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Echoes of the Bible: Obama's Notre Dame Address—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on May 18, 2009.

 

Echoes of the Bible: Obama's Notre Dame Address

By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

 

President Obama made an admirable call for a civil discourse on abortion at Notre Dame's commencement. While there was much controversy leading up to Obama's address, his speech was generally well received by the Fighting Irish, and not just because of the sports references.

 

Obama successfully couched his underlying message of the abortion debate's legitimacy in the familiar language of the Bible. In rhetoric, it's important to remember your audience, and Obama clearly remembered in South Bend. Here are eight key lines from Obama's address and the biblical passages they reference:

 

"Some were here during years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare - periods of relative peace and prosperity that required little by way of sacrifice or struggle."

 

This line echoes Jeremiah 29:1, "Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." Jeremiah's letter is a fitting reference for times of turmoil, as he instructs the Israelites to hope for prosperity in their new and challenging environment.

 

"Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin."

 

First, Obama references seven sins (counting "cruelties large and small" as number seven). Many of the "original" seven deadly sins, enumerated by Pope Gregory, are referenced: selfishness, pride, and acquisitiveness. Interestingly, Obama leaves out envy, wrath, discouragement, and extravagance. Obama also references original sin, a concept largely crystallized by Augustine in the Sixth Century and a central tenet of Roman Catholics. While neither of these references is strictly biblical, they have deep religious resonance and tie the 21st Century's problems to the age-old failings of man.

 

"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."

 

Here, Obama turns the traditional religious exhortation on its head, as the strong "dominate the weak" instead of protecting them. This line also references the Book of Joel, which looks to a time when such distinctions no longer matter: "Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong."

 

"The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?"

 

This line alludes to Exodus 23:1: "Do not join hands with the wicked[.]" Again, Obama uses this phrase to signify its negation: Americans can join hands to debate each other as reasonable people, but only they stop "demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side." Each side must stop seeing the other as "wicked" so that they may "join hands in common effort."

 

"And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."

 

Obama references the famous lines of Luke 6:31: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." This is the speech's central theme.

 

"But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. "

 

Obama quotes Hebrews 11:1 "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

 

"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."

 

The King James Version, in Galatians 3:26, is less inclusive: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."

 

"If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God's providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other's burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union."

 

Obama's final line references Psalm 81:6, "I removed his shoulder from the burden," and closes with an allusion to the opening line of the Preamble to the Constitution, moving from the founding texts of monotheism to our shared government's founding charter: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."