When President Obama gave his economics speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday, several folks noticed something was missing.
That “something” was an ancient monogram — the letters IHS — that symbolizes the name of Jesus. It was missing from a wooden archway above the dais in Gaston Hall where the president delivered his 45-minute speech.
The gold-lettered monogram appeared near a painting of three female figures — symbolizing morality, faith and patriotism — and decorative edging along the wall that spelled out the Jesuit motto “Ad majorem Dei gloriam”—“To the greater glory of God.” Georgetown was founded by the Jesuits.
Some of them may have been turning in their graves in the cemetery across campus at the sight of the missing monogram which looked like a blacked-out space above a blue backdrop and a row of American flags flanking the nation’s chief executive. Was Georgetown selling short its Catholic heritage, we wondered.
I contacted the university this morning to ask why the monogram — in this post-Easter season — was hidden as its absence had been noted by several bloggers, including Dawn Eden — formerly of the New York Post — on her dawn patrol blog.
Julie Bataille from the university’s press office e-mailed me that the White House had asked that all university signage and symbols behind the stage in Gaston Hall be covered.
“The White House wanted a simple backdrop of flags and pipe and drape for the speech, consistent with what they’ve done for other policy speeches,” she wrote. “Frankly, the pipe and drape wasn’t high enough by itself to fully cover the IHS and cross above the GU seal and it seemed most respectful to have them covered so as not to be seen out of context.”
I also noticed the Free Republic blog had photos comparing “before” and “after” depictions of the unfortunate monogram, which the university covered with what looks like a black cloth.
Not every Catholic institution would have caved to quite this extent. Victor Nakas, spokesman for Catholic University, e-mailed me to say several presidents have visited CUA and the most recent administration official to speak there was then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I can’t imagine, as the bishops’ university and the national university of the Catholic Church, that we would ever cover up our religious art or signage for any reason,” Mr. Nakas wrote. “Our Catholic faith is integral to our identity as an institution of higher education.
I called the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Institute at Georgetown University, who was at the speech, as to what he thought.
“It is more for camera quality than anything else,” he surmised. “They don’t want distractions that would make the eye wander. I don’t think this is motivated by theology, but by communications strategy.”
Students “were dying to get into the hall,” he added. “There is this great enthusiasm for Obama especially among Catholic young people. The conservatives don’t know how to deal with this.
“The audience wanted to cheer and cheer this very professorial address. He played Professor Obama. He’s a damn good professor but not even he could make economics a barnraiser.”
- Julia Duin, religion editor (with lots of help from deputy national editor Victor Morton)