Did Pres. Obama Borrow a United Methodist Phrase?

Did President Obama or one of his speechwriters borrow a phrase from The United Methodist Church when he spoke on abortion at Notre Dame’s commencement? I don’t know, but I’m getting blog posts and emails from people who think he did.

UMC logo I would have thought it old news, but reaction to the speech still seems to have some energy behind it. The church invites people by concluding its advertising saying, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. The people of The United Methodist Church.” President Obama used a phrase in his speech calling for “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition.”

One blogger critical of Obama’s abortion position speculates that in the Internet age it’s possible an Obama speechwriter found the phrase and wrote it into the speech. (The church was advertising heavily at the same time and the phrase was on television and radio, the Internet, in national magazines, on billboards, taxis, busses and bus stops around the nation including a national launch event in Washington, D.C. In addition, several Internet and print publications wrote about the campaign before and concurrent with the President’s speech.)

The blogger questions the wisdom of using the words of one religious group to address another and attributing the concept to the second group’s tradition.

United Methodist clergyperson and blogger Lee Carey also thinks the President borrowed the United Methodist phrase. Rev. Carey believes United Methodist leaders are “overwhelmingly pro-abortion” and, presumably, the President knows this too and used it for this reason.

As I can’t recall having had a conversation about abortion with the leaders I know, I can’t confirm Rev. Carey’s observation.

But I did think it curious when I heard the President speak the words and immediately sent emails to a couple of staff people to call it to their attention.

If the phrase was borrowed it wouldn’t be the first time. We noted with appreciation that Laura Bush borrowed without attribution a phrase from the Nothing But Nets campaign to encourage people to donate to a campaign to end malaria.

In both cases it’s possible the speakers were not aware they were borrowing language from particular campaigns. There are copyright issues. But if we can end malaria through a global partnership that focuses on the bottom line of saving lives and doesn’t get mired in who gets credit, I’m all for it.

And if we can discuss contentious differences with open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words, I’m for that, too. But I’d like to make note that the phrase is very similar to, if not adapted from, a self-description of The United Methodist Church which is rooted in the Wesleyan tradition.

And on a selfish note, I get a little pleasure when we craft a phrase that people hear, remember and re-use, if that’s what happened.

This was posted at 12:30 pm and re-edited at 6:40 pm.

2 Responses to “Did Pres. Obama Borrow a United Methodist Phrase?”

  1. Daniel Hixon May 28, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    If I may, I would like to make a couple of comments, speaking as a United Methodist Pastor.

    First of all “Open hearts and Open minds” is hardly an uncommon phrase or one that is in any way unique to The United Methodist Church – though it certainly has become associated with one of our add campaigns.

    That Pres. Obama used this phrase does not, to my mind, suggest any particular political calculation on his part (i.e. he chose it in some sort of subtle nod to United Methodists). Rather he probably chose it for the same reason our add campaign did: it is rather nice sounding and at the same time content-deficient which works well if you want people to think well of you in our cultural milieu.

    Secondly Rev. Carey’s characterization of UM “leaders” as “overwhelmingly pro-abortion” is misleading. It depends upon who he means by “leaders” for one thing – if he means the clergy in general he is certainly incorrect, though it is probably true that the staff of certain General Boards and Agencies of the Church (church bureaucrats) are indeed overwhelming in their support for abortion.

    If by “leaders” he means the actual clergy and lay leaders of the whole church who meet every 4 years to determine policy, this claim of his is certainly misleading since over the last 20 years the (carefully worded) statement on Abortion in the United Methodist “Book of Discipline” has taken more and more of an explicitly pro-life outlook (paragraph 161.j). In its most recent form (2008) it says that we are equally bound to respect the life of the mother and the unborn child and that we therefore only support the legal option of abortion when the life of the mother is in danger. This is a far cry from what most people seem to mean when they speak of “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion” ideologies.

  2. Larry May 28, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    Rev. Hixon, Thanks for your reasoned and thoughtful comment. Your review of the actions of General Conference give perspective that is important to consider. Thanks for your comment.

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