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Why is BYU honoring Robby George, and who is he?

Robby George
Robby George
Sutherland Institute

PROVO — BYU will grant two honorary degrees at graduation on Thursday, one to a man who once had the highest profile on campus, the other to someone few may recognize.

There is one clear similarity between the two: Each has a high profile with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Cecil O. Samuelson's 11-year tenure as BYU 12th president ended just a year ago. Even when Jimmer Fredette was arguably a bigger man on campus, every time Jimmer — or any other Cougar basketball player — made a free throw, every student at a BYU game would say, "Whoosh, Cecil."

Himself an emeritus LDS general authority and now the president of the Salt Lake Temple, Samuelson will receive an honorary Doctor of Education and Christian Service degree.

The other honorary degree goes to Robert P. (Robby) George, who BYU will give an honorary Doctor of Law and Moral Values degree.

There may not be a "Whoosh, Robby" tradition on campus, but the Princeton professor is a friend and confidante of LDS leaders, some of whom have quoted him or referred to him in talks, and he is nationally known to those who follow the American debate on marriage.

On Monday, Newsmax placed George 30th on its list of the top 100 Christian leaders in America. (LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson was 13th.) The New York Times Magazine once dubbed George the "most influential Christian conservative thinker."

Apostles' friend

George also has been a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and was the subject of a 2010 Deseret News profile.

Some of Thursday's BYU graduates will know of him because he is no stranger to the campus.

In 2008, George delivered a BYU forum address, "On the Moral Purposes of Law and Government." The university's future president, Kevin Worthen, introduced George's talk and called him "one of the most able and articulate advocates of the proposition that faith and reason are not incompatible."

That alone would make him a friend to BYU, one of four colleges and universities operated by the LDS Church with a mission to combine faith and reason.

But George's articulate defenses of religious liberty, moral values, family values and traditional marriage have drawn the attention of LDS apostles, whom the Catholic calls his spiritual brothers.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve quoted George in his keynote speech when The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty awarded Elder Oaks its Canterbury Medal in New York City in May 2013.

Elder Oaks said a book co-authored by George "states a powerful scholarly and philosophical case for the time-honored definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and its importance for the issue of religious freedom."

George has said that if defending traditional marriage "comes to be seen as irrational, people’s freedom to express and live by it will be curbed."

Elder Oaks quoted that passage from the book, "What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense," as well as a second: “believing what virtually every human society once believed about marriage — that it is a male-female union — will be seen in­creasingly as a malicious prejudice, to be driven to the margins of culture.”

Moral reason

Previously, Elder Quentin L. Cook, also of the Twelve, included a reference to George in the footnotes of a general conference talk in October 2010. Elder Cook said, "Many opinion leaders today ... believe no preference should be given to moral goals." In the footnotes he added, "Robert P. George teaches that either we have moral reason and free choice or we have amorality and determinism."

Elder Cook made a similar reference to George's thinking a 2011 BYU-Idaho commencement address that also appeared in a 2012 issue of Ensign, the church's magazine.

In April 2013, George spoke again at BYU and at the Sutherland Institute in an event attended by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Twelve.

In October 2014, George and Elder L. Tom Perry of the Twelve were honored with the New York LDS Professionals Association's Visionary Leadership Award. Utah Valley University President Matt Holland, a former George student and Elder Holland's son, presented the award and praised George's ability to gather support from multiple faiths for the defense of religious liberty and traditional marriage.

“His most visionary quality," Holland said, "rests in his ability to see the need for, and to generate, a veritable choir of voices in defense of certain light and truths.”

A month later, George and Elder Perry were together again, this time in Rome with President Henry B. Eyring of the church's First Presidency for the Vatican summit on marriage. George and President Eyring were presenters.

"He is well respected for his pervasive and persuasive writings," BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said, "which have helped to keep religion and morality as important topics in the public dialogue. His work to promote cooperation among people of faith resonates with all members of the BYU community. The university is extending this honor in appreciation for his influence on public policy and for being an educator, leader and devoted religious supporter of family and other moral values."

George is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. He also is vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.