Discovering a conservative giant

GEORGEDavid Kirkpatrick had a fascinating profile of Robert P. George in the Sunday New York Times magazine. George is a Catholic public intellectual — a professor at Princeton who writes about policy and politics. The first thing to say about the piece is that it’s a great idea. I’ve been reading George for years but, then again, I’m the type of person who reads First Things and The Public Discourse. The average Sunday New York Times magazine reader probably doesn’t. Considering the influence George has on conservatives, a profile makes perfect sense.

The piece is huge — 5,000 words long — and there’s no way that I can give you a feel for it with a few short excerpts. But there are many things it does well. It positions George as assuming the mantle of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. It explains the role that George played in the drafting of the Manhattan Declaration and it really spells out his influence among Catholic bishops. It shows the criticism George has received both from fellow Catholic intellectuals and some conservatives.

Here’s a sample from the piece, headlined “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker“:

At the center of the event was Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker. Dressed in his usual uniform of three-piece suit, New College, Oxford cuff links and rimless glasses­, George convened the meeting with a note of thanks and a reminder of its purpose. Alarmed at the liberal takeover of Washington and an apparent leadership vacuum among the Christian right, the group had come together to warn the country’s secular powers that the culture wars had not ended. As a starting point, George had drafted a 4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.

Two months later, at a Washington press conference to present the group’s “Manhattan Declaration,” George stepped aside to let Cardinal Rigali sum up just what made the statement, and much of George’s work, distinctive. These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”

The piece is hardly a puff piece. I think, in fact, that the readers most interested in it will be those who are natural opponents of George. (He tends to focus on issues such as sanctity of life and preservation of traditional marriage — you know, really non-controversial stuff.) The New York Times has taken a great deal of criticism for not even bothering to write about some issues that conservative news consumers know well — e.g. ACORN or Van Jones. Previous editors-in-chief and public editors at the Times have noted that the paper does a great job of covering news of a liberal slant but could improve in the coverage of conservatives. This is just that kind of piece that helps bring liberal readers up to speed.

It also has the honor of being one of the only pieces in the Times that even mentions the name of President Obama’s Safe Schools Czar — Kevin Jennings. Various conservatives have been writing about Jennings and the gay youth empowerment group that he founded and led for many years. Jennings is controversial for some of his own decisions as a school counselor. The group he led is as well. Among many other controversies, Jennings’ group had suggested readings for children of all ages that are so offensive that I’m not even going to link to them. They include passages and pictures that I consider horribly inappropriate. One conservative blogger questions if the mainstream media would handle this controversy the same way if the appointing administration had been the previous one.

But the point is, Kirkpatrick includes a passing mention of this individual simply because he’s interviewing someone outside the normal New York Times orbit. Kirkpatrick also wrote the only other story about the controversy. Perhaps an education or political reporter there might want to investigate some of the allegations swirling about. Right now the story is being written about mostly on conservative and liberal blogs — and while there’s a lot of reporting going on at these sites, it would probably be helpful to have all sides represented and discussed in the same story. That’s happening in a few mainstream places but it would be nice to see it covered better.

I can’t imagine how difficult it might be to condense and translate complex philosophical arguments into something readable for non-academics but I think Kirkpatrick did an admirable job. Kirkpatrick’s summations also do a great job of explaining the role religious arguments have played — for centuries — in the development of this “rational” argument espoused by George. Although I have my own disagreements with George, I thought his arguments came off much less robust in the Times piece than they do in his own essays. But, then again, I think the same could be said of the refutations in the piece as well. If people are intrigued by the article, they will be given enough of a taste to pursue their philosophical curiosities through further reading and study.

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  • Jerry

    This is a very interesting and illuminating story.

    Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”

    Natural law is an interesting area. Of course, he views it from a conservative perspective. We should consider that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a statement of natural law from the deists of the Revolution.

    He ignores that secularists strongly operate from natural law, either explicitly or implicitly. All the atheists I know of would agree with

    The school of natural law known as secular natural law replaces the divine laws of God with the physical, biological, and behavioral laws of nature as understood by human reason. This school theorizes about the uniform and fixed rules of nature, particularly human nature, to identify moral and ethical norms. Influenced by the rational empiricism of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers who stressed the importance of observation and experiment in arriving at reliable and demonstrable truths, secular natural law elevates the capacity of the human intellect over the spiritual authority of religion.

    The following struck me as odd:

    As Democrats have stepped up their explicitly religious appeals to Catholic voters, these bishops have pushed back against the intrusion on their turf.

    This appears to state that the Catholic bishops think of themselves as political agents defending their turf against the political appeal of Democrats.

    It is the liberals, he argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism.”

    I’m glad to see that he is honest about his beliefs including stereotyping and smearing the left. For what it’s worth, I have no idea what lifestyle liberalism is except perhaps that everyone is supposed to live an Ozzy and Harriet 50′s style existence where the woman submits to the man and does not work outside the home and men are the sole breadwinners in order to avoid the “sin” of feminism.

  • David Clark

    I was hoping someone would comment on this piece concerning Robert George. I thought the author, as you point out, did a magnificent job of putting some difficult philosophical positions in “understandable” prose. I also appreciated Kirkpatrick’s inclusion of some of George’s intellectual self-interrogation in the last few paragraphs. (The discussion of human sinfulness and rationality) We rarely get any flavor of intellectual humility in profiles of prominent speakers, particularly those holding forth on controversial topics. My complaint with the NYT and the magazine is often a subtle “imputation” of arrogance by absence. Consider the difference in the overall “tone” in this article if the last 300 words had been cut. So bravo to Kirkpatrick and the magazine’s editor for good decisions.

  • Julia

    There was a good analysis of the NYT piece at National Review On-Line by Ryan T. Anderson that included this important observation:

    Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

    Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

  • Julia

    Jerry said:

    As Democrats have stepped up their explicitly religious appeals to Catholic voters, these bishops have pushed back against the intrusion on their turf.

    This appears to state that the Catholic bishops think of themselves as political agents defending their turf against the political appeal of Democrats.

    No, the bishops were pushing back when politicians who self-identify as Catholic misrepresented what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Examples: Biden and Polesi on TV Sunday political programs.

  • Julia

    Sorry, should have provided a link to the Anderson piece. It is very worthwhile reading. The man worked with Fr. Neuhaus for the last 2 years of his life and is in a very good position to comment on the man described as taking Fr Neuhaus’ place:

    The article ends with the passage copied below. It follows a paragraph which addresses Jerry’s implication that there is a secular as well as a religious natural law. Anderson explains, for example, that legal, political and religious institutions “recognized this pre-political (and even pre-religious) natural institution [the custom that we call marriage]and provided it with legal support and religious solemnization.” Natural law, by its nature, does not require theology to understand.

    While he certainly would not have been installed in one of Princeton’s most celebrated professorial chairs without having produced more than a few important insights and powerful original arguments, his contributions build on the wisdom of those who have gone before — Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu, Coke and Blackstone. They are certainly contributions that justify the Times in calling him “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”

  • Jerry

    I was thinking about what Julia wrote as I drove around doing pre-Christmas errands. I should have said that statement was very badly written to create the impression that the Catholic church is a political entity defending its “turf”. Since the Catholic church tends to be on the Democratic side of social legislation, that is not politically correct. What really should have been written is that the Bishops spoke out to make clear their opposition to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.

  • Caleb

    The group he led is as well. Among many other controversies, Jennings’ group had suggested readings for children of all ages that are so offensive that I’m not even going to link to them.

    Pardon me for deviating from the article proper, but could someone tell me what some of these offensive books are?

  • dalea

    I found this interesting:

    Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.

    And this:

    What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.

    How does he know this ‘reason’ if he excludes empirical data, like history and anthropology? And how does reason alone let us know who reasonable and well-informed people of good will are? I can not imagine a reason that exists apart from observation. Or maybe I do not follow his argument at all.

  • Joe Perez

    Not a bad article, all the way around. However, it did have at least one major blind spot: no mention of the fact that Catholic natural law teachings are incredibly marginal in academia and philosophy departments and among biologists and virtually every corner of intelligensia except a handful of conservative to ultraconservative educational institutions controlled by or linked to Rome. I’m not saying George is a crackpot by any means, but there should have been greater awareness that the support for his theological method is circumscribed, a fact that seems to directly contradict its entire intellectual currency as not dependent upon a religious foundation.

  • dalea

    I found the article informative and well written. The style is one I would like to see more of. Professor George and his philosophy were very clearly explained. It was not made clear how George had become so influential, or even if he actually is.

    Reading it, I had a feeling of familiarity with the subject that I have been trying to place. With a different biography and a few tweaks to positions, this could have been written 40 years ago about Ayn Rand and her Natural Law philosophy. The treatment would be the same, the subject matter would be pretty much the same, just the conclusions would vary. Even the descriptions of what sex accomplishes would be pretty much the same. Just an observation.


    Could you give me a link to the offensive gay-normaliziing readings you wouldn’t run? The provincial government in british columbia is introducing some stuff in public schools here and Im wondering if its some of same.

    Steve Weatherbe
    (who interviewed you months ago for Celebrate Life mag about March for Life)

  • John D

    Obviously, this piece on Professor George needed some balance. You can read the whole thing and “you can avoid learning about any religious, moral or philosophical opposition to” his views.

    Where was the other side? Where was the discussion of the great harms done to gay people by the hard-hearted theorizing of Professor George? Or is this sort of balance only needed when one is talking about rabbis officiating at same-sex weddings (the words quoted above come from Mollie’s post on such a story).

    Do we need balance only when the piece is in support of same-sex marriage?Are we supposed to give opponents a pass here?

    Slightly OT for Steve: Mollie already said that she would not link to GLSN’s list of books. The conservative blogsphere went wild recently over this. GLSN complied a list of books for and about LGBT teens. A group cherry picked the more salacious passages with the suggestion that the group expected small children to be reading about Aaron Fricke’s early sexual experiences.