A Conservative to Be Taken Seriously
“I’m going to make them regret this everyday of their lives.”
These were the words that the arch-conservative and Catholic philosopher Robert P. George described to me as what went through his head after receiving the news that he had been granted tenure at Princeton University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world known for its notoriously secular atmosphere. He knew he would be a gadfly at Princeton with his unabashed but genteel and genial social conservatism, but George could not have foreseen at the time just how much he would also thrive and become one of the university’s most famous professors and an intellectual icon within American conservatism.
With a career spanning over thirty years and who presently holds the title of McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert P. George is one of the world’s most prominent and respected public intellectuals. Even if others disagree with him, it is not in doubt that he is arguably one of the most important living social conservative thinkers of his generation and someone for whom critics must contend and grapple with if they wish to live with intellectual honesty. He is taken seriously by friend and foe alike.
Alongside a bevy of other public profiles, George’s 2009 profile in The New York Times called him the “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.” It is hard to classify Robert P. George as only one type of scholar. With degrees from Amherst, Harvard Law, Harvard Divinity, and Oxford, he’s known primarily as an analytic legal philosopher. However, the themes of his work in legal philosophy have necessarily entailed serious incursions into, and contributions within, the fields of political philosophy, moral philosophy, constitutional law, and even theology. He has made his mark on the academy primarily for his advancement of a particular form of natural law theory that understands morality as rationally derived from certain “basic goods” consistent with human flourishing. From his belief in the possibility of society ordering itself and its laws to obtain these goods, George is a critic of secular views of society that would deny the existence of concrete moral norms. Fundamentally, George is animated by a concern for obtaining the ideals of a just society—one whose common good is defined by respect for the human person in all its dimensions.
I first became familiar with the thought of Robert P. George sometime in 2007. I somehow came upon The Clash of Orthodoxies and recall thinking to myself how I had never read arguments that were so powerful and clear—and not explicitly religious—while also aligning with biblical ethics. Though I was still very young and largely ignorant of the tradition I was embarking upon, what I was grasping was that the moral convictions of the Bible were not only rule-based but reason-based as well. In other words, Christians did not believe their morality was intelligible by pure fiat or decree alone. Rather, God inscribed reasons for the morality he commands. What were those reasons? Ultimately, to glorify him, but as a secondary matter, to order a creation that humans would be able to prosper within. These truths are ones I’m still grappling with more than a decade-and-a-half later and ones I have quite literally given my career to exploring, defending, and expounding. I believe Christianity is the answer for everything—from our need for salvation to escape God’s wrath, but also how to live a well-ordered life. Robert P. George’s body of thought helped ignite that spark.
One of the reasons this book is a valuable enterprise is because it focuses not only on the intellectual fruits of George’s work but also just as much on the implications of character and institution building. We need arguments, but we also need the right character and the formation of institutions that work to produce both. George embodies this. He’s done the work, and as you will read further on in this volume, he’s also cultivated a character and posture toward academia and truth-seeking that is an antidote to the stifling, cruel illiberalism that is incubating in our day. Moreover, he’s invested in younger scholars (he regularly brags about them on Facebook) and has worked tirelessly in the background to form allegiances in defense of the Permanent Things that were it not for his relational networks, would never have come to fruition. In George, we see an institution builder, a networker, as well as an intellectual. There’s a formula therein for how ideas take effect and metastasize. Ideas are not simply platonic forms; they influence only to the degree that networks and institutions are there to cultivate and expound them. Ideas, if they are to influence, are inseparable from individuals and institutions.
It’s easy, as a conservative Christian, to want to be the gadfly that stands athwart liberalism yelling, “Stop!” But what Dr. George’s witness communicates is that what matters is being the right type of gadfly—the kind of person who is winsome and gracious but laser-sharp in an argument; one whose ideological counterparts must take seriously.
The combination of his scholarly output, his acumen at building diverse coalitions, his fierce yet winsome examination of differing viewpoints, and his care and attentiveness to the next generation—each facet is a model for us to follow as we enter into the next generation of debate about issues so integral to Christian faithfulness, but that are also vital to a healthy, functioning social order.
Carrying on the Torch
Robert P. George’s thought is profoundly influential among evangelical intellectuals, and now, more than ever, the continuation of his thought for future generations is all the more urgent as the secular winter grows even colder. We need his thoughts to help us endure coming storms. There’s a particular reason why this is necessary for evangelical audiences. In my experience, evangelicals have the wonderful instinct to believe the Bible at face value, which means they do not need convincing of its accuracy. I love this about evangelicals. We humbly and eagerly submit ourselves to the Word of God as an authoritative, inerrant, and all-sufficient revelation.
We stand as people who are promised resurrection, which means our persecution, cultural rejection, or scorn are not in vain.
What I do notice, however, is that despite our confidence in the Bible’s teaching on such subjects as the family or sexuality, evangelicals often lack either the confidence or ability to explain the reason, purpose, or intelligibility of biblical ethics rationally. For example, most evangelicals I know believe unswervingly in the enduring reality of the male-female binary, but if you asked them how to define what a man or woman is, they would cite a Bible verse and not be able to speak intricately about the way the human body and its embodied forms are designed for specific ends that complete it, and in turn, dictate how the body is understood and respected. If our answer cannot make sense apart from the Bible, what we have told our audience is that our ethics make sense only as a sectarian matter, rather than as a public matter with public implications for public policy and public morality.
The Bible’s presentation of morality, however, is that it is universal in scope, objective in its truthfulness, and intelligible as a reflection of its reasons for commanding our obligation to obey it. Biblical morality is, therefore, a matter of law. It summons our obedience because biblical morality constitutes a truthful standard of measurement, action, and restraint. It exists and is for our good. This is where George’s thought proves immensely valuable to evangelicals. George’s work helps give colorful and rational expression to the ethics that evangelicals hold dear.
By reviewing George’s contributions, my aim is to inspire courage. I know of few others like Robert P. George who have been willing to withstand ridicule and contempt for their faithfulness to Christ. Our natural inclination is to cowardice, and when Scripture speaks of the bizarre transaction of one being blessed in proportion to their encountering persecution, it strikes us as bizarre. How can suffering be a blessing? One way is that it draws those who are suffering to an even closer dependence on Christ. But it also fortifies the relationships one can look to when they experience suffering or persecution. The cross is indeed a place of suffering and liberation where the Christian learns to live unencumbered by the shallow dross of the world and where intimacy with Christ is most visceral. But the cross is not the last word, either. We stand as people who are promised resurrection, which means our persecution, cultural rejection, or scorn are not in vain.
In an age like our own where culture seems to be growing increasingly secular to religious conservatives, the fact that someone of George’s convictions can prosper at places like Princeton is evidence that, though the times are challenging and increasingly so, they are not as bad as they could be. But that will only continue if there are individuals and institutions that exist to carry the torch onward with the dispositions of courage, joy, rigor, and tenacity.
George’s peers and critics may regret that he was ever given tenure to promote the views he does, but no one—even at Princeton—should say that his tenure was wasted.
Andrew T. Walker is the editor of Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George.
Perhaps the most perplexing response we encounter in evangelism is not so much anger but apathy. This reaction may frustrate the evangelist, but it should provoke our compassion.
If evangelicalism really is “mere Christianity,” how could it be anything but the oldest orthodoxy of the apostles?
Can evangelicalism be defined, or is it so flimsy and malleable that it constantly succumbs to its context, shapeshifting according to when and where it is?
Michael Reeves discusses the term “evangelical,” the different ways it’s used in our culture today, and how we should respond to the cultural baggage often associated with the term.