same sort of response to the word that you did. At first it seems “tepid” and sort of fake. But then I really like what you pointed out—to some extent, we all tolerate one another until we get to know each other better and can form real affinities (or be sure there aren’t any). The thing I’m not OK with, though, is the aspect of tolerance that generally seems to require silence. If I had been at Calvin the day Bush spoke, I would not have wanted to practice that type of tolerance. I guess by showing up, I would have been demonstrating tolerance to some extent, but I only would have been OK doing that if there was a way for me to first clearly express how I felt about Bush being there.

  • Jason

    Blackwasp19, i love you brother, but i’ve long felt that we all need to do more calling out, not less. Your make a good point, Christians do a lot, but i have a really strong feeling that people who self declare as non-christian end up contributing back to society at about the same rate. (i know quite a few) The test i think should not be, are Christians doing good, its the net effect. If we’re feeding the homeless with the left hand, and building walls to keep people out with the right what is gained? There are plenty of Christians out there telling the world how great everything is but far too few dissenting voices that stand up to the power structure and publicly say “open your ears and hear!”

  • Blackwasp19

    Good to hear from you Jason,

    I agree – I love you too.

    I don’t want to suggest that non-Christians aren’t a force, but I don’t think Christians often get the credit they should – both in the church and outside. From being involved, I see Christians mainly, not that others aren’t there – I have served with them, but I see a lot of Christians.

    The picture of American Christianity seems to have been focused around the Falwells, Joel Osteens, Hybels, T.D. Jakes etc. but we miss the pleothra of people like, David Gushee, John Perkins, Ron Sider, Tony Evans, Eugene Cho, etc. I think instead of going against the former we need to promote the latter, that seems like more useful energy – and implicit in that promotion we are fighting ideologies we disagree with. I fear it is too easy to be against than to be for. And I think many people are against many things, but for very few.

    In the long run Christians are to promote just systems and loving interactions. The macro and micro are inextricable.

    Kristin – I want people to hear those stories of mine too . I want to allow them to see who I am, and allow the narrative of my life to break the stereotype.

    I do think when someone brings up a stereotype that we need to confront it. I simply don’t know if we should be mentioning stereotypes in our conversations. it just doesn’t seem beneficial. I believe our stereotypes would die – even if only partially, if we would only stop referencing them so often and just lived our lives as who we are.

    I really believe that even Christian living, in the way that I believe it should be, is a turn off to some. I worry that we often think that Christians shouldn’t turn off folks. While I don’t believe that anyone should intentionally turn another off, I also believe that it will inevitably happen, which is a very sad thing and something that doesn’t sit right for me.

    Good Convo :)

  • Jason

    Kristin – Interesting comment on your fear of people “catch[ing] a whiff of religion and… running off”. When I first came across your blog, I had that reaction. I like discussing religion and seeing what people have to say, but I didn’t need a “God-blog” in my life. Some time later, I read more posts and came to realize that you have a lot of interesting things to say, and you’re so open to talking about your beliefs and practices. Now, I’m not going to be converting or anything, but you offer an insight into a Christian way of thinking that I don’t feel was accessible to me before. Thanks!

  • Angela Harms

    Kristin, this (“Almost as soon as I said it, I spotted my own hypocritical and inconsistent self, plain and clear. Man, I hate it when that happens.”) is what I love about you. To be honest, I’m not too concerned with Obama or Notre Dame, so I don’t have much to say about it, except that I love how you talk about what’s real in all of us, and you do it fearlessly (or apparently so!). Thanks. :)

  • Kristin T.

    Jason, I’m just going to shout a big AMEN to this: “If we’re feeding the homeless with the left hand, and building walls to keep people out with the right what is gained? There are plenty of Christians out there telling the world how great everything is but far too few dissenting voices that stand up to the power structure and publicly say ‘open your ears and hear!’” Maybe it’s not fair that I’m backing you so enthusiastically, seeing as how we’re married, but I suppose that’s one of the reasons I married you—we so often seem to share the same brain. :)

    Blackwasp19, you bring up a good point, about how the picture of American Christianity is too focused on people like the Falwells rather than those like John Perkins. And you’re right, being actively against something can be easier than being actively for it (although the easiest thing of all is to just be indifferent, which is the real problem in our country). When it comes to the issue of stereotypes, and whether we should bring them up, I still have to disagree. I don’t think they would eventually die if we just stopped mentioning them. They’re very deeply rooted, and there’s no shortage of news feeding them. Just today, a story came out about a Pew Research study that found “The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists.” I can’t begin to describe how upset this makes me, and how determined I am to do all I can to both fight against that while showing there’s a different way to be a Christian.

    Jason—the one I’m NOT married to :) —your comment gives me a lot of hope and encouragement. Thank you for saying what you said. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here with my blog (a question I’m sure most bloggers periodically ask), and then certain readers pop up and remind me what it’s all about.

    Angela, I could just say “ditto” to the comment above, but that might seem lazy. :) Talking about “what’s real in all of us” is just about my favorite thing, although I can’t say I do it fearlessly. As you must know well, writing what you really think and feel stirs up much trepidation and doubt. Thanks for being who you are and saying what you think in the face of all that.

  • Betty Duffy

    “There are plenty of Christians out there telling the world how great everything is but far too few dissenting voices that stand up to the power structure and publicly say “open your ears and hear!”

    Isn’t this what the Catholics resisting Obama’s commencement speech are doing? For many of us, abortion is a grave human rights issue. And Obama did more than run on a pro-choice platform. In his first 100 days in office, he has overturned every possible legislation protecting the lives of the unborn that he could. He is moving dangerously close to removing conscience clauses that protect Catholic doctors, nurses and pharmacists from administering procedures they find morally reprehensible. Doing so would require the closing of one of the largest providers of free health care in the world: Catholic Hospitals.

    Inviting Obama to speak at ND is a way of putting pretty face on a deeply resonating conflict of interest.

  • Blackwasp19

    Perhaps the definition of stereotype is a key issue. Kristin, like you, words for me have great meaning. I define stereotype is attributing a characteristic to someone of a given group primarily because they are of that group (i.e. I’m Black I must like Chicken, your a Woman you must know how to or Salim is Arab he must be a Muslim). Some can be based in truthful generalities many Black people do like chicken and many women do know how to cook. But they can be rooted in falsities and prejudice as well, MOST Arab-Americans are Christians (65 percent or so). The essence of stereotype is automatically attributing ANY real or perceived group characteristic to individuals who may be in that group.

    I DO believe that people need to stand up against stereotypes – I fear that stance of mine is getting lost in the conversation. If someone suggest that a black person is “Acting White” because of their education or style of speech, we HAVE to confront that – that is a complicated almost reverse manifestation of a stereotype. My issue is when we assume things are stereotypes rather than them just being generalizations . For example, the Pew Research data (I love Pew); that is a generalization. The reality that is TRUE, and it doesn’t bother me that those correlations are what Pew reported – the truth of the report DOES bother me though because I ideologically disagree with those who believe torturing should be allow in any manner. What would bother me is if someone assumed I, you or all Christians – which isn’t even the population of the research – believed that.

    I also want to point out that I think we need to stop mentioning them in our conversations, that DOESN’T mean we don’t confront them – those are two different things for me. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t structurally confront stereotypes. I hear stereotypes all the time and I try to confront them with my friends, I think media and other public forms are necessary in combating stereotypes people have about the LGBTQ community. Ignoring stereotypes isn’t what I am propagating. But when we try to prevent generalizations from being stereotypes I think we are mis-speaking and in actuality perpetuating stereotypes. My life isn’t to not be a stereotype it is to be who I am which may not fit in the generalization..

    With the Calvin issue, Bush speaking didn’t have to reinforce any stereotype. Generally most Evangelical Christians in the U.S. liked Bush (on the relative scale of most Americans liking Bush as much as a skunk). It played into a generality, but not a stereotype – no one ways saying all Evangelical Christians like Bush. That act in and of itself shouldn’t act as a fodder for enhancing stereotypes. But I think when people (Christian or Non-Christian) jump on that and treat it like a stereotype that gives it life. Me as an Evangelical Christian saying, “I don’t want Bush to speak” seems to give more opportunities for people to see the diversity within Evangelical Christianity than me worrying that Calvin is perpetuating a stereotype.

    Perhaps the crux is differentiating between generalization and stereotype. Culturally I don’t believe we don’t define these well.

  • Kristin T.

    Betty Duffy, what Jason was saying, about “far too few dissenting voices that stand up to the power structure,” most definitely applies to you and your stance. I guess that’s what I was trying to ultimately say in my post, although I probably hadn’t fully formed the thought: These voices of dissent are absolutely critical, whether we agree with them or not. Coming face to face with my own inconsistencies helped make this point clear to me. Also, I completely get this: “Inviting Obama to speak at ND is a way of putting pretty face on a deeply resonating conflict of interest.” Thanks for speaking up here and sharing your perspective.

    Blackwasp19, that’s a very important distinction to make—between stereotypes and generalizations—and I’m very glad you brought it up. I think I better understand what you’re saying, now, and I hope I didn’t misrepresent you in my followup post! Thanks for taking the time to explore this topic with me and others—we miss having you around “in real life.”