At Cairo, Obama had to reach out to Muslims whose religion he admires but who tend to extremist positions (jihad) that he rejects.

At Notre Dame, Obama had to reach out to Catholics whose religion he admires but whose positions (the right to life) he rejects.

The two speeches he gave had some surprising similarities.

In Cairo, he praised a version of Islam that suited his purposes.

His hope — to reinforce the moderate elements in Islam — is a noble one. Let’s hope it works. The danger of his approach: If he is speaking to a wishful-thinking version of the Islamic world, he could speak over the heads of most Muslims, while inciting extremists to be upset that squishier Muslims are falling under the Great American’s spell.

In Notre-Dame, he praised a version of Catholicism that suited his purposes.

His hope — that he would reinforce the “moderate” elements in Catholicism — just might work. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing on Cardinal Bernardin and Father Hesburgh. They are legitimate leaders in whom Catholics take pride.

The danger (to him) of this approach: Obama may be speaking to a disappearing element in the Church. Today’s active Catholics are motivated by Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, the apologetics movement and theology of the body. Those who dissent, leave. Those who stay are pro-life. Bernardin and Hesburgh are echoes of the past. Obama may have reinforced an aging element that is already as strong as it will ever be.

The arguments he made to each audience were also similar, but with important differences.


At Notre Dame university, he grounded the need for common ground in his beliefs that no single nation’s or religion’s interests should dominate. Therefore we must compromise.

To Catholics: “Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.”

2. Original sin has sort of fated us to disagree, he said, and so we need to work to overcome the tendency:

To Catholics: “Unfortunately, finding that common ground - recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a ‘single garment of destiny’ - is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man - our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.”

At Cairo university, he grounded the call for common ground in the same way, but with a significant difference.

1. He said no one nation’s interest’s — in particular, the United States’ — could hold sway (though he quickly supplied his own version of American interests, such as disarmament, that should hold sway). But he omitted to mention religion.

To Muslims: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. (Applause.) And any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. …

“I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”

Why not add that no religion should be imposed? Why was that important to say at Notre Dame but not at Cairo, especially given the reality in Iraq, or Sudan, or Pakistan, and on and on?

2. To his Muslim audience, he stressed that we are not “fated to disagree.”

To Muslims: “I know there are many — Muslim and non-Muslim — who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort — that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur.”

Why didn’t he mention the condition of man, as he did at Notre Dame? His points seem to apply to a Muslim audience as much as a Western one: “We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar….. The strong too often dominate the weak … we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.”


At Cario, he said the word “progress” 11 times and, singling out young people, told them Muslim youth must break with the past.

Muslim youth must “remake” and “reimagine” the world, he said.

To Muslims: “There’s so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.”

“All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”

He also appealed to Notre Dame students to move past their religious tradition. They should remake their world and realign their values he told them.

To Catholics: “Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and the world - a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It is a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations - and a task that you are now called to fulfill….”

“And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity - diversity of thought, of culture, and of belief.”

2. Doubt is fundamental to their faith as Catholics, he added. (He, significantly, didn’t appeal to doubt with Muslims.)

To Catholics: “But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

“This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.”

AND SO ...?

What does all of this amount to? I think it reveals that Obama is very cleverly, and with good intentions, proposing that religious people find common ground ... by toning down their differences and implicitly acknowledging secularism as the dominant world view.

This is very different—radically different—from the dialogue Pope Benedict XVI is proposing. More on that tomorrow ... (Find it here.)