Note: This interview was conducted Friday, two days before President Obama's speech. Read the piece below in its original form.
The media focus on the controversy surrounding President Obama's upcoming Notre Dame speech might give the impression that Obama is not welcome at the university. Class valedictorian Brennan Bollman, the woman who will be sharing the stage with the president on Sunday, says that couldn't be further from the truth.
"This issue has not divided the campus by any means," says the Catholic, pro-life biology major who will be attending Harvard Medical School after graduation.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Bollman stressed that her peers do not view the president's overall values as inconsistent with Catholicism. In fact, Bollman says Obama is practicing Catholic values in his administration. Like Jesus, Bollman says, Obama is trying to invite "everyone to the table."
Condemnation of Notre Dame's invitation has come from Catholic Church members as well as anti-abortion groups, who have pushed the message that Obama and his pro-choice policies are not welcome. These groups have drummed up a considerable amount of coverage despite their smaller numbers. On Friday, Alan Keyes, one of Obama's challengers in the 2004 Illinois Senate Race, was arrested (for the second time in one week) on campus during a protest with about forty anti-abortion activists. Photos of the arrest have made it on to national cable networks like MSNBC. (Disclosure: I went on MSNBC this morning to discuss the controversy.)
Some of the strongest words against the Notre Dame invitation came from Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who accused Notre Dame of showing it "didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation."
Bollman called Cardinal George's statement out of tune with Catholicism. "We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us." She said the University's President, Father Jenkins, had even sent a letter earlier in the week to all graduates affirming he's proud that campus dialogue had not "led to divisions."
Bollman stressed that even though the student body is overwhelmingly disconnected from the outside furor over Obama's visit, there is a healthy debate on campus. She explained that the debate is less about abortion and more about Obama's policies towards "advancing this human life" after it's born. Bollman, who voted for Obama, says she and many of her fellow students support the president because of the respect he has "given to human life through many of his policies." Bollman did point out one group, Notre Dame Response, that would be holding a peaceful demonstration during the commencement.
Abortion rights is an issue that the president has largely avoided in his young presidency. When asked about the Notre Dame controversy during his 100-day press conference in April, Obama said it was a "moral and ethical issue," but one that was better decided by women than the government. Bollman brought up Obama's point during the press conference as a example of how he is not trying to be divisive when it comes to abortion, but rather he wants to look at the broader issue of unwanted pregnancy by bringing everyone to the table.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs revealed Friday that the president would acknowledge the controversy during his remarks at Notre Dame. "I think the president is somebody who has taught in a university setting, would understand that this is exactly the type of give and take that's had on college campuses all over the country," said Gibbs.
Bollam couldn't agree more. She said, "We're a Catholic university. We are supposed to -- by our nature -- engage all issues at their highest levels from people at all levels."