Further to “Honest Journalism?” (correspondence)

Published Date: November 27, 2019 | Topics: Politics and Current Affairs, Religion

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By Robert George

Further to my post “Honest Journalism?” here is my correspondence with Thomas Edsall, beginning with his message requesting a transcript of my Catholic Information Center speech. (Update and correction: My reference to a paper of mine in the Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Law should have been to the Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Jurisprudence.)


From: Thomas Byrne Edsall 
Sent: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 4:31 PM
To: Robert P. George
Subject: Request for speech transcript NYT

Dear Professor George

Could you possibly send me a transcript of your speech:

“Robert P. George Keynote Remarks | 2019 John Paul II New Evangelization Award Dinner”


Tom Edsall

New York Times Columnist

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

From: Robert P. George 
Sent: Wednesday, November 06, 2019 4:47 PM
To: Thomas Byrne Edsall
Subject: RE: Request for speech transcript NYT

Dear Mr. Edsall:

Here is a link to my remarks, which were posted at the Catholic law professors blog “Mirror of Justice”:  https://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2019/10/remarks-at-the-2019-catholic-information-center-annual-dinner.html

I’m taking the liberty of attaching a paper I have some years ago at a conference at the Vatican. It provides background for the after-dinner remarks I made at the event at the Mayflower Hotel.

It has been some years since we’ve been in touch. I hope you are doing well.


Robert George


From: Thomas Byrne Edsall 
Sent: Thursday, November 7, 2019 2:19 PM
To: Robert P. George 
Subject: RE: Request for speech transcript NYT

Dear Professor George

Thanks very much for sending the speech and the earlier Vatican conference paper. Both are very interesting and raise a series of questions. I don’t pose these questions to dispute your statements; instead, I think your views need further explication.

You argue the faithful must have the courage to “boldly bear witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political, and economic power” and that they must have the courage to engage the battle.

First question: Can you be more specific about how to go about engaging the battle? Through some sort of dissent, or confrontation? Is persuasion adequate? How forceful do the faithful need to be? How do you win when you are outnumbered and in the minority?

Second, who are your adversaries? The overwhelming take-over of much of corporate America, including most especially the entertainment media, suggests that there is money to be made by accomodation to and promotion of a libertine culture. Is the free market and capitalism your enemy?

If you want to do battle with paganism, isn’t your primary opponent Donald Trump, who, more than any Democrat, would appear to personify paganism? If that is the case, how do you deal with evangelical protestants and many if their leaders who have abandoned many previously held moral standards for politicians and fallen overwhelmingly in line behind Trump.

Probably the most secular and non-believing constituency is made up of well-educated whites, including many Princeton students. A high percentage, if not a strong majority, support views on sexual behavior that you consider anathema. In terms of actual behavior, however, this group has shown a decline in divorce and out of wedlock childbearing, a goal I think you support, while these dysfunctional behaviors are now growing in the white working class, which is at least nominally more socially conservative. How do you explain this?

I would be grateful for you thoughts,


Tom Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall

New York Times Columnist

Columbia Graduate School of Journalism


Dear Mr. Edsall:

I’m returning from London and Oxford to the U.S. and I’ve taken a few minutes on the flight to reflect on your questions. What I can offer are reflections prompted by them, rather than answers to them. That’s because in most cases I don’t know the answers.

What I’m asking people—my fellow Catholics and others—to do is to think more deeply than ever before about what they believe and why they believe it so that they can go out into the world and give the reasons for their beliefs, especially those beliefs that are unfashionable and even reviled in the most affluent and influential sectors of society.  That’s what I mean by “boldly bearing witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political, and economic power.” I conceive the “battle” as a war of ideas—ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. I believe in the luminosity and power of truth—I completely buy what Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor—but truth does not go out and state itself. If it is to be heard, someone’s got to speak it. And where it is unpopular, where people can suffer adverse personal or professional consequences for speaking it, that takes courage. Some Catholics seem to think they are entitled to stay silent about such truths; they suppose it’s the task of the bishops to speak it to the culture. This reflects the sort of clericalism that the Second Vatican Council tried finally to shake off. It has done a lot of harm to the Christian religion (especially among the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) historically and, as Protestants have long rightly pointed out, is unbiblical. Truth-speaking is every Christian’s job. (I actually think it’s every person’s job.)

How forceful am I asking people to be? Well, I don’t think we need a lot of screaming and shouting and I’m certainly against any form of intimidation or violence. Period. Because I believe in the luminosity and power of truth, I don’t mind people speaking it gently—and I think it should always be spoken lovingly. On my understanding (and the historic Christian understanding—shaped not only by the Bible but profoundly by Aristotelian philosophy mediated especially through the great medieval Christian philosophers and theologians) moral truth is what it is because human nature and the human good are constituted in a particular way. Moral norms are shaped by the requirements of human flourishing (what Greeks like Aristotle had in mind in speaking of eudaimonia). Even those truths that strike people in a given set of cultural circumstances as challenging truths, hard truths, demanding truths—if they be truths at all—are, from the point of view of the tradition(s) of thought from which I speak, grounded in humanistic ideals—the desire for people to flourish. It is important to see that on this account (whether in its Christian or Greek articulations) flourishing is not a matter of doing what one wants, or getting what one desires, or even being whom one chooses to be (in the modern quasi-existentialist or contemporary identitarian senses). There is an objective standard of flourishing (because there is a determinate human nature and, correspondingly, human good). At the same time, within a broad range, individual lives (and communities) reasonably differ because the human good, though determinate is variegated. Most of our choices are among reasonable, morally upright options—and in making them each of us fashions a life, and we human beings taken altogether fashion billions of interestingly different human lives (and we create very different cultures). But some of the choices we face are between what is morally right and what is morally wrong.  I’ll attach a paper of mine from the Cambridge Companion to Philosophy of Law that expands on what I’m saying here.

Of course, there are reasonable people of goodwill who disagree with the Catholic/biblical/natural-law understanding of morality, and they should be engaged in respectful dialogue and civil debate. I’ve written about this and done a great deal of speaking about it (both in formal classroom settings and at public events) with Cornel West. I’m against treating intellectual opponents as enemies. I regard them as partners in the truth-seeking project. One of the questions you asked was “Who are your adversaries?” Well, as I suggested in my CIC remarks, quoting at length Professor Mark Tushnet of Harvard, they are people who, for example, want to treat devout Catholics and Evangelicals, observant Jews, faithful Mormons, Muslims, and other believers in traditional moral norms “the way we treated the defeated Japanese and Germans after World War II.” They are people who join Beto O’Rourke in wanting to selectively yank the tax-exempt status of churches who refuse to conform to secular progressive ideology on questions related to marriage, sexual morality, and the sanctity of human life. They are the woke (of whom President Obama recently and rightly complained) who want to shut down dissenting speech on the campuses of colleges and universities that advertise themselves as non-sectarian and open to the full and free range and exchange of ideas, and turn these institutions into engines of indoctrination that would embarrass even most religiously-affiliated colleges and universities. They are people who want to bully dissenters into silence or acquiescence, and who smear decent, honorable people as the equivalent of racists. They are people who put words like religious liberty and conscience in quotation marks (“religious liberty,” “conscience”) and who would force decent, honorable Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to choose between violating their consciences (no quotation marks) and giving up their businesses or professions. They are people like the mayor of Atlanta who fired Kelvin Cochran and the people at Mozilla who did in Brendan Eich. They are people like those who concussed the liberal international relations scholar Allison Stanger at Middlebury or those who threatened the Bernie Sanders-supporting Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying, eventually driving them out of Evergreen State, because they were not woke enough.

Your question about capitalism is, of course, an old one, but remains a good one. The concern you mention was among the considerations at the heart of Catholicism’s historic wariness about capitalism. And it is famously why Irving Kristol gave capitalism (only) two cheers. This is a question I need to give a good deal more thought to, but I’m inclined to think Kristol got it right. The market is a good thing, but it is not good-in-itself. It is a means, not an end. It can lift people out of poverty (good!) and it can generate trade in drugs, porn, and even human beings (very bad!). The market itself must be regulated, and moral considerations need to be among those taken into account in deciding what regulations are reasonable and desirable. Here’s how I put it in the attached paper on “Constitutional Structures”:

Surely a conception of the common good that is serious about the principle of subsidiarity will respect private property and take care to maintain a reasonably free system of economic exchange—that is to say, a market economy, though it will not suppose that nothing should be publicly owned (think of public highways, for example, or municipal buildings, parks, prisons, public schools, and the like) or that the market may not legitimately be regulated to protect public health, safety, and morals (to again use the classic common law formulation of the purposes of law and government), prevent exploitation and abuse, monopolization and the restraint of trade, price gouging, predatory lending, and other unfair practices, and so forth. We should not suppose that socialism and laissez-faire are the only, or only principled, options.

You asked about Donald Trump and paganism. I’ve never bought the argument that many Evangelicals and conservative Catholics make for supporting Trump. I understand it, I think. And I don’t think that people who make it are idiots. (A lot of my relatives and friends where I grew up in West Virginia support Trump—and they are decent, intelligent people.) My own judgment, though, is that it’s unsound. The essence of the argument is that Trump is King Cyrus: “Yes, he’s a pagan; but God is nevertheless using him to protect us against the hegemonic forces that seek our destruction.” Trump is transactional. That’s it. As far as I can tell, he has no very firm convictions (except perhaps that free trade is bad). Whatever the ultra-embarrassing Paula White (“the President’s pastor”) may say, he’s the same Donald Trump who used to proclaim his allegiance to “New York values” and support dilation and extraction (“partial-birth”) abortion. Was it Palmerston who said, “countries don’t have permanent friends, they only have interests”? Well, President Trump doesn’t have permanent beliefs, he only has interests. And for now it is in his interest to fulfill many of his promises to social conservatives (no public funding of abortion or abortion advocacy; conscience protection; judges). But the deal seems to be that social conservatives, in return, go silent on policies (and other things about him) that they in fact don’t (or at least shouldn’t) like. I agree with the Trump supporters that, with the Democrats moving further and further leftward (beyond Obama and way beyond Clinton), the election of a Democratic President and Congress would have catastrophic consequences for religious conservatives and things we deeply believe in. My long-term (or perhaps even medium-term) worry, though, is that the things we believe in will be discredited by the taint of association with the President. Here are a couple of items pertaining to my own attitude towards President Trump:   https://www.newsmax.com/Headline/catholic-leaders-oppose-trump/2016/03/07/id/717955/ and https://www.wthrockmorton.com/2016/06/20/evangelicals-meeting-with-trump-brothers-and-sisters-what-else-do-you-need-to-know/ (please see the quotation of me in the article).

You asked about who I regard as my adversaries and I offered some thoughts about that. It might help to illuminate things if I said who I regard as my allies: certain Evangelical thinkers and leaders, including white Evangelicals like Russell Moore and African-American Evangelicals like Rev. Eugene Rivers; Jewish thinkers and leaders like Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (who spoke at the CIC dinner: https://cicdc.org/video/rabbi-dr-meir-soloveichik-remarks-2019-john-paul-ii-new-evangelization-award-dinner/?fbclid=IwAR2wriam0TUxCbBDLmRh0b628bQa6nHJneoZ1XKKodfU-6As-Ettgn-pfks) and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Mormons like Katrina Lantos Swett and Matthew Holland; Muslims like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Ismail Royer; and fellow Catholics like Mary Ann Glendon and Archbishop Charles Chaput. These are people who share my view that we are in a tragic dilemma politically and the most important thing any of us can do is try to keep our wits about us, and to quote myself (but I think they’d all agree), “bear faithful witness”—which means openly speaking the truth as best we understand it no matter whether the ox being gored is Democratic of Trumpian.

You asked about Belmont and Fishtown. I’m far from entirely sure what to make of it. The only thing I’m confident about is that Murray is right that we need the folks in Fishtown to practice what many preach (but fail to practice) and we need the folks in Belmont to preach what many practice (but fail to preach—and sometimes even preach against). As early as 1965 Moynihan saw that the material consequences of sexual anarchy and the fatherlessness that comes in its train (as family breakdown and the failure of family formation become more common) would bear down hardest on the poorest and therefore most vulnerable sectors of the community. What he didn’t foresee, I think, was that what began in largely minority sectors would be replicated in white rural and working class communities. But it’s scarcely a surprise that it did. Anyway, people in Hollywood and other celebrities can, in a sense, afford to live the lives I read about on the covers of People magazine when I’m in the check-out line at the grocery store. People in Watts—or in West Virginia—can’t.  And yet, as you say, and as Murray, Brad Wilcox, David and Amber Lapp, and other sociologists have shown, the recent trends are for the affluent to lead more conventional lives—with even the divorce rate for them (after rising for many years) now falling. Are these the children of divorce, who want to make sure their children do not go through the same trauma? Are they people who have figured out that divorce, out-of-wedlock child bearing, etc. tend, even among the well-off, to damage people’s financial standing and even lower their standard of living? Is there some other explanation? (Typically in these matters the explanations are “multi-factorial”.) The sociologists will have to figure it out and let us know.

Well, those are my thoughts. As I said, they are necessarily more in the mode of reflections than answers. The older I get, the odder, or at least more complicated, the world seems to get, and the more impervious it seems to become to being figured out—at least by me.

Best wishes,

Robert George

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