Outside editorial: Obama deftly calms culture war passions

Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When Notre Dame, the nation's best-known Catholic university, asked resolutely pro-choice President Barack Obama to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address this year, it caused intense controversy in Catholic circles. About 50 U.S. bishops publicly opposed the president's planned appearance, which violated their 2004 directive that Catholic universities "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

On Sunday, graduation day came to Notre Dame, and so did Obama - who was overwhelmingly welcomed. In a warm, conciliatory speech, he didn't shy away from abortion, saying that the two sides' views are fundamentally "irreconcilable." Yet he also said that both sides must respect each other and should work together to reduce the number of abortions.

Once again, this president displayed his gift for making his most strident opponents marginalize themselves. He comes across as the kind of politician who genuinely sees those who disagree with him as opponents, not enemies. When a strong abortion-rights supporter like Obama is not only honored at the nation's most important Catholic university (in terms of cultural symbolism), but enthusiastically embraced, times are changing.

In his Sunday speech, Obama implicitly recognized that most Americans - including American Catholics, a majority of whom voted for him - do not place abortion at the center of their political identities. It may defy logic and irritate activists on both sides, but on abortion, a broad majority of Americans are in the mushy middle.

Americans are weary of this fight, which is no doubt partly why Senate Republicans signaled over the weekend that they would not stage a fierce abortion battle over Obama's forthcoming Supreme Court nominee. But Americans are more uncomfortable with abortion. A new Gallup poll finds that for the first time, a majority (51 percent) describes itself as "pro-life." Other polls show that young Americans, in particular, are not only increasingly pro-gay but also increasingly anti-abortion.

Abortion is not the defining political issue it once was. Religious Right old-guard stalwart James Dobson told his followers last week to forget dealing with this White House. By contrast, younger religious conservative leaders, like Pastor Rick Warren, remain opposed to abortion but work with Obama and other liberals on issues of mutual concern - and the White House is planning a more formal outreach effort to abortion opponents this summer.

These are positive developments. As a newspaper that supports a woman's right to choose, we are pleased that America has a president committed to preserving that right. We also are pleased that America has a president who sees abortion opponents as fellow citizens worth approaching with "open hearts, open minds (and) fair-minded words."

No matter which side of the issue you're on, that's change we can all believe in.

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