President Barack Obama was his characteristically adroit self at the Notre Dame commencement yesterday. He gracefully handled the smattering of "abortion is murder!" hecklers who were shouted down by graduates as Obama was delivering his speech. But even as Obama disarmed the nuttiest of culture warriors, a new battle is engaged beneath the surface.
The Notre Dame protesters are an embarrassment to most American Catholics, and even to many conservatives. Chief ringleader Randall Terry, founder of the militant Operation Rescue, is nothing but a bully and a hypocrite who just recently converted to Catholicism (after divorcing his first wife). He's a criminal who has served prison time for harassing patients and staff at abortion clinics and engaging in stunts like arranging to have a fetus in a jar delivered to Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. It was clear in South Bend yesterday that the members of the Notre Dame Class of 2009 -- regardless of their own views on abortion -- wanted nothing to do with Terry's stunts and were thrilled to have the president address their commencement.
But the real test for Obama is how he handles his anti-choice defenders, not the Randall Terrys. Those anti-choice defenders, like Catholics United, stood up for Obama and defended the university's decision to invite him because he favors reducing the need for abortion. This new breed of "common ground" advocate for "abortion reduction" is exactly the audience Obama addressed in his speech, offering the same anecdote he did in his 2006 speech to Sojourners Call to Renewal about the anti-choice doctor who pleaded with him to be "fair minded." That 2006 speech energized evangelical and Catholic activists for Obama -- the same constituency that is now touting "common ground" as the answer to ending the culture wars.
I'll have more on Obama's framing of the abortion issue and the implications for reproductive-health policy in The FundamentaList on Wednesday. In the meantime, don't miss Ed Kilgore's post debunking the latest right-wing efforts to portray public opinion as trending anti-choice, based only on two very questionable polls.