It'd be pretty awesome to have President Barack Obama speak at Penn. Given his popularity and prestige, I think almost all students and alumni would be honored for him to appear on campus. But apparently not everyone feels the same way, because significant objections have been raised about his invitation to address graduates at the University of Notre Dame next month.
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame's values follow those of the Church. Given Obama's liberal political views, his appearance directly conflicts with the idea that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of [the Church's] fundamental moral principles." The most contentious issue between the Church and Obama is that of abortion, which Obama supports and the Church vehemently opposes.
In the context of a religious institution, it's clear that the character of the university should reflect the values of its founding faith. To a lot of us, it might seem silly for people to oppose having an influential figure speak based on differences in faith-based values - especially when contentious issues will likely not be a part of the address. And even though more than 80 percent of the student body is Catholic, it seems that the opposition to Obama's address at Notre Dame primarily stems from a conservative minority, and the majority of students are excited to have him. But we shouldn't be so quick to judge those who appear close minded when religion clashes with an ideal of free speech.
Penn was the first nondenominational school in the U.S., and while that tradition continues today, religion plays a part in many students' lives. Co-chairmen of Penn's interfaith student group (PRISM), Saara Hafeez and Sam Adelsberg, said that religion can help build communities for students on campus, as well as promote tolerance and debate among different groups. But in reality there could easily be instances where proclamations of open-mindedness come into conflict with students' religious principles.
For example, I'm sure that several undergraduates would be upset if former President Jimmy Carter was to give the commencement address at Penn. His controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has caused some to accuse him of "[equating] Zionism with racism," as Carter himself said, and of general bias against Israel. Yet, he's a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and the Carter Center promotes human rights worldwide.
Because Carter is such an influential figure, I think almost all Penn students, regardless of religion or opinions on Israel, would welcome him on campus for a debate or speech with room for a question and answer period.
"The space for intellectual debate is on campus," Adelsberg says. "Will it offend some religious groups? Of course . but it's a challenge. We have to discuss these issues . in a constructive manner. We're at college to discuss these things."
But a commencement speech is different for two reasons. First, it's not a dialogue. The speaker states his opinion without being challenged. Secondly, when a large minority is opposed to the speaker's views, it undermines the significance of the address.
Hafeez agreed with Adelsberg, saying that debate during the academic year involving heated issues like religion "can be very educational," but that "Commencement is a special time. You're saying goodbye to the University. . I don't think that's an appropriate forum."
When James Baker was announced as the commencement speaker for the class of 2007, the Penn Israel Coalition called the choice "appalling," due to his alleged anti-Semitic remarks and clashes with pro-Israel groups. A good proportion of the graduating class also objected to his career and beliefs as a conservative politician and supporter of Bush. And if Bush himself were to give the address, similar objections would almost definitely arise, but not necessarily because of religious differences. Many students are strongly opposed to his policies and actions in office for a multitude of reasons. Disagreements like these shouldn't be overlooked just because of a speaker's prominence or experience, which is why some Notre Dame students are so upset.
Obviously, religion shouldn't get in the way of intellectual debate and dialogue on campus, but its significant overlap in the opinions and values of the student body need to be recognized. We can't dismiss the role of religion on any campus - including Penn's.
Katherine Rea is a College sophomore from Saratoga, Calif. Rea-lity Check appears on alternating Fridays. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that James Baker addressed the class of 2006. Mr. Baker addressed the class of 2007.Comments powered by Disqus
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