Obama's Notre Dame Speech Was an Alarming Violation of Church-State Separation

Why is the president acting like a papal prince?

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

There are a number of dimensions to the controversy over Notre Dame's granting of an honorary degree to President Obama as well as to the speech he gave there at Sunday's graduation ceremony. As someone who is not Catholic—but who does have Catholic roots in my family tree—I had not intended to add my thoughts to the commentary so ably provided on both sides of the issues by so many others.

Having read the speech, after being urged to do so by my Thomas Jefferson Street colleague Mary Kate Cary in her Monday post, it occurs to me however there is much about its message that should give all people of faith reason to pause.

In his remarks the president urges the graduating class of Notre Dame to be aware that the challenges before them "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." As I read that sentence, it means President Obama wants those in attendance to reorient their faith in ways that allow them, indeed compel them to address global problems—not as the church or as Pope Benedict define them—but as he and his political cohorts see them to be.

"This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit—an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day's work," he said, using the language of politics and social organization rather than providing a scriptural basis for his assessments.

And again here: "Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it." And here: "We must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief."

As I read it, President Obama is telling the "one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church," of the Nicene Creed that it must catch up with the times, be part of the change, and accept diversity of all kinds and stripes. Which sort of reminds of the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters when Woody Allen, thinking he is dying of a brain tumor, visits a priest in contemplation of conversion, talks about joining "the against school prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing," of the church despite the fact that he still doesn't believe in God but has to believe in something.

Writing Monday for National Review Online, noted Catholic scholar and papal biographer George Weigel issued a caution of his own about the Notre Dame speech.

"What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president's decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square," Weigel wrote, adding that "Obama did this by suggesting, not altogether subtly, who the real Catholics in America are."

As Weigel and other commentators have written, Obama's trip to South Bend, Ind., is part of an ongoing effort to hold on to the political support he received from Catholic voters in the November 2008 election. Catholics are a powerful voting bloc, having been on the winning side more times than any other religious demographic in the presidential elections of the postwar period.

Now, as Weigel wrote, he is trying to "settle the decades-long intra-Catholic culture war in favor of one faction—the faction that had supported his candidacy and that had spent the first months of his administration defending his policies." Even if President Obama had been paying attention to the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, this is a disturbing violation of the idea of the "wall of separation" between church and state of which Jefferson wrote in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists.

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