The President at Notre Dame

President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame was just fine, as far as it went. We really should treat one another respectfully and not caricature our opponents’ views. But it’s also important to note that this can only be the primary concern for those who support legal abortion, and especially those like the President who oppose any significant restrictions on abortion whatsoever. If you have already decided that abortion is not the taking of a person’s life, then of course civility in debate is going to be at the forefront of your mind. Thus the widespread applause for Obama’s generosity of spirit, even among people who have no intention of treating the pro-life movement with anything but contempt.

Similarly, the President’s appeals to the value of humility and doubt —

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.

— are particularly appealing to those who support the status quo, even though I believe he truly means for this to be a lesson to all Americans, including himself. The more humble and self-doubting we are, the less likely we are to achieve, or even to press for, significant social change. The great fighters for full civil rights for women and people of color could not have afforded much doubt. They were driven, and had to be driven, by unshakeable conviction.

(By the way, this is why Andrew Sullivan’s frequent insistence that the difference between him and the “Christianists” is that he is epistemologically flexible and comfortable with doubt while they are purely dogmatic — “their certainty is the real blasphemy” — is simply untenable. He doesn't hold his commitment to full civil rights for gay and lesbian people in a tentative way: he is committed to it with all his heart and mind. The difference between Andrew and your average “Christianist” is not that one is more certain than the other, it’s that they are equally certain about different things. Both of them might at some point say “I could be wrong” but neither of them believes it.)

So God bless the President. He’s trying his very best, given his convictions about abortion. But for those of us who believe that those convictions are wrong, good intentions just don't go very far.