Public Reason and Obama at Notre Dame
May 17, 2009
There’s a great amount to be said about Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, and I’m sure plenty of others will be chiming in in the next few hours. I was hoping for more details about what direction he’ll be steering federal abortion policies, but a graduation address is not and should not be a stump speech. So putting that aside, this nugget really stood out to me:
In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse.
But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us 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.
So far as I can know, this is the first time anyone has used Tillichian theology to support a Rawlsian understanding of public reason. On the whole, I’m not buying it. There is no straight line between doubt and a universalized discourse; doubt has a background too, and in the case of Catholic faith its not one that necessarily defaults to secular reasoning. (Not incidentally, this is the same stone that tripped Cuomo 23 years ago at the same institution.)
Still, there’s much to be said of using the example of works as a starting place for discussion, and as a moral guidepost, and Obama’s emphasis on it in his own life reflects an understanding of that fact. Contra Rawls (and Obama), its not the universals we’re going to agree on, its the particulars, and if we want to put together a viable religious culture in this country we would do well to keep our focus on them.