President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for delivering the commencement address at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame deserves credit for inviting him. It is an example of the kind of civility that we have missed for the last eight years. (Full disclosure: my employer, Ohio State University, invited George Bush to commencement in June, 2002. After students and family filed into the stadium for the event, the stadium was put under lock-down and student protesters were arrested. Several spent up to 72 hours in jail for carrying signs or for turning their backs on Bush when he spoke).
The President addressed the issue that made his appearence controversial head-on: abortion rights. By drawing an analogy to the issue of civil rights in the 1950s, he suggested that people could find common ground on this thorny question.
On one level, the President simply acknowledged what has been true already in this country for about a generation. In survey after survey, a majority of Americans support access to abortion, though most favor certain kinds of restriction on that access. A majority of Americans, in other words, have already reached that common ground, though we haven't quite had the courage yet to admit this fully and out loud.
But at another level, of course, the President searched for a middle ground in vain. For those - and as it turns out there weren't really that many of them - who turned out to protest Obama's speech, abortion can only be discussed in absolutist terms. Any abortion under any circumstance ought to be criminalized. No quarter given; no half-way measures. We might dismiss these people as a small minority of zealots except for the fact that they exercise of outsized influence on our politics, and indeed, on the culture as a whole. The multi-millionaire founder of Dominos pizza, for example, has contributed heavily to anti-choice causes and the founder of Curves, the chain of women's gyms, posts on his website his desire to "destroy" Planned Parenthood.
This single-minded opposition to abortion masks other agendas, as many have pointed out. The issue, for some, isn't really about unborn children but about controlling women. The Catholic church, after all, is probably the world's largest institution predicated on the discrimination of women. For others, the fixation on fetuses is a proxy for an attack on sexuality more broadly. When the President suggested that we might find common ground by finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, he did not mention Texas where high schoolers are only given abstinance education and which, surprise surprise, now has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation.
Right as those explanations surely are, behind them looms a particular christian theology that we need to understand. For fundamentalist Protestants and their Catholic allies, the important lesson of the Gospels did not come from the Sermon on the Mount, but from the events on Calvary. They aren't interested in messages of compassion, love, of lasts being first, but rather in the passion and the crucifixion. (Remember fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson's bizarre movie which some dubbed "The Jesus Chain Saw Massacre??) In this view of the world, suffering and pain are the only roads to redemption.
At its root, the fetish of the fetus isn't about the "sanctity of life" but rather about the importance of suffering. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, therefore, offers an opportunity for that redemptive suffering. And since the goal of these fundamentalists is that we all be saved according to their formula, forcing women to have these babies makes perfect sense.
Perhaps a better way to understand the theology of anti-choice fundamentalism is remember the circus that erupted during the Terry Schiavo fiasco. The very same crowd the pickets in front of Planned Parenthood turned their energy and resources to keeping the vegetative Schiavo alive not despite the fact that she would never recover, but precisely because she never would. She suffered; her husband suffered; it was all good for them.
And if those protesters who greeted President Obama in South Bend have their way, we'd all suffer too.