David D. Kirkpatrick’s profile of Robert P. George — “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker (New York Times Magazine) — is surprisingly fair, managing to detail his natural law philosophy and present it in such a way that even the catty responses from his critics (“Liberals … generally argue that the meaning of marriage is in the partners’ love, not their loins”) cannot elude his reason (“To which George counters that they offer no definition that would exclude polygamy”). As Kirkpatrick notes:
For 20 years, George has operated largely out of public view at the intersection of academia, religion and politics. In the past 12 months, however, he has stepped into a more prominent role. With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister turned Roman Catholic priest who helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together into a political movement, George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right. And he is in many ways the public face of the conservative side in the most urgent culture-war battle of the day.
Lots of interesting personal tidbits as well (he teaches a ‘great books’ seminar with Cornel West; his wife, Cindy, is Jewish; and who knew Glenn Beck was a fan?) and then there’s this:
George once won two terms as governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference in high school and even served as an alternate delegate to the 1976 Democratic convention. He moved right in the 1980s, initially over the issue of abortion, which eventually took him back to politics. On the day of the Pennsylvania primary in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bob Casey, then the state’s governor (and the father of the current Senator Casey) surprised George with a phone call to talk about George’s criticisms of Mario Cuomo. Later that year, when Bill Clinton denied Casey a chance to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, it was George who had helped to write Casey’s speech.
Some classic articles by George which I’ve referred to in the past:
- The Failure of Catholic Political Leadership Crisis 18 no. 4 (April 2000): 17-22.
- “God’s Reasons” on the question: “Do appeals to religious authority have a role in public policy debates?”(Remarks at American Political Science Association Convention, 1998).
- A Clash of Orthodoxies (First Things August/September 1999).
Ryan T. Anderson (National Review) notes“the Times‘ profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work”:
Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.
Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.
While he certainly would not have been installed in one of Princeton’s most celebrated professorial chairs without having produced more than a few important insights and powerful original arguments, his contributions build on the wisdom of those who have gone before — Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu, Coke and Blackstone. They are certainly contributions that justify the Times in calling him “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”