Category Archives: Religion

A Litmus Test for Commencement Speakers?

By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

metzlerEvery President since President Eisenhower has been invited to speak at Notre Dame’s commencements. So, why has President Obama’s invitation created such a row? It depends on who you ask.

First, many of those who oppose his invitation do so ostensibly based on Catholic social teaching and a doctrinal dedication to Catholicism.  That is, they claim that one who supports abortion rights and stem cell research and thus oppose Catholic teaching should not be honored with an invitation to speak at commencement or with an honorary degree. As a practicing Catholic I say fair enough. I would assume then that any President who opposed any tenant of Catholic teaching would not be granted this honor. My assumption is incorrect and thus the argument is flawed.

To be sure, the Obama commencement controversy is not the first. One wonders though why the amount of vitriol did not reach a fermented brouhaha when Bush41 was given the honor to deliver the Notre Dame commencement address. After all, Catholic teaching extols  the sanctity of human life without exception and makes no distinction whatsoever.  Yet Bush41 supported the death penalty and thus made the decision that “the sanctity of human life has exceptions.”  Ignoring the life question, he said in his address, “Today’s crisis will have to be addressed by millions of Americans at the personal, individual level for governmental programs to be effective. And the federal government, of course, must do everything it can do, but the point is, government alone is simply not enough.” So perhaps the vitriol depends on the political content of the speech as well as the political leanings of the protesters.

Bush 43 faced protest because of his stances on, among other things, labor and the death penalty. He said in his speech, “This University is more than a community of scholars, it is a community of conscience.” Neither Randall Terry nor Alan Keyes was present with gallows in tow.

Second, the analysis and discussion concerning the President’s invitation proves the power of the chattering class to define Obama’s Presidency in “post-racial” discourse. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, unlike all of his predecessors, the President is Black. Thus, if Notre Dame did not extend the invitation; the punditry would have certainly accused Notre Dame of being racist for refusing to extend the invitation.   “Post-racial” discourse is powerful because of its ability to ignore race and elevate “value-based” twaddle.

Third, let’s not forget that the very nature of a university is that it provides a platform for discourse even when all in the university community do not agree with the views of the speaker. Are those in opposition to the invitation suggesting that there should be a litmus test for commencement speakers? Should that litmus test be that no speaker should be invited to speak at commencement unless the speaker is in complete agreement with each and every tenet of espoused values of the University? Commencement then would be relegated to an intellectual merry-andrew buttressed by politically correct indoctrination.

 Moreover, universities would have to engage in a purging of “intellectual and community miscreants” where each and every member of the University community who does not agree with those espoused values are asked to unceremoniously  exit the University. The University then would create a list of those in opposition and then “burn them at the proverbial stake.” To be sure, Notre Dame is both Catholic and a university. Thus, the fundamental question is whether Notre Dame and others like it are Catholic universities or universities that happen to be Catholic. This is not merely an academic question nor is the difference a distinction without a difference.  Perhaps, some doctrinal and dogmatic soul searching may be in order.

The fact is that there is no university community in which all members live the espoused values of the university without deviation. To suggest otherwise is intellectually bankrupt at worst and unrealistic at best.  I am not suggesting that religious universities should not have the freedom to invite those who share our religious values to celebrate commencement. In fact the opposite is true. I am suggesting that religious universities in modern day America live, work and teach in an America that is increasingly secular, political and diverse. I am also suggesting that if we’re honest, we would admit that economics dictate that we cannot survive and thrive in an increasingly secular America if we do not find a way to interrogate secularity.  So, perhaps, the question is at what cost.

Fourth, the reality is that the Republican Party is in ataxia and they have used this invitation as a way to rally social conservatives. Both Randall Terry and Alan Keyes were arrested as part of the protest against the President’s invitation. My research did not indicate that Terry and Keyes are members of the Notre Dame University community.  Their pushing dolls in carriages despite it comic relief prove this fact. Let’s not forget that Keyes is the proverbial political bridesmaid and self-promoter.

Finally, abortion is a social and political issue that continues to divide modern day America much like slavery did. Thus, while I do not question the religious devotion of anyone involved in this debate, I do question the motives of those who have sought to politicize this invitation while pretending not to do so. The reality is that this invitation is shrouded in religion, politics and policy; I just wish that all sides would admit it rather than adopting the supercilious “holier than thou, post-racial” moniker buttressed by pretentious posturing that prevents serious debate in modern day America.


Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown University and the author of The Construction and Reticulation of Race in a “post-racial” America.


Watchman, What of the Night?

By Dr. Larry Cameron Menyweather-Woods

The past couple of weeks have driven home the concern and desired role of the clergy for the presidential election of 2008. America has given recognition to the 33 White pulpiteers who accepted the challenge and promise not from their divine commander, Jesus, but the Alliance Defense Fund, a neo-conservative Christian lawyers organization based in Arizona, to challenge the Internal Revenue Service 1950 amendment forbidding groups classified as 501(c)(3) to engage in the endorsement of political candidates.

These White pastors stood before their congregations and proudly pronounced their allegiance, not to the God of their weary years and silent tears, but to the man they believed stands for morality in immoral times, the honorable senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. These preachers, who evidently were wrestling how to persuade their congregations to vote for the better of two men, freed themselves from between the proverbial rock and hard place, to breathe a breath of reinvigorating air. Their unified action resulted in an internal release, just as it had done for their forefathers over 200 years previously (Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1830). Tocqueville was the French writer who stated America’s freedom was represented by the vigorousness of the Church’s message which stood for the free expressions of ideas.

Cal Thomas, former public relations representative for the late Dr. Jerry Falwell (founder of the political right, evangelical machine, The Moral Majority), broadened the discussion in a recent op-ed where he injected “race” into the scenario by offering the opinion that African-American pastors have been getting “away” with violating this policy of the IRS “today”(Thomas, “Politics-free pulpit better for Gospel, The Omaha World Herald, 10/05/2008). Thomas is quite clear and somewhat biased, racially speaking, for he declares, “churches and ministers would do better to keep their focus on things above, rather than things below.”

Thomas’ concluding words bring to focus the criticism Blacks have always made against the Black church – it is too otherworldly. This is interesting, for what Thomas does is justify the otherworldliness, which is part of the tension confronting the Black church, thoughts of authenticity and how Whites write about the Black Church. The title of this piece comes from the question which was often asked of the person assigned to care for the city while the people slept. To make certain the watchman wasn’t asleep, someone would make rounds and ask, ‘Watchman, what of the Night?’

If Black clergy are guilty of Thomas’ remarks, it is because these Black preachers marched and listened to a different drum major compared to Thomas and the 33 White clergy. The White clergy treated their message to the people as being a simple lesson in constitutional law, not of divine urgency.

When Black preachers involve themselves in the political spray, they must have a Biblical justification, not a moral imperative, for we have learned that moral imperatives are mere clichés and not necessary rooted in the word of God. It is the hermeneutical model used by the clergy which will determine if they are acting as prophet or priest. The Black preacher has historically viewed himself as prophet/priest, the emphasis on prophet, speaking what thus saith the LORD. White Preachers have historically viewed themselves as being priest/prophet, friends of the government, loyal to the government whether right or wrong. Two different views – two different tensions built within the body of Christ.

It is this phenomenon which frightens those who have too long yielded to the tension of the priestly, no change, no divine charge, simply telling people How to vote. Pat Robinson did the same thing, when for years the ballots they placed in Churches told them through coded words whom to cast their vote for. Now these lawyers believe they have the votes on the Supreme Court to change the IRS division, that’s why they are waiting for the IRS to threaten to take away the nonprofit status of these 33 White churches. The lawyers are looking not to the heavenly but the earthly in the names of Justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and of Scalia, and the swing vote of Kennedy, to get this regulation overturned or denied an injustice to the constitutional rights of the clergy to once again partake in the political process by telling their people whom to vote.

Watchman, what of the night? Cal Thomas calls politics the ultimate temptation which pollutes the Church. The action of the 33 White clergy, the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, and especially Mr. Thomas’ editorial, which he earnestly believes purports the freedom of the Gospel, forget we are not of the world but in the world. We, as believers, especially Black American believers have understood the importance of faith and the world being reconciled unto the Christ. Our Africanness and our faith call us not to a world where dichotomous language rings confusion, but to a world where, in spite of double consciousness of being Black and an American, Black preachers do not have to provide ballots to encourage people to vote for the right candidate. He or she doesn’t have to declare a name; all they have to do is preach the full Gospel and from their people will know the “who!”

If the White preacher is so afraid his people will cast their vote for the “wrong candidate,” try telling his people what of the night. Be prophetic, be vigilant, be focused! Do not moralize, but preach the GOSPEL! It’s not about you, nor should it be about me, it should be about the Christ we preach! Watchman, what of the night?

Dr. Larry Cameron Menyweather-Woods is an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.