Two Commentaries on Obama at Georgetown without Christ

A note to readers: as we finish Easter Week and our spring fund drive, we bring you a first: two columns on one day that look at a single subject from two points of view: President Obama’s recent speech at Georgetown University at which religious symbols were covered up. Father Schall and Mary Eberstadt are well known to readers of The Catholic Thing. Help keep them coming to you and to thousands of others around the world by supporting The Catholic Thing today.

By James Schall


The day before President Obama spoke in Georgetown’s lovely Gaston Hall on April 14, the university community received an e-mail from the university president about the event. Tickets were to be assigned by lottery. The topic was the economy.

Immediately, I received e-mails that equated this situation to Notre Dame, and others designed to deny as much. Perhaps, but it sounded to me, at least on the university’s part, more like Arizona State, which explicitly invited President Obama to speak but did not award a degree of honor. The president just needed yet another place to speak (though there are plenty in Washington). Gaston Hall is the loveliest academic hall in the city, often used for speeches by domestic and foreign potentates.

The day following the speech, a student asked if I had noticed that the usual pendant over the stage of the hall, the cross under which are the letters of the Jesuit motto, IHS, the Latin letters symbolizing Christ, were covered over. Subsequently he sent me two graphic photos, one scene in the hall when the president was there, one when he was not. Sure enough, the Christian symbols were covered over by a background cloth, never to appear in the media coverage.

What we did not know was who did the cover-up? Did it come from the office of the U.S. president or the university president? Nor did I recollect what happened when other major figures talked there. Did they always cover it up? I doubted it. Did the university have a policy that says: “Speak here in the hall as it is, or not at all?” I doubted it also.

Public relations folks think they can improve venues for media and other purposes. In any case, I received a report from a generally reputable source. Indeed, the request to cover the Christian symbols did come from the White House. The source asked the White House for a confirmation, but no response. What a good request! Why no response, as the issue goes to the heart of what this country is or was?

What interests me here is this: If this president speaks at a synagogue, or a Baptist church, or the Crystal Cathedral, or the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, the Ravens Stadium, the George Washington University, the headquarters of Planned Parenthood, or the hall of the local atheist society, will the same policy be followed? Will all signs of what the place actually is and stands for be covered over? If so, it represents equitable treatment, but is it wise? Is the president never to appear in any venue with obvious particular commitments, and why choose religious and not secular signs? Should, say, a university seal be exempted, but a crucifix not?

Will presidents be able to appear anywhere outside government buildings if the rules are really equally applied to both religious and secular? And this raises a real question: Is it American? George Washington once talked before our New North Hall; so did President Clinton. I guess a porch does not need much cover-up. But is the American understanding of state and religion designed to hide any religious or cultural sign whatsoever? If a president is buried at a local church, as Woodrow Wilson is, must the funeral be covered over so that no signs of a church are seen?

This country does not hide its religious presence. If a president does not want to speak in a given place, fine. Don’t ask. But if he does, it should not be on condition of the place’s ceasing to present what it historically is. Much ink has been spilt on the churches that the president went to in his earlier life, likewise much controversy on whether he “bowed” to a Saudi prince.

Father Martin Casey, who died here, was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown when John Kennedy was president. Casey was often pictured after Mass with a cassock and biretta. He used to tell me delightful stories. He would get irate letters from people about his wearing a hat in front of the president. Kennedy had no problem with it. The point is pretty obvious. The Jew wears his yarmulkes in the public square and in his home. That is where the biretta probably came from. Sheiks seem to wear their headdress everywhere.

The “lesson” of Obama in Gaston Hall is evidently that this president covers over at least all Christian signs. Why? He expects, of course, that Christians will not be offended by this little restriction. Just as, on the same principle, he expects Muslims, Jews, Presbyterians, Anglicans, atheists, Ravens fans, Masons, Planned Parenthooders, evangelicals, and any members of our society when he, carrying out the logic learned here, covers all their identifying signs?

This approach used to be called, not the separation of church and state, but the establishment of a new vision in which the only thing allowed to be visible is the state.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

SECRET MEMO: Making Vatican City Safe for Obama
By Mary Eberstadt

Georgetown University says it covered over the monogram ‘IHS’ — symbolizing the name of Jesus Christ — because it was inscribed on a pediment on the stage where President Obama spoke at the university on Tuesday and the White House had asked Georgetown to cover up all signs and symbols there.” -Christian News Service, April 16, 2009

April 17, 2009
TO: Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Chief Protocol Officer, Secretariat of State, Vatican City
FROM: Office of the Chief of Protocol, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
SUBJECT: Advance Work for President Obama’s Visit to Rome in May

Dear Sir or Madam:

Buongiorno from your amici americani! We hope you share our enthusiasm about our president’s forthcoming visit to the “Eternal City” (we mean “eternal” in a purely figurative sense, of course!).

As you may know, President Obama has deeply engaged Catholics and Catholic issues and Catholic institutions in the United States for months now. Given that record, a successful and invigorating exchange of ideas during his visit to Vatican City is guaranteed!

A few small protocol items will really help us get that exchange off the ground;

– First and most important: Re. the scheduled one-on-one between our president and your pontiff, we respectfully request that your principal cover up that gold religious talisman hanging in the middle of his chest.We’re not asking him to take it off. We’re just observing that a little creative camouflage would go a long way toward soothing certain sensitivities. Perhaps he could just clasp his hands over it for the duration of the interview, say, or fold his arms yoga-style. Or he could just cradle a book over it. Almost anything but the Bible would do; we’re open to suggestions.

– Second: our attempt to arrange a photo op for POTUS somewhere (anywhere!) in or around St. Peter’s Basilica is turning into quite the mal di testa.For starters, we need to put as much distance between him and that Pieta as possible. The loving-mother symbolism there is totally off-message for our position on reproductive rights. We’re not singling out Michelangelo. Our friends on various American Catholic faculties have compiled a list of other artists whose representations are equally problematic as visual backdrops: Bramante, Giuliano da Sangallo, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Pirro Ligorio, Vignola, Della Porta, D. Fontana, Maderno. . . You get the picture.

We therefore propose that the basilica photo op take place in a visually neutral place – on the walkway outside the dome, pigeons and blue sky and view of the city as backdrop. N.B.: any stray crucifixes appearing in the skyline can easily be photo-shopped out.

– Third: the exterior of the basilica, especially the area of St. Peter’s Square, is similarly challenging. After much mapping, we believe it safest to pose the president directly before the Heliopolis – in such a way that the obelisk’s column covers the crucifix atop the basilica in the background.Of course we are aware that the obelisk itself also has a you-know-what atop it. Given its particularly in-your-face location, we respectfully request that it be taken down for the duration of the visit. Perhaps it needs a good cleaning. Now could be the time.

– Two other visual challenges need addressing before Air Force One takes off: first, the 140 statues of “saints” atop the Colonnade; and second, the equally controversial statues of sectarian followers topping the basilica’s facade.Thaddeus, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, James the Elder, John the Baptist, Christ the Redeemer, Andrew, John the Evangelist, James the Younger, Bartholomew, Simon and Matthias: say whatever you want about them, but appropriate visual accompaniment for this president they aren’t!

Fortunately, we have what we think is a fantastico solution here. How about just covering them up with some of those blue shawls that you keep on hand throughout the square for tourists? Such creative recycling, we submit, both fixes the statue problem and has the added benefit of demonstrating our mutual commitment to re-using items in the environment. Something for everyone there, non e vero?

– Re. the scheduled photo op with African seminarians in the Vatican Gardens later that day, we request, first, that they be tiered behind the President on risers. This arrangement maximizes the visual effect of their numbers. It also may reduce unwanted visual intrusion by any of the more potentially troublesome statuary in the gardens (the Fatima lady, “St.” Peter, the replica of the Lourdes Grotto… etc., etc., etc.)Also, as one more piccola concession to our administration’s sensitivities, our secretary of state wants to know: could you also please arrange for some female seminarians to join the male ones on the rafters?

– Finally, re. your offer of a dinner in the apartments on Saturday night: rest assured that we are all looking forward to mangiare molto in Italia! But please be sure that no bread or wine, nor any other substances of sectarian religious significance, are present at the table.Ciao ciao for now. And don’t forget our final photo op at the Trevi Fountain! If you get a chance, do please flip over any coins already lying face up with the motto “In God We Trust.” Molto grazie in advance.

–Your amici americani

P.S. On a more personal note, please don’t let that unresolved ambassador business get you down. We just know our president will find somebody to send to the Vatican who’s less enthusiastic than he is about abortion! Between us, we suggest you keep your silent about the a-word. Our president is many things, but used to moral criticism isn’t one of them – especially coming from Catholics.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributor to The Catholic Thing.