Heretic in the Temple

| Topics: Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs

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Robby George once worked for George McGovern; now he’s the hero of the intellectual right

By J. I. Merritt ’66

The lecturer in Politics 315 – Constitutional Interpretation, or “Coninterp,” as generations of students have called it – came to class, as usual, wearing a dark three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a tie, and he carried his papers in a black attaché case. Professor Robert P. George invariably dresses as though arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court – out of respect for the subject matter, the students, and the scholars who preceded him, he says. But his self-imposed dress code has another purpose, as well: to encourage civility. In a course that requires students to think through their approach to controversial topics like abortion and affirmative action – for starters – George says he wants “to set an elevated tone, because we are discussing divisive and emotionally engaging issues.”

Coninterp is one of Princeton’s most venerable courses – it’s been taught since the 1890s by a long line of distinguished constitutional scholars, starting with Woodrow Wilson 1879 and followed by W. F. Willoughby, Edward S. Corwin, Alpheus T. Mason, and George’s mentor and immediate predecessor, Walter F. Murphy, all holders of the McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas swears in Robert George as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1993.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas swears in Robert George as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1993.

George, the professorship’s current holder, is something of an anomaly at Princeton: a devout Catholic and social conservative on a faculty generally viewed as liberal. A hero of the intellectual right, George champions traditional values rooted in family and religion as a member of government advisory panels, and in the media. He began one campus program, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, that has brought conservative scholars and officials to campus (and, with them, some protesters), and he has taken administrators to task when he felt their decisions offended religious values. Civil speech and lawyerly clothes are part of his means and his message.

George’s Coninterp is known as one of the toughest courses on campus, but also one of the most satisfying. The quasi-official Student Course Guide rated his lectures 4.9 on a scale of 1 to 5, noting his “distinctive style of teaching – mostly employing the Socratic method.” Once you speak up, the guide warns prospective class members, “George will keep pushing you to defend your points and argue against other students.” In an era of grade inflation, says George, “an A isn’t given that often and requires genuine originality and insight. It takes more than simply doing a good job.”

The course poses fundamental questions about the nature of the Constitution: Is it limited to the document drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, or should it include, at least in spirit, the Declaration of Independence? Who should have the authority to interpret the Constitution, and what are the limitations in interpreting it?

In one lecture last fall, George focused on the principle of legal protection under the law. Enrollment is capped at 100, and nearly all of the students appeared to be present, along with a score of gray-haired auditors in the more remote seats. The week’s reading assignment consisted of primary sources – for example, judicial opinions rendered in seminal cases relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation – and scholarly commentary on equal-protection issues. The students would probe the cases in detail in their seminars later in the week.

George dispensed with introductory remarks and launched immediately into a discussion, conducting the session as a kind of giant precept, as he ranged back and forth in front of the lectern, peppering the audience with questions.

“Today’s topic is the Equal Protection Clause,” he said. “Where is that clause in our Constitution?”

A student answered, “In the 14th Amendment.”

“Why there? Why not in the Bill of Rights? We don’t get the 14th Amendment until after the Civil War.”

When another student answered, “Because the Founding Fathers for the most part didn’t want equal protection,” George feigned astonishment. “They didn’t want equal protection? Does everybody agree with that? Disagree?” He advanced the notion that most of the framers of the Constitution regarded equality as fundamental – after all, “we fought a revolution on the principle that all men are created equal.” They and others in succeeding generations, he suggested, believed that the equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence was strongly implicit in the Bill of Rights. “There’s a long and controversial history to the idea of the Declaration of Independence as a kind of preamble to the preamble of the Constitution, and that the Constitution has to be read in light of the Declaration. What’s to be said pro and con about that?”

For the next hour and 20 minutes, the class explored the meaning and implications of equality as embodied in constitutional law. Discussion lit upon Madison’s Tenth Federalist, the Dred Scott decision, and the views of Jefferson and Lincoln on natural rights, among other matters. Finally, George steered the talk to the 14th Amendment itself and “its three great clauses” about privileges and immunities, due process, and equal protection for all U.S. citizens, concluding with a discussion of the 15th Amendment, which granted the vote to former slaves.

Many students are aware of George’s role as Princeton’s leading conservative intellectual, but that doesn’t shape class discussion. In both Coninterp and Civil Liberties, another course he teaches regularly, he challenges the assumptions and logic of liberal and conservative students with equal force.

Landon Y. Jones III ’97, a liberal on most issues who took Civil Liberties and is now completing a law degree at the University of Michigan, recalls George’s course as the first time he thought “like a lawyer,” which proved instrumental in his decision to pursue law and a career in public policy. “The rational, logical way he presented an argument challenged my thinking by drawing a distinction between the wisdom of some policy I happened to agree with and its constitutionality, which are not necessarily the same.”

ike many so-called neoconservatives, Robert Peter “Robby” George started out as a Democrat. The grandson of Italian and Syrian immigrants and the eldest of five brothers in a close-knit Catholic family, he grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he attended public and parochial schools. Morgantown had two main industries: coal-mining and the University of West Virginia. Some of young Robby’s friends were the children of professors; more often, their fathers worked in the mines. His own father was in the commercial real-estate business, but his grandfathers were miners. “We saw Democrats as the people who worked in the mines and Republicans as the people who owned the mines,” he recalls. “Both sides of the family were New Deal Democrats who viewed Roosevelt as a savior.” His maternal grandfather was a “great union man” who, during the 1932 presidential campaign, lost his job for refusing to put a Hoover poster in his window, George remembers.

As a high school senior in 1972, George headed the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference and worked in the presidential campaign of George McGovern. His political conversion began the following year, when he went off to Swarthmore College, one of the nation’s most liberal campuses, and “encountered Marxist professors who viciously attacked the free-market system and praised the most extreme forms of socialism.” George recalls that he began “to sense on the left a hostility to America itself and a tendency to view the United States as the bad guy in international politics.” He also fell under the sway of James Kurth, a young political-science professor and former atheist who had converted to evangelical Christianity. Kurth, who remains a close friend, “was reacting to what would later be called political correctness. He urged us to question the campus orthodoxy and the herd mentality of faculty and students.”

George always had held conservative views on issues “pertaining to the sanctity of human life and marriage and sexual morality,” he recalls. But over the years, his liberal views on issues such as the role of government in economics and social welfare grew more conservative as well. At Swarthmore he majored in the humanities, with a focus on religion and philosophy, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, in 1977. His next stop was Harvard, where he earned a law degree and a master’s degree in theological studies. He married in 1982 and today has an ecumenical family: His teenage son and daughter are, like George, Catholic, and his wife, Cindy, is Jewish.

George initially wanted to be a lawyer who did some teaching on the side, but by graduate school those priorities had switched, and he moved on to Oxford for a doctorate in the philosophy of law. He arrived at Princeton in 1985 and immediately started precepting in Constitutional Interpretation under Walter Murphy. In 1995, upon Murphy’s retirement, he took over the course.

George, holder of the McCormick chair since 1999, is the only one of the six McCormick professors to hold a law degree. (Wilson attended law school at the University of Virginia but withdrew after a year; he briefly practiced law without a degree.) Today, George’s law degree and other framed diplomas hang in his Corwin Hall office, along with a certificate of membership in the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court; two documents – one from each President Bush – naming George to government panels; and a framed copy of the Ten Commandments.

Among scholars George probably is best known for his efforts to infuse legal theory with a moral philosophy based on natural law, a school of thought holding that basic moral principles are inherent in human consciousness and discernible through a God-given ability to reason. As a legal concept, natural law usually is associated with conservatives; liberals pilloried Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings for his advocacy of natural law as a guide to adjudicating cases. But George points out that some conservatives, notably Robert H. Bork, view it as a philosophical relic inapplicable to contemporary issues.

“There’s been a long debate about the role of natural law and natural rights in interpreting the Constitution,” he says. As did his predecessor Edwin Corwin, George believes that the framers of the Constitution took natural law and its corollary, natural rights, as givens, and that these concepts are essential to understanding their intentions. “Natural law goes way back, into classical thought. Plato and Aristotle wrote about it, and Sophocles’ Antigone is a reflection on the conflict between a citizen’s obligations under natural law and the commands of the sovereign,” George explains. He adds that natural law was central to the ideas of thinkers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Writings by George and his mentor John Finnis, a legal philosopher now at the University of Notre Dame who supervised George’s dissertation in the philosophy of law at Oxford, have helped insert natural law into many of today’s most contentious debates about abortion, stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage.

Stacked on the floor in front of George’s desk are copies of his most recent book, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (2001), a conservative critique, broadly speaking, of what its author calls “secularist orthodoxy” and an exploration of the “proper relationship of moral judgment to law and public policy.” In it, George argues that secularism, which he dates to the 18th century and Scottish philosopher David Hume’s assertion that human nature is fundamentally just a bundle of desires begging to be gratified, implicitly denies our free will to choose between right and wrong.

By George’s reckoning, secularism and the moral relativism that stems from it are rooted in sand. In contrast, natural law is grounded in a bedrock set of inherently knowable truths representing, in the words of Madison, “the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God.” George notes that natural law is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian tradition and says that its “principal institutional exponent” today is the Catholic Church. His positions square with Church teachings as represented by Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals on faith, reason, and the sanctity of human life. In George’s view (and the Pope’s), faith isn’t at odds with reason, but depends on it to expose truths about the inherent dignity of individuals and their fundamental right to be treated justly and equally under the law.

Because a right to life is fundamental, George believes that both legally sanctioned abortion and euthanasia are morally wrong, as they end lives prematurely. He believes that human life begins with conception because embryos “are whole, living members of the human species who – unless prevented from doing so – are actively developing themselves to the next more mature stage along the continuum of development of a single, unitary human organism.” The same principles apply whether conception occurs inside or outside the womb. It is also wrong, therefore, to kill discarded embryos produced in fertility clinics in order to “harvest” their stem cells for research, he says.

His views often reflect mainstream conservatism, but not always. George, in line with John Paul II, differs from most conservatives and believes that the state should not execute a person, even for murder, when incarceration could prevent repetition of the crime. Still, George insists that the purpose of incarceration is fundamentally retributive. “We deprive those convicted of felonies of their freedom because justice demands it,” he says. “A morally serious society holds people responsible for their criminal acts.” He uses natural law to champion traditional notions of marriage and sex: “Good” sex is genital sex between spouses, while “bad” (i.e., immoral) sex is defined as sex between unmarried partners, masturbation, or sex between spouses other than the genital-to-genital variety. He writes in The Clash of Orthodoxies, “The plain fact is that the genitals of men and women are reproductive organs all of the time – even during periods of sterility . . . Insofar as the point or object of sexual intercourse is marital union, the partners achieve the desired unity (i.e., become ‘two-in-one-flesh’) precisely insofar as they mate . . . or, if you will, perform the type of act – the only type of act – upon which the gift of a child may supervene.” For the sake of setting a moral standard, George would leave state laws prohibiting adultery, fornication, and sodomy on the books, even while acknowledging the difficulty and wisdom of enforcing them.

Not surprisingly, George’s public positions reflect his personal views. As a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, George voted with the majority in a July 2002 report that called for a four-year moratorium on cloning for purposes of reproduction and biomedical research, laying out his reasons in a personal statement (available at “I agreed to the idea of a moratorium to further debate the issue,” he says. “I myself believe, at least for now, that we should permanently ban all cloning.” The first President Bush had appointed him to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, where George initiated a report on religion and public life focusing on religious expression in public schools. While he is opposed to officially sponsored prayer in public schools, he says, schools should not bar religious organizations from using their facilities when they are available for political groups and student clubs. “I agree with President Clinton that our schools should not be religion-free zones,” he says.

At Princeton, George is adored by conservative students, who credit him with widening the diversity of public discourse on campus. Three years ago, he initiated the James Madison Program, which is supported financially by Steve Forbes ’70 and by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, both known for underwriting conservative causes. This fall, the program is hosting a program on pluralism and faith in politics. While George says the program does not have a conservative agenda, and notes that liberal scholars such as James E. Fleming *88, of Fordham University, and George’s friend and Princeton colleague Stanley N. Katz have participated in its events, many speakers are widely known for their traditional views, including Robert Bork; Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute; Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the first Bush administration and wife of the vice president; and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard.

Many Catholic students hold George in especially high regard. Anti-Catholicism, George writes in The Clash of Orthodoxies, “remains a fact of American life – especially among American elites.” In May, when Catholic students protested an art exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson School that they perceived as demeaning to their faith, Princeton’s most visible Catholic professor rallied to their support, suggesting to a writer for the National Review that Princeton considered it acceptable to offend Catholics, and would never target other faiths or lifestyles in a similar way.

“I think it’s great what he does,” says Dylan Hogarty ’06, coeditor of the right-leaning opinion journal The Princeton Spectator. George, he adds, “is viewed very favorably by many members of the student body, particularly by conservatives but also by moderates and liberals.”

Although George thinks students are no more conservative now than they were when he arrived at Princeton, left-leaning professor Stanley Katz has a different take: “In the last election something like 54 percent of students supported Gore, but 20 years ago it would have been 80 percent.”

George’s widening influence on the campus and in academia generally, as well as in the halls of power, makes some of his liberal colleagues uneasy. “Robby increasingly tends to exacerbate rather than transcend the culture wars,” asserts Jeffrey L. Stout *76, professor of religion. The Clash of Orthodoxies, he adds, “reinforces the notion that the country is basically divided between the good, religious, moral conservatives and the bad, secularist, amoral liberals.” Stout points out that while campus conservatives may regard themselves as an oppressed minority, George holds one of the university’s most prestigious chairs and “exercises as much influence in Washington as any Princeton professor.” George, he says, “is the exact opposite of a victim. He’s part of a ruling elite that has held massive power for more than two decades. How many candidates who declare themselves liberals or nonbelievers can win an election in this country?”

Few, however, take issue with George’s scholarship or teaching. Though Stout disagrees with “many, if not most” of George’s stands on moral and political issues, he considers him an excellent colleague who has informed his department’s discussions of Christian ethics and natural law. George, he adds, “is a world-class debater, and has the strengths and weaknesses of that kind of mind. You can always learn something when he picks apart your arguments, even if you sometimes suspect that he’d bite any bullet to avoid conceding an inch on behalf of his theory.”

Says Katz, who calls himself “a garden-variety liberal” on most social issues: “I have high regard for Robby’s scholarship and his teaching. I think the campus could use more conservative intellectuals, although we don’t need ideologues of any stripe.”

George admits to “a certain frisson one experiences with being a heretic” on a campus that remains predominantly liberal. It’s clear that he enjoys tweaking liberal pieties. Although he’s not a member of the National Rifle Association, for example, an N.R.A. sticker is displayed at eye level on the door to his office. When a liberal colleague placed it there as a joke, he says, he decided to keep it. Realizing that sooner or later someone offended by the sticker probably would tear it off, he wrote to the N.R.A. asking for an extra. Sure enough, one day the original disappeared, and he replaced it with the spare.

However people may react to his positions, George makes no apologies for his beliefs. “The United States isn’t perfect,” he says, “and our history includes sin and shame, especially slavery and segregation. But our founding principles and constitutional ideals are, in my opinion, profoundly good and true.

“I don’t force students to accept those principles, but I do want students to understand them,” George continues. “I see my role as that of a teacher rather than a preacher. At the same time, I believe that if students understand our nation’s principles, they will grasp their wisdom and goodness.”

Jim Merritt ’66, a freelance writer and editor, is a former editor of PAW.

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