A Mind on the Right
In a strident sea of liberal opinion, conservative academic Robert George has found a happy home.
Robert George ’77, a leading conservative public intellectual, remembers the precise moment that he was set on the path to becoming an academic: It was when he first encountered Plato’s dialogue Gorgias in Kenneth Sharpe’s political theory seminar.
“Before reading that dialogue, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought of pursuing an academic career,” George says. Like many students, he had perceived a college education as a traditional step to professional success and not as something valuable in and of itself, as a means “to understand more deeply the truth about oneself and the world.”
In the passage of Plato’s dialogue that struck George, Socrates questions Gorgias, a well-respected sophist, about the nature of his craft—persuasion. “The conclusion that Socrates takes us to … is that you’d be better off losing an argument when you’re wrong than winning it,” George told me during my recent visit to Princeton University, where he is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence. “Boy, that really made me look at myself in a way I never had before … and I began a personal journey that led me eventually to be an academic, to become a professor, to live my life in the realm of ideas and arguments and intellectual discourse.”
Today, George is best known for his conservative views, particularly those on hot-button moral issues. He opposes abortion, homosexuality, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning, and he advances these arguments in both the academic press and popular conservative outlets such as the National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. In the run-up to the presidential election, for instance, George wrote an article for Public Discourse, an online outlet of the conservative Witherspoon Institute where he serves on the board, making the case that Barack Obama is “the most extreme pro-abortion legislator ever to serve in either house of the United States Congress.”
George’s profile has been raised further by his positions on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (serving under Clinton but appointed by George H.W. Bush at the end of his presidency) and on President George W. Bush’s Council of Bioethics. George also serves as the director of a conservative-leaning Princeton think tank, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which he founded in 2000. He was recently appointed as the U.S. member of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, an 18-member advisory council to UNESCO.
It goes without saying that George’s views are largely unpopular at the elite college and university campuses where he has spent most of his life, either as a student or teacher. And yet at Swarthmore, George was elected student-body president. And at Princeton, his classes are invariably over-enrolled and students give him rave reviews. Improbably, in a sea of strident liberal opinion, George has made a happy home.
George, who is known as “Robby” to his friends, grew up in Morgantown, W.Va., the oldest of five brothers. His parents, Joseph and Catherine, were New Deal Democrats. “We didn’t know any Republicans,” George recalls. “We thought of the Republicans as the owners of the mines, and the rest of us were from families who had fathers or grandfathers in the mines.” As a teenager, George was active in Democratic politics, volunteering for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and serving as two-term governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference.
“Not many students from my high school went away to college, and a fair number didn’t go to college at all,” George says. “But I knew I wanted to go away for college, so I got out the Barron’s guide and Swarthmore just seemed terrific—very intellectually intense and vibrant.” He visited the campus and came away impressed. The conversations he overheard amongst the students “were different than the ones I had heard at other colleges and universities I visited,” he says. “They weren’t about sports and relationships, they were about ideas.”
George’s arrival at Swarthmore in 1973 coincided with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion and alienated many socially conservative Democrats. “During my time at Swarthmore, I still considered myself a Democrat, and there was still a question in which direction the Democratic Party would go,” George says. “It’s hard to think ourselves back to this, but it’s important to do so. Planned Parenthood in the 1960s and early 1970s was not a liberal organization. George. H. W. Bush’s wife, Barbara, is pro-choice to this day, and she’s a reminder of that old Republican view. On the other side, there were plenty of pro-life Democrats, including Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and Richard Gephardt. It wasn’t at all clear which was the conservative position, and which was the liberal tradition.”
A devout Catholic, George was appalled by the court’s decision. “In my opinion, the abortion issue is what started him down the path toward identifying himself as a conservative,” says John Devlin ’76, George’s friend and former roommate.
Increasingly, George found himself on the conservative side of issues that had been pushed into the foreground in the 1960s: feminism, sexual revolution, and drug use. “I came to conclusions that were quite different from the conclusions of most of my peers and of most members of the faculty,” George says, “conclusions that were in opposition to the ethos that was prevalent at Swarthmore and across the academic world and the elite sector of the culture, especially the intellectual culture. So, I had to resign myself to being a dissenter, a kind of intellectual Protestant.”
It was a lonely position, but he was encouraged by two Swarthmore professors—Linwood Urban and James Kurth. Urban, the Charles and Harriet Cox MacDonnell Professor Emeritus of Religion and an Episcopal clergyman, introduced George to the writings of medieval philosophers, which sparked his interest in the field of natural law—the notion that moral norms can be grasped through reasoning and are not matters of revealed truth. (Father Thomas Halloran, who served Catholic students at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford, was another major influence. During summers, George and Devlin accompanied Father Thomas to Boston College to attend a philosophy workshop.)
Kurth, the Claude C. Smith Professor Emeritus of Political Science, was perhaps an even greater influence. “Jim Kurth was really instrumental in providing support when I needed it,” George said. Politically, they had their differences—Kurth was a self-described borderline Marxist. (It was not until 1980 that he became an evangelical Protestant.) But he encouraged his students to challenge political orthodoxies. “Jim was deeply antithetical to the phenomenon we now call political correctness,” George says. “It existed then, but we didn’t have a name for it. The fact that there were these people who were ‘enlightened’—not because of some compelling argument but because of some trend in thought—it really turned him off.”
In George, Kurth saw a febrile mind and fellow outsider at the College. “We were both from the periphery—Robby is from West Virginia, and I was raised in a small town in Oregon,” Kurth says.
And yet George had no trouble fitting in at Swarthmore. He was an accomplished musician and performed in several campus bands. “He could play anything with strings on it,” Devlin says. It was at Swarthmore, too, that he met his future wife, Cindy Schrom ’77, who is currently managing editor at Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in Princeton.
“She was my college sweetheart,” George says. “We met as sophomores, in Willets. I walked into the lounge, and there was this beautiful woman playing classical guitar; she was it.”
In his senior year, George was elected student body president. “You didn’t run on your views of abortion, you ran on reforms in the cafeteria,” he says. “But it speaks well for Swarthmore—and I hope it remains the case today—that you could be popular and accepted even if you were a pretty strenuous dissenter.”
After Swarthmore, George studied theology and law at Harvard and then went to Oxford for doctoral studies in legal philosophy, working under John Finnis, the world’s most prominent natural law theorist. Even before he finished his dissertation, George landed a teaching position in Princeton’s political science department. “I applied for the job thinking I wouldn’t get it but figured it would be a good learning experience,” George recalls. “But then they offered me the job, and to my embarrassment I had to explain that I still had a lot of work to do on my dissertation.” Princeton was willing to wait, allowing George another year at Oxford and to complete his dissertation during his first year of teaching duties. George received tenure in 1993.
“It was a remarkable thing for him to get tenure when he had done nothing to disguise his views,” Hadley Arkes, an Amherst philosopher and fellow conservative, has said of his friend’s appointment. While George believes academia too often penalizes conservative thinkers in hiring decisions, he acknowledges that he personally has not suffered. “I was not a stealth candidate, and my views were well known from the moment I came to Princeton,” he says. “The only way I was given tenure was because honorable liberals supported me based on what they perceived as the quality of my work, despite their disagreements with me.”
The intellectual foundation upon which George’s views rest is natural law theory (or, more specifically, “new natural law theory”). With roots in Greek philosophy but owing its greatest debt to the medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, natural law theory holds that there are intrinsic goods—moral truths—that are ascertainable by reason alone. Natural law’s antagonist is secular humanism, whose founder and namesake David Hume famously wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” But for George and other contemporary natural law theorists, reason should serve as humanity’s moral guide and be reinforced by just laws. “Law is nothing other than an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community,” Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae.
It just so happens that these moral truths are closely aligned with the long tradition of Judeo-Christian thought. But while he is a devout Catholic, George defends his views without recourse to divine fiat. “I want to show that Christians and other believers are right to defend their positions on key moral issues as rationally superior to the alternatives proposed by secular liberals and those within the religious denominations who have abandoned traditional moral principles in favor of secularist morality,” he writes in the preface of The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. “My criticism of secular liberal views is not that they are contrary to faith; it is that they fail the test of reason.”
The most sacrosanct of these intrinsic goods is human life, which is why George is so outspoken in the public debate concerning abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and capital punishment. It’s impossible to give these issues and George’s views a fair hearing in such limited space, but suffice it to say that for George, the right of life applies to humans in any stage of development, be they zygotes or, in the case of Terry Schiavo, adults in a persistent vegetative state. (George, it should also be said, is very comfortable navigating the scientific intricacies that underlie these debates.)
Liberal sexual ideology is another bugaboo of George’s. “I think that sex, when it is humanly valuable, is intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally, valuable,” he writes. Like Finnis, George believes marriage is a basic human good and that sex within marriage (even an infertile marriage) realizes ‘the intrinsic good of marriage itself as a two-in-one communion of persons,” uniting husband and wife biologically. In this view, oral and anal intercourse, even between married couples, is immoral since these acts do not produce such a biological union. And sex between unmarried heterosexuals or between homosexuals also is immoral. “Masturbatory, sodomitical, or other sexual acts that are not reproductive in type cannot unite persons organically: that is, as a single reproductive principle,” George writes. Sex for pleasure outside of what George brands the “one-flesh union of marriage” instrumentalizes the bodies of the participants, rendering the acts “self-alienating and disintegrating.” Thus, George argues for preserving the traditional legal definition of marriage, a union between one man and one woman.
For the past decade, beginning with Republican Congressional victories of the Clinton era through the eight years of the Bush administration, it appeared that such cultural conservatism was on the ascent. George moves easily in Republican circles, a prominent figure in the bourgeoning Catholic-Evangelical alliance. “When I was growing up in Morgantown, relations between Evangelicals and Catholics were awful, but I liked my Evangelical friends and neighbors a lot—even some of them who weren’t prepared to grant that as a Catholic I was a Christian.” He also had many Evangelical friends at Swarthmore. “In the 1990s, my work started drawing the attention of Evangelical pastors and leaders,” he says. “I think a lot of Evangelicals became interested in natural law, because they came to see it wasn’t enough to cite purely religious authority for a moral view, especially one with relevance to public policy.”
Now, however, following Barack Obama’s landslide and rampant infighting within the Republican ranks, the future of conservatism in this country is uncertain.
“Obviously, I am delighted that our country has shown that it can elect an African-American president,” George wrote me in an e-mail following the Nov. 4 election. Nonetheless, he had supported John McCain “because Obama is so far to the left, especially on social issues.”
But George maintains that the election was not “ideologically transformative.” Citing the success of three state ballot initiatives prohibiting same-sex marriage, George added, “As things stand, we’re still (as far as I can see) a center-right country.”
Kurth agrees, adding that what doomed McCain was his neo-conservative foreign policy leanings—“he’s like George W. Bush on steroids!”—and incoherence on economic matters. Moving forward, he suggests, the Republican Party would do well to maintain its cultural conservatism, while re-embracing a more conservative, i.e. realist, foreign policy and adopting a less hands-off approach to the turbulent free-market economy. “These are positions that Robby should feel very comfortable with since they are in fact the positions promulgated in the Papal Encyclicals and by the U.S. Council of Bishops,” Kurth says. “In terms of rethinking the future of the Republican Party, Robby has the perfect theological grounding to do so.”
Meanwhile, at Princeton and other campuses, the culture war grinds on. George is on leave this year but is looking forward to returning to the classroom. He recently co-taught a class with Cornel West, a popular Professor of Religion and African American Studies, who is as liberal as George is conservative. “We went back and forth and engaged each other, and we engaged the students,” George says. “The students said they learned from hearing two very different perspectives, and that’s the way it should be.”
George hopes such efforts will make it easier for more conservative voices to find their way into academia. “I think conservatives are mistaken that the prejudice that is there has to do with the nature of liberalism,” he says. “Liberalism is not the problem, the problem is the nature of human beings, and if the shoe was on the other foot, conservatives would be the same.
“We find it hard to imagine that people who reach what we perceive to be the wrong conclusions can be good thinkers and good scholars,” George continues. “But if you came into my classes without knowing anything about me, you wouldn’t be able to tell my views from the way I teach.
“I press my students hard, and if they’re trying to make a liberal argument and not doing it well, then I’ll make the strongest liberal argument,” he says. “My job is not to tell students what to think, it’s to teach them to think critically.”
Paul Wachter lives in New York and writes for The New York Times Magazine and The Nation. He is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.