Thinking Epistemologically about Obama and Notre Dame
Francis Beckwith knows what it's like to be in the middle of controversy. In fact, he thinks he's a magnet for it. Beckwith, who is a philosophy and church-studies professor at Baylor University, triggered a debate when he resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society after converting to Catholicism.
Now Beckwith happens to be a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame, where a new debate is focused on the university's invitation to President Obama to speak at commencement.
"My wife says I'm like the Forrest Gump for controversy," he said. "But on campus, more people are concerned about whether the Fighting Irish would beat Kentucky." Beckwith spoke with Christianity Today about what the discussion means for Catholic and evangelical higher education institutions. (See also responses from Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw and Union University president David Dockery.)
Since the President will speak at several commencement ceremonies during his term, why did his invitation to speak at Notre Dame create such a stir?
There's nothing wrong with inviting speakers to campus who disagree with the university. I don't think that's the issue here. Here, you have a combination of a commencement address and an honorary doctorate. The honorary doctorate is more troubling than the commencement address because to give him an honorary doctorate in law is to say that he's accomplished something in the field of law that the University of Notre Dame wants to honor. In the past three weeks, we've seen a number of different events, one of which was the change in policy on embryonic stem cell research. The problem is, the areas in which he's been involved with legislation on the issue of abortion have been contrary to Catholic teaching.
Colleges regularly invite people whom they may disagree with to speak on campus. For instance, Wheaton College invited Condoleezza Rice to speak at commencement even though she is pro-choice.
I can see a situation where you have an elected official who may be pro-choice, but it's not the focus or center of their legislative history. For instance, Houston Baptist invited Rudolph Giuliani, but he just gave a speech. He even acknowledged in his speech, "Look, my views on abortion are not held by a vast majority of you in the audience." But I think that Houston Baptist would not have given him an honorary doctorate in law. One of the things Obama is working on right now is perhaps overturning the conscience clause that the Bush administration had instituted, which has a direct bearing on Catholic hospitals. Here, you have a case where somebody claims to extol the virtue of choice but wants to remove choice from the conscience of citizens when it comes to performing or referring people for abortions.
How do religious institutions balance inviting speakers and promoting what the speaker stands for?
I think that universities should not extend commencement invitations to anyone elected to office unless they've been retired for a long time. The sort of cultural issues that dominate the landscape today just weren't there 30 or 40 years ago. People would argue about what you want to do with the Panama Canal. Now they get to the heart of who and what we are as human beings. Those are deeply theological questions. I do think it's great to invite them to lectures to engage in dialogue. When you have a wide range of students at commencement, I think that schools should play it safe.