David 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.