clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'Most influential Christian conservative thinker' Robert P. George joins News board

PROVO — In his dialogue "Gorgias," the philosopher Plato questions the motives for debate, asking if individuals argue in order to find and advance the truth or simply to boost their own social standing by winning the argument.

For 19-year-old Robert P. George, contemplating those questions for the first time in college was like "having a bucket of ice water thrown in my face, and I woke up," he said.

"I realized I should be asking a much more important question than about how to win debates, but I should be asking the question, 'What side am I on?' " said George, the man the New York Times Magazine would later christen as the "most influential Christian conservative thinker."

"For the first time in my life ... I had to think my way to where I would stand, rather than just standing where I stood because it was what the ambient culture told me." That introductory political philosophy class at Swarthmore College changed the entire trajectory of young George's life.

George, one of the members of the new Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, is a devout Catholic and a tenured Princeton professor. He supports the sanctity of life and traditional marriage as well as thoroughness of scholarship and public discourse, especially on the issue of natural law.

His beliefs have earned him friends and supporters across the spectrum, from members of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whom he calls spiritual brothers, to his liberal colleagues at Princeton, who respect him despite their differences. George is also no stranger to criticism and death threats from those who decry his views as bigoted and discriminatory.

Yet those who know him acknowledge his fairness and fundamental decency, regardless of the issue.

"He always tries to show both sides," said Paul Kerry, a former visiting fellow at Princeton and now a history professor at BYU. "But he's not afraid to say, 'There is a truth, and we need to go where the truth is.' "


As a Brigham Young University forum speaker in October 2008, George began by addressing his audience as "fellow disciples of our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ." He then launched into his trademark messages on the sanctity of life and the importance of traditional marriage.

He began with the Founding Fathers, which, for a man who is an expert in Constitutional Law, seemed a natural place to start. Their moral convictions were rooted in truths they called self-evident, that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

To George, that declaration means protection of everyone, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or age, size or stage of development. "To exclude anyone from the law's protection is to treat him unjustly," he said.

The eldest of five boys growing up in a partisan Democrat family in West Virginia, George had planned to study law and perhaps later enter politics. He was governor twice in the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference and even attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as an alternate delegate.

But when the abortion issue gained momentum in the late '70s and early '80s, George began distancing himself from the Democrat Party, and instead turned toward conservatism, academia and a "career dedicated to understanding truth."

As George explained at BYU, abortion is more than just morally or religiously wrong; it is philosophically wrong considering the country's foundational beliefs in the unalienable rights of man, no matter the age or size.

Though he's an openly religious man, George's defenses don't rely on faith alone. Instead he parries attacks with natural law theory, which is that moral truths can be explained in philosophical and logical ways and not just "God commanded me."

To explain natural law theory, George often turns to a quote from Pope John Paul II: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Just as a bird with a broken wing can't get off the ground, "I believe that faith and reason need to both be in the picture if we're to arrive at the best and fullest understanding," he told the Deseret News recently.

For the marriage argument, George reminded his BYU audience that throughout the world, governments consider the family as the fundamental unit of society and rely on families to produce law-abiding, public-spirited citizens.

"In the absence of a strong marriage culture, families fail to form, and when they do form they are often unstable," he said. "With families failing to perform their health, education, and welfare functions, the demand for government grows, whether in the form of greater policing or as a provider of other social services."

In addition to the common-good argument for marriage, George explained that sex is a reproductive principle that, unlike digestion or walking, is only fulfilled between a man and a woman becoming one-flesh in "organic unity." Such unity is not achieved by two men or two women in a "love-makes-a-family" type arrangement, he argues. Abandoning traditional marriage also opens the door for acceptance of polyamory, or non-monogamous relationships, as a "legitimate marital option," George said.

Though George is a staunch family proponent, he doesn't speak much of his wife or grown son and daughter out of protective instinct. It's understandable for a man who frequently receives profanity-laced threats. During his rare family time, George enjoys reading English literature, anything by Jane Austen, and playing a mean bluegrass banjo and guitar.

The professor

George, 55, begins his Princeton classes with a tight, noteless discussion of an issue, bouncing between both sides of the argument, before opening the floor to his students. It's Socratic style, and they're welcome to contribute anything if they can defend it.

During the discussion, George, always dressed in a three-piece suit, will dart about the room, run down an aisle or climb atop a desk in his excitement to make a point.

"(He has) a real, almost boyish delight in a really good argument," said former student Sherif Girgis, who took George's Civil Liberties class several years ago and after a master's at Oxford is back to Princeton for a Ph.D. in philosophy. "He (can) present a topic or an argument for the 1,000th time as if he (is) presenting it for the first, with all the kind of drama and anticipation that comes with discovering a new area of knowledge."

George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (a prestigious endowed professorship formerly held by President Woodrow Wilson), is also a professor of politics and an associated faculty member of Princeton's Department of Philosophy where his strong conservative views leave him in the minority.

Yet while many of his opinions are broadly known, some students say they'll leave a 90-minute debate still unsure where he personally stands, thanks to his rigorous arguments for both sides.

Girgis recalled one small discussion group that began with George rushing in a few minutes late, as usual.

Wearing his trademark grin and smoothing down his tussled hair, George asked the dozen or so students the topic of the day. It was an issue on which George's position was already very well known publicly, and Girgis said he feared a fruitless, cornering conversation.

Yet almost immediately, George was putting forth ideas and challenging students to seriously reconsider their own viewpoints, some perhaps for the first time ever.

"And he did it just with so much coolness and such peace, where it was clear that he wasn't interested in making anybody look bad or in making himself look good," Girgis said. "He was just fascinated by the ideas."

The experience reminded Girgis of how much he could learn from that kind of rigorous debate.

"Philosophy can give you the tools to be a jerk," he said. "You can run circles around people who don't have the same training, or use jargon to run past them when you don't have a good point, but it was clear (George) had eschewed all of that. It really opened up to me the possibility of intellectual engagement being a form of friendship ... even with people with whom you completely disagree."

The listener

No matter the issue or the opponent, George approaches all discussions with the motto that there are "reasonable people of good will on either side."

That openness has allowed him to form friendships across the spectrum, including with liberal Princeton colleague, Cornel West, with whom he frequently has lunch and even co-teaches a class.

"We've got deep respect for each other and a very genuine friendship, a deep love of each other as human beings and as intellectuals," West told the Deseret News. "And yet, we do go at it, because he is a conservative brother, and I am a progressive brother, and we have these very wonderful, intense conversations."

West is as prominent on the left as George is on the right, serving as a powerful voice on the issue of race in America. His book, "Race Matters," addresses racism in American democracy and has sold more than half a million copies. The deeply spiritual West, with his black Baptist roots, finds in Catholic "Brother Robby" not only a political foil but also a friend, thanks to their shared love of knowledge and truth, theological differences aside.

"He's so congenial, he's so willing to listen," West said. "He has a receptivity to other person's views, so opposite of the stereotypical conservative voice that's just hollering and enraged. (George is) out listening. That's just rare no matter what kind of politics you have."

The duo's freshman seminar, "Great Books and Arguments," was so successful the first year that they repeated it, and will be teaming up for another class next year.

George and West have also traveled the country together, spoken together in the public square and held dialogues in high schools to help students learn the importance of civil debate.

West credits George's admirable traits to his West Virginia upbringing where "love was in high supply."

"By the time (George) got to graduate school, he was spiritually intact," West said. "And that is the real anchor and foundation and pillar when it comes to having the confidence and inner security to listen to others."

For many in the religious community, it's not just about listening to the other side. It's about listening to those on your side who come from different backgrounds.

"It's become clear to people of faith that they share an enormous amount, especially when it comes to morality, justice and the common good," George said. "There's no reason we can't work together."

The connector

Outside the classroom, George forges links with religious individuals and denominations across the world that advocate the same things he does.

"Not only do I consider that work important, but of all the work I do, it gives me the most joy," he said. "I derive enormous personal satisfaction from working together with my fellow Christians and other believers to advance mutual understanding and cooperation."

George said his own faith has been strengthened by his interactions with leaders of the LDS Church including Elders M. Russell Ballard, Russell M. Nelson, Quentin L. Cook, Jeffrey R. Holland and Dallin H. Oaks, all members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"I see in people like that, people that I recognize not just as good men, but as spiritual leaders," he said. "They exemplify the kind of relationship with God and love of God that expresses itself in love of neighbor, which is exactly what Jesus was teaching us. I learn from them, even though I'm not LDS."

Though there are important doctrinal differences between them, George emphasizes the similarities, and of course, the ever-present truths.

Some conservatives wonder if George embraces other religions and seekers of truth too warmly, questioning his ready willingness to participate in any discussion, whether through the Wall Street Journal or the Glenn Beck show. He has done both.

To him, it all comes back to the reasonable people of good will on either side. No matter their location on that side, he can still use the discussion as a chance to seek truth.

"Moral questions, whether personal or political morality, are difficult sometimes," he said. "But it doesn't mean there's no truth. It's necessary to think very carefully and self-critically in order to get at the truth."

That carefulness is what sets him apart from other conservative voices on the scene today, friends say.

"It is true that many people on the conservative Christian side, in their activism follow the motto of 'ready, fire, aim.' And Robby is the antithesis of that," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where George is on the board of directors. "He is concerned about academic integrity and intellectual honesty and he won't go shooting from the hip without having prepared."

In fact, George's intellect is "nothing short of dazzling," said Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University, former Princeton visiting fellow and also a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

"(George's) capacity to remember historical fact, empirical data and philosophical, logical argument is absolutely extraordinary," Holland said. "Often folks who have such intellectual capacity lack the discipline to turn it into first-rate scholarship. Such is not the case with Robert George. For years he has been publishing regularly in the world's best academic outlets."

George's degrees from Oxford and Harvard's Law and Divinity Schools add credibility to his conservatism and depth to his debates.

"He's a brilliant human being and he's comfortable with ideas," said Bradford Wilson, who works with George as executive director of the James Madison Program at Princeton, which George founded and directs.

Whether or not George's opponents are so comfortable with his ideas is another story.

Regardless, he continues forward, boldly arguing and defending today's "foundational" causes that still revolve around life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As one of the drafters of the November 2009 "Manhattan Declaration," George and other Christian leaders called on Christians everywhere to stand up for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage and religious liberty.

From the document comes their resonating promise: "We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty."