Saruman at Notre Dame

"Those who
listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that
they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained
in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear
the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and
desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When
others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they
gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under
the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to
them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see
through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the
sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for
those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away,
and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But
none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without
an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it."
~ “The Speech of Saruman,” J.R.R.Tolkien, The Two Towers 

Towards the middle
of his May 17th commencement address at Notre Dame, President Barack
Obama asked the following questions:

Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of
a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?
How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what
we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly
held convictions on the other side?

Essential and vital questions, these, and the concise and
straightforward manner with which he proposed them reveals Obama’s
rhetorical brilliance. But Obama did more than propose
thought-provoking questions to his Catholic audience; he provided
definite answers to these, at least for those in the audience not
entirely spellbound. Obama’s answers, along with the philosophical
and theological principles they presuppose, were deftly hidden behind
his rhetorically honed, magical words; and when they are exposed to
the light, they reveal a different incantation than the one that
appeared upon the exquisitely polished linguistic surface.

In the middle of the address, Obama recounts the story of a Christian
doctor who informed him that he would not be voting for him for
President in the upcoming election, due not to Obama’s pro-choice position, but to the uncivil, ideological language in
which this position was expressed on his website. Obama then told the
audience how he immediately changed the wording, expressing his hope
that “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the
beliefs of each with the good of all.” This anecdote, I think,
provides an interpretive key to understanding not only the essential
point of Obama’s Notre Dame address, but also his entire political
project as expressed in his many addresses, writings, and acts since

Reconciling the irreconcilable

The anecdote is a microcosm of Obama’s macro-political vision: a
multitude of people with irreconcilable religious and moral
convictions living together in peace and reconciliation.
“Irreconcilable” is not my word, mind you, it’s Obama’s. From
the Notre Dame address:

Understand — I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion
can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it —
indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject
are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some
level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will
continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.
But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views
to caricature.

Of course, by
definition there can be no “reconciliation” between
irreconcilable views, but Obama means something entirely different
here. In light of the doctor story, what it means to “reconcile the
beliefs of each with the good of all,” is not to change or
encourage others to change views on an issue, but simply to change
the way the view is articulated, so as not to “caricature”
any opposing view.

The doctor’s
“humble” request for rhetorical civility, and Obama’s ready
acquiescence to it, is the model for such reconciliation. “I do not
ask at this point that you oppose abortion,” Obama quotes the
doctor as saying, “only that you speak about this issue in
fair-minded words.”

A question arises,
here, though: Why would someone who believes abortion to be the
deliberate murder of a fully human and innocent person, as the
pro-life doctor does, not ask everyone they meet, let alone a
President with the most power to see it criminalized, to oppose
abortion! That is, why would someone with such a “passionate
conviction” judge the “fair-mindedness” of pro-murder language
more important than truth, than speaking in such a way as most
effectively to stop the killing? We are talking, after all, about a
life and death issue here, not one’s view on the estate tax.

Can values be
aligned without changing them?

In the speech, Obama
urged all Americans to “align our deepest values and commitments to
the demands of a new age,” that is, not to change our values
and commitments, whether secularist or religious, but merely align them. What this alignment entails must have something to do with
the exchange between the doctor and Obama, our models of American

Allow me to change
the anecdote a bit to help discover the connection. The year is 1834,
and the issue is slavery, not abortion. There is a law that allows a
slave to be killed by its master for any reason whatsoever, and thus
thousands of innocent slaves are killed every year. The “pro-life”
doctor opposes this law, but his senator advocates it. The doctor,
after mystically hearing Obama’s future Notre Dame speech in a
prophetic dream, is mesmerized by Obama’s “fair-mindedness,”
and recognizes that the “demands of the new age” require that he
and every other opponent of the murder of slaves refrain from asking
pro-slave-murder persons to change their views, but ask only that
they improve their rhetoric. The senator has the same dream, which
causes him to recognize that his highest obligation is being
fair-minded when he supports the murder of slaves so as not to
“caricature” any opposing views.

I think the point is
made: if being rhetorically civil were the extent of the required
“alignment” for the 19th century America citizen, we would still
have legalized slavery, not to mention the genocide of tens of
thousands of African-Americans. Needless to say, there would be no President Obama. Suppose the situation were a President
proposing a mass genocide of “less-than-human” Jews. “Okay,”
assures the President to the doctor, “I’ll be fair-minded and say
that they are quite human while we kill them.” One gets the point.

Irony, faith and

I said at the outset
that the questions in Obama’s speech at Notre Dame could be mined
not only for Obama’s answers, but also for the theological and
philosophical principles his answers presuppose. More space would
permit me to treat these in some depth; for now, allow me to shed
light on what I consider to be the central philosophical/theological
reason that Obama would advocate a social and political ideal
favoring conversational fairness over truth, and use as his main
example what the majority of Americans consider to be a life and
death issue. Here is the master key, as it were, that unlocks Obama’s

But remember too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it
necessarily admits doubt... 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.

I propose this more
philosophically and theologically transparent translation:

Whatever “values” and “commitments” we may hold to be true,
those that stem from or involve in any way our “faith” must be
held with a certain amount of irresolvable doubt—for the “truth”
in these sorts of matters can never be known. And this is why we
should seek above all to continue, not ever resolve, the “moral and
spiritual debate,” whose quite attainable goal is not the truth of
any political matter, no matter how life-threatening, but

I think this
interpretation, or something like it, is best able to make sense of
why a pro-life Christian doctor revealing his tolerance of the
mass-murder of baby-humans in the womb is held up by the President of
the United States as a model of civic virtue to a group of graduating
Catholic college students. Needless to say, such a relativistic
notion of faith and truth is completely irreconcilable with any
genuinely religious worldview, and according to Obama, that means
over 90 percent of the American people.

What “fair-minded”
voices, then, would be permitted to speak in this sort of “vigorous
debate”? Would those who refuse to accept its relativistic
presuppositions, and who say so plainly, be “caricaturing” their
opponents? The kind of debate Obama’s “faith” would “compel”
us to undertake is a mockery of debate, for it denigrates the point
of any debate, the discovery of truth, and therefore it denigrates
the human beings who participate in it, for our greatest desire is to
know, love, and act upon the truth.

But with truth
eclipsed by “fair-minded” rhetoric as the political summum
what is to prevent the strongest and must ruthless –
but, of course, rhetorically “fair-minded”—from exerting power
over the weaker? Sure, the pro-life doctors would be speaking quite
nicely with all the pro-abortion abortion doctors, while the baby
humans are slaughtered in their wombs.

Pace the president of Notre Dame, I, fair-mindedly, or perhaps not,
decline to participate in Obama’s “renewal” of political life,
in solidarity with all the baby humans killed in the past and who
will be killed in the future due to the amoral cultural, spiritual,
and political climate only exacerbated by Obama’s cleverly cloaked
relativism, wherein the weakest and most defenseless are given a,
not-so-fair-minded, silent treatment. Obama asks us not to caricature
other American citizens—fine—but let us ask, nay, demand
that he not allow them to be murdered.

Dr Thaddeus J.
Kozinski is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming
Catholic College, in Lander, Wyoming


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