Robert P. George may have degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Swarthmore, but he’s also a proud honorary alumnus of Brigham Young University where he gave a speech Thursday.

An august figure in the academic world, George is a Princeton University professor with a storied career as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former Judicial Fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s a conservative intellectual heavyweight known for his cross-the-aisle friendship with progressive scholar and current presidential candidate Cornel West.

At BYU, George spoke about the primary role of the family and the ancillary role of government in society during his remarks, which were sponsored by the Wheatley Institute. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was in attendance as was university President C. Shane Reese, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, General Authority Seventy and Commissioner of the Church Educational System and Elder Alexander Dushku, General Authority Seventy.

George has a long-standing relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young University. In an interview before his lecture, George said he met then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, now president of the church, at a conference of academics and religious leaders in the early 2000s. Their rapport sparked interest on the part of George, a lifelong Catholic, in learning more about the Latter-day Saint faith.

Since then, George has maintained friendships with church leaders and numerous Latter-day Saint students. He dedicated Thursday evening’s remarks to the late Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Elder Matthew S. Holland, General Authority Seventy, introduced George and reminisced about when they first met. A young Elder Holland studied under George as a graduate fellow. The two met at a standing weekly meeting called “Tuesday morning coffee with Robbie.”

“I showed up at the inaugural session, eager, bright-eyed and armed with a stiff cup of Postum,” Elder Holland quipped.

Throughout the year, Elder Holland observed George more closely and described it as “thrilling” to be a witness to “a truly preeminent scholar wiling to stand up and speak out with such extemporaneous eloquence for antiquated concepts like moral truth, the family, the good and even, dare I say it, religious faith.”

George, known for his characteristically dapper three-piece suits and ability to play the banjo, put forth an argument Thursday that government functions best when there are strong families and a virtuous citizenry.

“When the family breaks down, when the church isn’t doing its job or can’t do its job, when it’s captured or compromised or tyrannized over, government will become unlimited and it won’t matter what the words on the page say,” George said.

Deriving his central thesis from John Adams’ declaration — “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” — George said that what the democratic republic needs to survive now and to resist authoritarianism is specific civic virtues.

“These virtues do not simply fall down from heaven,” George said. “They have to be transmitted through the generations and nurtured by each generation.”

That’s why, George continued, it’s critical for the government not to interrupt the rights of families or to interfere with religious liberty, especially as it pertains to expression of conscience.

Speaking of the family and the church as institutions, George said the government cannot transmit the virtues necessary for the best kind of human action. It’s the family that does it best.

Princeton professor Robert George lectures at the Wheatley Institute at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 7, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The virtues of which George speaks are integrity, respect for dignity and rights, self-restraint, concern for others, civic-mindedness and basic honesty.

It’s not the families that depend on the government to transmit those virtues — it’s the government that depends on the family to do so, he said.

“The court relies on there being people who won’t be corrupted to be jurors,” George said. “Employers, Google, Apple, the local store, all rely on employees who will show up to work on time, not drunk or on drugs, do an honest day’s work for an honest wage, not embezzle.”

“Every institution of society depends, for its function and flourishing, on there being honorable people. But none of those institutions can produce honorable people — people who have the virtues that I just listed,” he continued. Those virtues are produced from moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, religious leaders, coaches and teachers.

“It’s the family assisted by the church, and the other associations of civil society — the Little League team and so forth, the 4-H, the Scouts or the campfire girls or what have you,” George said. “They are what transmit to each new generation the virtues that enable members of that generation to be honorable people and effective citizens.”

Within healthy governments where there’s strong families and human flourishing, there’s still disagreement.

Talking MLK, Robert George and Cornel West offer antidote to partisanship

George said there’s need for rulers or political leaders who actually have real power. Giving traffic lights as an example, he said there needs to be someone who stipulates which side of the road people drive on. “Even in a society of perfect saints, not just latter-day perfect saints, we would need rulers who rule to make stipulations that solve our coordination problems.”

From public safety to individual rights, the government has a role to play in advancing good, George said. He added that the common good “is not an abstraction,” it’s the well-being of people, families and institutions, he said.

“By doing what is good for the community, protecting public health, public safety, public morals, individual rights, the vital institutions of the family and the church, by doing what we can for the common good and by avoiding doing things that undermine and harm the common good, rulers can fulfill their obligations to the people over whom they exercise authority,” George said. This, in turn, would serve people’s interest and flourishing.

While rulers can make decisions about certain things, George said they’ve got “to stay in their lane” by not meddling in the authority of families.

“When the government is doing things that you can do for yourself, it’s out of line,” George said. Instead, the government should maintain the necessary conditions for people to exercise autonomy.

This provides a protection against tyranny, George said, which is what the U.S. Constitution intended.

Institutions like the family, the church and civic associations can perform better than the government when it comes to essential functions like welfare and health, George said.

“Be there for our kids,” George concluded. “Be there in their lives. Your pastor has to know you. If it’s such a mega church where your pastor doesn’t know you, I would suggest maybe finding a different church.”

“Be involved in the lives of the people you hope to shape. Don’t outsource it.”