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A Machiavellian moment at Notre Dame

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I just finished reading Obama’s speech at the Notre Dame commencement May 17. I was struck by two passages in particular. In one, the President comments on the obstacles to finding common ground: “We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.”

In another, towards the end, he draws some lessons: “Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family and the same fulfillment of a life well-lived.” Of course, these are true and admirable sentiments, and make nice sound bites.

One would think, of course, given these high moral sentiments, that Obama would be pro-life, as we just learned that 51 percent of Americans are, according to the latest Gallup poll. That is, unborn babies are possessed of the same human dignity as the rest of us, and so most Americans “recognize ourselves in” them, as indeed all of us once were what they are.

But “the strong too often dominate the weak...and find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of...injustice.” As one of the powerful, Obama tellingly includes himself in the comment that “we cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar.” And so millions of abortions will continue to occur in America under the legal authority of Roe v. Wade.

Obama thinks that recognizing the humanity of the unborn is “above his pay grade,” though he is both well paid and intelligent. While he says at Notre Dame, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion,” he attempts to remove in Washington the federal regulation that provides just such protection. Meanwhile, he is pledged to remove every restriction on abortion through the Freedom of Choice Act and appoint to the Supreme Court a “Justice” who is pledged to perpetuate Roe v. Wade.

I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” the landmark work of political philosophy famous for first divorcing politics from ethics. Machiavelli says that “A prince ought to take great care that nothing goes out of his mouth which is not full of [pity, faith, integrity, humanity and religion], and that he appears to be, when one sees and hears him, all pity, all faith, all integrity, all humanity, and all religion. Nothing is more necessary than to have this last quality. For men universally judge more by the eyes than by the hands, because it is given to everyone that they see, but to few that they can touch.” (Alvarez translation). Thus, it seems advisable to pay more attention to what a politician does than to what he says.

By being honored by Notre Dame, the nation’s premier Catholic university, and saying such high-sounding things, Obama seems very moral and religious. The fact is, however, that he is not practicing what he is preaching, that he is in effect faking it.

Styling himself, and sounding like another Abraham Lincoln, he is actually acting like Lincoln’s immediate predecessor President James Buchanan, who welcomed the Dred Scot decision on slavery, which like Roe denied legal personhood to a whole class of human beings. Or like Stephen A. Douglas, another senator from Illinois, who thought that people should be able to choose whether to recognize slavery in their territory, as if a basic human right were not implicated, and who was Lincoln’s opponent on the issue of slavery.

Shame on Notre Dame (the school) for staging this charade! Shame on us Catholics if we fall for it!

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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