A Week with Robert P. George (Part 2)

April 2, 2014

Editor’s Note: This week, we’ll be running a three-part interview series featuring Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A 2009 New York Times profile labeled him the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” He’s the author of such works as Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism; and Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, both necessary guides for discerning our times. Though I’ve never had the privilege of studying with him formally, Robert George has been an academic mentor to me from afar, one whose thinking has been immeasurably impactful.

ATW: Within the conservative movement, you’re known to be as much as a coalition builder as you are a thinker of great repute. Why have you devoted much of your energy to coalitions?

RPG: It seems to me that the future of our civilization depends on whether a coalition can be formed to protect its foundational principles—otherwise they will surely be abandoned. They are obviously under severe assault today, especially in elite sectors of the culture, and a great deal of ground has already been lost. We live at a time, I believe, when the fundamental divisions are not between the different traditions of religious faith, as perhaps they once were.  Rather, the basic division is between those who hold to the basic moral code shared by the various traditions, and rationally defensible as a matter of natural law, on the one side, and those (including some who continue to self-identify as Christians or people of other faiths) who embrace liberal secularism and have jettisoned traditional beliefs, such as belief in the sanctity of human life and the idea of marriage as a conjugal union, in favor of a “new morality.” I am a Catholic, but I feel a much stronger kinship with, for example, my Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim friends, than with liberal Catholics who have—not to put too fine a point on it—sold out on abortion and are now selling out on assisted suicide and euthanasia, not to mention on the conjugal idea of marriage and fundamental points of sexual morality. So I am delighted—and proud—to stand alongside my comrades in arms of many different faiths, to work with them, to be inspired by them, and to learn from them.

ATW: You’ve also been an academic mentor to friends of mine like Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson. Can you talk about the importance of academic and worldview mentoring, especially as younger thinkers and scholars emerge?

RPG: Among the greatest blessings of my life are the brave and brilliant young men and women who have studied with me at Princeton and Harvard. Each one is a precious gift from God. You mention Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, who are my co-authors of the book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. What an extraordinary pair those two are! I marvel at their intellectual depth, profound faith, and personal courage. I can scarcely claim to have taught them or even been a role model for them. The reverse is closer to the truth—I have learned and been inspired more by them than they by me. And the same is true of so many others—Micah Watson, David Tubbs, Ramesh Ponnuru, Hannah Smith, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Melissa Moschella, Ted Cruz, Daniel Mark, Cassandra Hough, Jose Joel Alicea, Adele Keim, Fr. Michael McClane, Caitlin Seery, and on and on. I could name hundreds of them now, in fields ranging from politics and journalism to academia and religious life. If I may quote Yankees baseball legend Lou Gehrig, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”

Young intellectuals such as those I’ve mentioned face a tougher job than those of my generation did—in large part because of our failures and delinquencies—but they are more committed and intellectually stronger and better equipped than we were. The task may well be Herculean, but in people like Sherif and Ryan we have our Hercules.

ATW: What advice would you give to young Christians that desire to have a career within the secular academic guild?

RPG: Go for it. Do not be afraid. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by the hegemony of liberal secularism in the academy. If you’ve got what it takes—and if you are willing to work hard to meet the higher standard that will be demanded of you—you can have a successful and fulfilling career and you can advance the cause of learning and thus serve the cause of Christ in a profoundly important domain of our cultural life.

The natural tendency of aspiring academics who dissent from the left-liberal orthodoxy is to lay low, hide their views, and steer clear of controversy. The plan is to get the doctorate, get an academic job, get tenure, and then perhaps “hoist the Jolly Roger.” I warn my graduate students that this is a mistake. Such a strategy is likely to have a bad effect on the character and personality of people who pursue it, and it probably won’t work anyway. So I advise them to make no secret of their dissent. Indeed, in many cases I suggest making a point of it. There are few things more impressive than a display of brilliance by someone courageous enough to express disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies in places like colleges and universities—institutions that flatter themselves with the myth that “there are no orthodoxies—no sacred cows—here.” I’m certainly glad that I did not personally pursue the strategy of hiding my convictions. Doing the opposite of that forced me to produce better work and, I believe, enabled me to earn the respect—if, in some cases, grudging—of many of my liberal secularist colleagues.

ATW: In the wake of the Arizona religious liberty bill’s veto, it seems that the cultural Left and the LGBT lobby are communicating that a “live and let live” approach to disagreement over sexuality isn’t likely. What are our tactics in combatting the hypocrisy and animus of the Left?

RPG: The best way to deal with hypocrisy of any type is to expose it. We should be relentless in doing that. And there is plenty of it to expose.  Frankly, we did not do enough or do well enough in exposing the lies about the Arizona bill propagated by the enemies of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.  Not enough people—especially religious, political, and intellectual leaders—spoke up.  People who should have been leading the battle were AWOL.  That must never happen again. As for the animus, here is the key thing—and this is my message for every Christian:  Do not be intimidated.  Fear God, not men. Stand up to the bullies. Do not acquiesce.  Do not go silent.  Bear witness—publicly.

To read part one, click here; and be sure to stay tuned for the final installment on Friday.

Robert George
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. You can find him on twitter at @McCormickProf.

Robert P. George

Professor George holds Princeton's celebrated McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and before that on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a … Read More