President Barack Obama is a more tolerant human being than I am. He braved critics at Notre Dame and disarmed many with a sanguine, balanced speech that did not sidestep the issue of abortion, but took on aspects of it. He called for mutual respect among folk who don't see things the same way, and asked for middle ground instead of the hard lines that we now find around the choice debate. Above all, he asked what we have to do to get along as one human family.
It was vintage Obama. As an example, he contrasted those who oppose stem cell research because they think life is sacred, with those who support the research because they too, find sacred life in the lives of those whose worlds would improve if there were cures for juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, or other conditions that could be helped by stem cell research.
Which life, Obama implicitly asks, should we value more? Can one side concede, at the very least, the good will on the part of the other side? And if there is disagreement, should one side or the other be demonized instead of understood?
For all the strengths of the Obama commencement speech, the Notre Dame situation was out of control, with disrespectful opponents actually heckling and booing the president of the United States as he spoke. There were students who did not attend their commencement because someone who "supports" abortion was speaking. There were calls by some Catholics for the invitation to the president to be rescinded.
And the so-called Christians and Catholics who spent so much energy opposing the president gave an interesting example of Christian behavior. Indeed, they gave their own faith a bad name with the vociferousness of their opposition.
If there is such fervor for life among Catholics, why do these people think it was okay for us to invade Iraq and kill how man tens of thousands there, not to mention our own thousands dead? If there is such fervor for life, why not protest the unavailability of health care that kills hundreds each year? For that matter, why not have such vociferous protests for presidents, like the last one, who support the death penalty? Methinks the outrage is selective!
It seems that the bar for respecting our leader has been lowered since President Obama has taken office. The man has not been in office a good six months, and he's had more hits than misses as a leader, yet not an hour in the 24-hour news cycle goes by without some obstructionism.
Comments about Obama range from near-science fiction (the birth certificate) to simple political opposition, but there is a tone that is ugly and unfortunate. I think the president addressed issues of tone in his Notre Dame speech, not only in dealing with matters of religion, but also in dealing with matters of simple disagreement.
Our commander-in-chief seemingly also has to be our nation's chief protocol officer. In speaking to the manner of discourse in our nation, he is clinging to his campaign slogan, "yes, we can".
He seems to mean that we can be a better, more civil America; that we can, indeed, live together as one human family, with our differences, including differences in faith. His calm, civil demeanor reminds us of ways that we too can address opposition. His leadership, and his example, remains refreshing even as some Americans are more polarized than they have ever been about issues of choice and faith.
Has race got anything to do with this? I happen to think the lower bar in respect has some correlation with the president's race but that just happens to be my opinion. Initially I was frustrated at the way president Obama seemed to turn the other cheek at fools, but as I listened to and reread the Notre Dame speech, I concluded, instead, that he is not turning the other check, simply showing us another way. And that's a good thing.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.