For the Culture Wars, a Hail Mary

The Notre Dame commencement address "scandal" is little more than manufactured controversy, a predictable product of the Republican coalition's current sorry state of affairs.

The propensity of U.S. Catholics to mix football and theology perhaps
explains why one of sports’ ultimate plays is known as a "Hail Mary" pass. The
quintessentially Catholic prayer is so apt a description of quarterback Roger Staubach’s impossible
1975 game-winning bomb
that "Hail Mary" has since become a catchall term to
describe final acts of desperation off the field (Chuck
Schumer used it
, for example, to describe Sarah Palin’s nomination).
Fitting, then, that the radical right’s culture warrior class would attempt its
own Hail Mary play in the vicinity of the nation’s most hallowed gridiron – a
last-ditch effort to bolster dwindling relevance by launching a full frontal
assault on President Obama’s upcoming commencement address at Notre Dame.

The radical right’s campaign to sabotage the speech, now in its seventh week,
is ostensibly an effort to reassert the Church’s "non negotiable" position on
abortion. In reality, the Notre Dame "scandal" is little more than manufactured
controversy, a predictable product of the Republican coalition’s current sorry
state of affairs. Leaderless and defeated, the GOP is in a fight for its very
soul, with radicals seeking to step up the culture war over issues like abortion
and same-sex marriage, and moderates blaming that same culture war for the
party’s woes. The radicals reckon that by creating a big enough stink to make
something stick to the Teflon-coated Obama, they can prove they still deserve a
seat at the table.

To a certain extent, it appears to be working; right now, Notre Dame ranks at
the top of the conservative movement’s precious few footholds. But insofar as
they face an American public that has grown tired of their antics, the culture
warriors clearly hold the weaker hand. For one thing, Bush’s promises to protect
"traditional values" were generally unfulfilled. Appointing Roberts and Alito
did not magically overturn Roe v. Wade, and recent developments in
Maine and Iowa suggest that same-sex marriage is on an unstoppable trajectory to
become an American cultural norm. For another, right-leaning moderate voters,
many of whom were swayed by abortion and same-sex marriage in 2000 and 2004,
have discovered that the greater threats to American social order are job losses
and lack of health care and retirement protections – brought on in large part by
eight years of deregulation, trickle-down economics, and war.

In addition to poor field position, the culture warriors’ cause is stymied by
the president’s uncanny resistance to attacks from the traditional pro-life
movement. While toeing the party line on choice, Obama has nonetheless struck a
conciliatory tone on the broader abortion issue, recently announcing an abortion
task force to explore "common ground" means of reducing abortions through
education, health care, and financial support for pregnant women and families.
His genuine commitment to prevention has ruffled the feathers of absolutists on
both sides of aisle. But for abortion "grays" – those Americans who remain
conflicted about abortion, many of them moderate swing voters – the president’s
willingness to acknowledge the moral dimension of the issue is a breath of fresh

Were the radicals serious about delivering results on the abortion issue,
they might join President Obama in his quest for abortion common ground, or at
least stop referring to him as "the most pro-abortion president ever" – a
moniker as absurd as it is effective at agitating the radical base and filling
the culture war’s collection plate. Indeed, some 350,000 have signed an online
petition opposing the university’s invitation; a pro-Notre Dame petition is
waiting for your signature at

In an attempt to obscure the purely symbolic nature of their campaign, the
culture warriors will point to the fact that a number of high-profile alumni
have vowed to stop donating, that former Vatican ambassador Mary Ann Glendon
turned down the university’s prestigious Laetare Medal in protest, and that
fifty or so bishops (a fraction of the hundreds of Catholic prelates who lead
the U.S. Church, mind you) have expressed displeasure with the university’s
decision. But these voices were late to the game, spurred into action by a
well-organized radical right, and generally unwitting of their participation in
a partisan power struggle. The students, for their part, are thrilled that the
President of the United States will be speaking to them on graduation day.

No, the driving forces behind the supposed outrage were not pious masses, but
Catholic Republican front groups like Fidelis (a GOP-supporting political action
committee), the Catholic League (home of self-appointed Catholic spokesperson
Bill Donohue), and the Cardinal Newman Society (an organization whose main
purpose, conveniently, appears to be to attack Catholic colleges and
universities who invite Democrats to speak). And then there’s Newt Gingrich,
simultaneously converting to Catholicism and making his own bid to recapture the
reins of the GOP. It was Gingrich – not Glendon or the reluctant bishops – who
scored the first media points against Obama’s speech with a March 24th tweet:
"It is sad to see notre dame invite president obama to give the commencement
address Since his policies are so anti catholic values [sic]."

For the right wing culture warriors, Catholics and otherwise, success at
Notre Dame will not be measured by whether the university rescinds its
invitation – that would require a kind of divine intervention that no Hail Mary
can elicit. Rather, it will be measured by the leadership that emerges to guide
the Republicans through the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Saner voices are
attempting to prevail. But if the party can be convinced that the benefits
outweigh the costs, we won’t be seeing an end to the culture war anytime