A Voice of Reason
Crying Out in the Ivy League

By Deborah Danielski

(Published in Our Sunday Visitor, October, 1999)

As a young "Robby" George shoveled snow from his parish church sidewalks, strummed his guitar and sang for the regular folk Masses, or picked bluegrass banjo at his West Virginia high school, it’s unlikely anyone suspected he would one day be considered one of the foremost Catholic moral theologians in America. That this fearless defender of natural law, Christian morality and the sanctity of life would, at the same time, be named to the most prestigious endowed chair at one of America’s most distinguished secular universities was beyond even his imagination. But that’s exactly what happened when Associate Professor of Politics Robert P. George was named earlier this summer to the Cyrus Hall McCormick Professorship at Princeton University – a chair previously held by only five individuals, beginning with Woodrow Wilson.

Though intelligence, commitment and determination no doubt played major roles in Prof. George’s success, the key may lie in characteristics even less common. He has also been generously endowed with the Christian virtues of humility and courage.

"He’s incredibly brilliant and a profound thinker on the biggest moral questions of our time, yet phenomenally humble and genuinely interested in his students," said Mary Meaney, a former student and Rhodes Scholar now engaged in pro-life work with the Holy See. George was "the only professor" with the moral courage to stand up for his conservative, Catholic, pro-life views -- views Princeton is "not generally friendly toward," she added, referring to her favorite professor and mentor as "Robby."

George’s primary field of academic expertise is natural law theory -- the belief that there is a law above the law of man and that the United States was built upon that higher law. The core of natural law teaching, and the issue closest to Prof. George’s heart is the sanctity of life. "The destruction of more than a million unborn human beings each year in our country alone is a horror so profound that we want to avert our eyes from it," he said. "What my mind tells me is that we can’t. We have to fight against it. We have to struggle to uphold the constitutional precept that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, the first of which is the right to life."

And struggle, he does, profoundly influencing some of the brightest young minds in America today. What George most wants his students to understand is not that abortion and other widely held secular beliefs are wrong for religious reasons, but that they can be proven wrong by rational, intellectual arguments. "No position should be accepted without question," he teaches, "not even religious faith."

"Most students come to Princeton and similar institutions holding rather uncritically the conventional liberal views they pick up from friends, high school teachers, celebrities and the media," George told OSV. "They believe the pro-choice arguments because they think that is what all enlightened people believe. Often my courses are their first encounters with rational arguments against secular liberal moral opinions and in favor of the Judeo-Christian alternative."

George begins his pro-life presentations to students by presenting the scientific evidence that the unborn child is a living organism. "It’s surprising how many students don’t know that," he said. Having established that fact, he proves that the living organism is human, with a human genetic code and secreting human enzymes. Once you’ve established that the embryo is human, you cannot logically defend abortion without taking the position that there are separate classes of humans – those who have rights and those who don’t. Students are appalled with the idea that whites should have rights not given to blacks, or males should have rights not granted to females, but most have never questioned why the unborn should be denied rights granted to all other humans, he said.

Not all of his students are converted of course, but George says his goal is "not to convert people, but to teach them to think critically. Wherever they end up, I want them to adopt a set of views based on a serious engagement with the best arguments pro and con."

Many of the more "conventional" professors at Princeton are amazed and in some cases appalled that George’s courses are among the most heavily subscribed to and the most highly rated by students. "The trouble with Robby George," said a secular colleague, "is that students from good liberal families who hold sound progressive opinions take his courses and he destroys their liberal faith."

To that charge, George cheerfully pleads "guilty."

Students flock to him, said Meaney, not just students who are conservative or Catholic, but students who are seeking the truth. While most professors are interested in political correctness and promoting their own ideologies, Prof. George is genuinely interested in searching for truth, she said. When he came up for tenure in 1993, his classes had already become so popular that students spontaneously came to his support with hundreds of signs, letters and petitions. Last year, when Prof. George was secretly considering leaving Princeton, the student newspaper uncovered the secret and published the story. The next day, his first class was interrupted by 150 students banging their fists on the tables and chanting "don’t leave, don’t leave." That incident "just happened" to make its way into the newspaper as well.

His Princeton students aren’t the only victims of George’s brilliant and deadly intellectual arguments against secular liberalism. In addition to publishing numerous books, articles and scholarly papers, George is a much sought-after lecturer on natural law and morality. He has lectured at universities, institutions and symposiums across America, in Canada, England and in Rome.

Like his Master, George is considered an "outlaw" in the academic world of his day. "Robby’s success," said another of his colleagues, "is like that of a gunslinger. He is intellectually unintimidated and utterly unfraid to defend conservative moral views in the most liberal institutions in the country. When he comes to town – even if the town is Harvard or Stanford – the locals stay behind locked doors and send the sheriff out to deal with him, knowing full well that they will probably have to find a new sheriff once the intellectual gunfight is over."

George attributes his success to the influence of a number of people, beginning with his devoutly Catholic parents. Born in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1955, he is the oldest of five sons of Joseph and Catherine George. His Italian mother is a "cradle" Roman Catholic; his Syrian father was Eastern Orthodox before entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church when George was still a boy.

The family attended Mass every Sunday and as often as possible during the week. Catherine George raised her five sons with a "very keen awareness" of their religious responsibility, George said. They were taught early in life that every member of the community should contribute to its well-being. They put that teaching into practice, not only by serving as altar boys and church musicians, but by mowing the lawn and shoveling snow around the church building. George’s mother was also intensely interested in liturgy and theology, never hesitating to "wrestle with priests" over homilies or liturgical practices that strayed from orthodoxy, he said.

Only since becoming a father himself, has George begun to appreciate how much he was influenced by his father’s quieter, but powerful, personal faith. "He has a striking personal relationship with God," George told OSV. "One I would love to possess myself. He talks and argues with God just as though He were right there in the room with him." Joseph George never doubts the existence of God – or of divine providence – any more than he would doubt the existence of anyone else standing in the same room with him, George said. "It’s a big advantage to children to have a father who models a profound faith in God," he added.

Throughout his college years, George never left his childhood faith, continuing to attend Mass regularly and faithfully. After Vatican II, when so many young Catholics became confused, George attributes his steadfastness in the faith to the influence of his spiritual father -- Pope John Paul II.

George’s parents, neither of whom has a college degree, stressed the value and importance of education. "They encouraged us to strive to achieve the best education possible," he said. Four of the five George boys, including Robert, studied at Oxford. All five have degrees from prestigious universities -- two brothers from Harvard, one from Yale and one from the University of Chicago.

A Phi Beta Kappa member George obtained a bachelor of arts degree from Swarthmore College in 1977, graduating with high honors. While there, he said he was deeply influenced by James Kurth, a teacher and unbeliever who has since become an Evangelical Christian. "He had a marvelous critical attitude toward the secular liberal orthodoxy prevalent in academia that caused me to question it as well," George said. From Kurth, George learned that when you turn critical questions toward secular liberalism itself, you find there are profound problems inherent in it. (See sidebar)

From Swarthmore, George moved on to Harvard, where he earned a Juris Doctorate and a Master’s of Theology. His next stop was Oxford University. At Oxford, he worked on his doctorate in philosophy with a man named John Finnis, who introduced him to the work of Germain Grisez. "[Grisez’] work in moral theology is the most important in centuries," George said. "I was deeply impressed by the way his work overcame difficulties I found in modern Catholic theology and at the same time refuted the writings of secular scholars." Even more importantly, George said, Grisez "set an example of devotion to the Truth above all, even if it means retracting something you’ve said or written before."

Others George credits with "setting an example of how to be a true Catholic scholar in a secular academic world" are Princeton colleague John Di Iulio and Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Geldon.

When he began his study of law at Harvard University, George said he expected to become a lawyer and to enter politics. As he was finishing his studies at Oxford in 1985, however, he began to love the intellectual work and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. At that time, a former teacher informed George of an opening for an instructor of the philosophy of law at Princeton. Though he felt he was too far from completion of his studies to qualify, he applied for the position and "had the good fortune," of getting it. He has been at Princeton ever since, receiving tenure in 1986, promotion to Associate Professor in 1993 and to full professorship in 1999.

Though he retains no plans to personally enter politics as a candidate for elected office, George is a major influence behind the American political scene, serving in an advisory position to many pro-life politicians. He also served six years on the U.S. Commission on Civil rights, where he took the lead in focusing the Commission on "the most badly overlooked civil right" in America today – religious freedom. At his insistence, the council undertook a study on the denial of religious freedom in public schools. A report on the study is expected to be issued to Congress and the President in the next few months.

The early influence of Eastern Orthodoxy, his Jewish wife Cindy, and his work with Evangelical Protestant leaders in promoting the Culture of Life and religious freedom have also given Prof. George a heart for ecumenism. Inspired by the ecumenical efforts of Pope John Paul II, Prison Fellowship Founder Charles Colson, and First Things editor Fr. John Neuhaus, who George refers to as a "wonderful friend and mentor day in and day out," George is an active participant in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative. He also serves on the editorial advisory board for First Things, a magazine published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute, and on the Board of Directors for several organizations including the Institute for American Values and the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights.

And if he didn’t already have enough to do, George said he’s also been picking guitar again regularly since his 13-year-old son, David, began playing. The father and son duo made their debut performance recently at a coffee house near their home, playing folk, jazz and blues. The Georges also have an 11-year-old daughter, Rachel.

Sidebar

Most secular academics in the fields of philosophy, political science and law were taught to believe that the idea of natural law (and the sanctity of life) is of no contemporary significance, says Prof. Robert George. They acknowledge that it’s historically important to the development of the western tradition, but they conclude that "it’s to be studied the way you would study fossils as opposed to living organisms."

When he chose to enter the field of academia, it was that view George set out to challenge. "The first challenge was to get their attention," he said. "My strategy was to gain a hearing for the natural law view by showing that there were major logical and philosophical difficulties in liberal ideology which, when confronted squarely, open people’s minds to the idea of natural law and require it to be treated – not as a relic – but as a credible contender in contemporary debates."

George is notorious for turning the liberal pro-choice movement’s own arguments against them. Though he usually uses a more analytical approach, he occasionally resorts to satire to get his point across. A classic example is the following satirical statement, in which he highlights the logical inconsistency of the liberal view that people can be personally opposed to abortion, but pro-choice.

"I am personally opposed to killing abortionists," George wrote. "However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even nonjudgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity-not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately pro-choice."

When viewed from that perspective, the principles "blithely affirmed" by the "moderately pro-choice" camp are found to be defective, said George. "If your principles are defective, you go looking for other principles. And that’s where natural law teaching gets a hearing."

While many Christian academics have chosen to separate themselves from the liberal establishment, Prof. Robert George has "given us a better answer," said Charles Colson, former Nixon aid, Founder of Prison Fellowship and close friend of George, in his June 15 BreakPoint radio commentary. "He’s standing his ground in a secular institution and demonstrating that Christian teaching is rationally defensible, reasonable, and even intellectually superior to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy."

"The secular bias of most academics is real. But as Professor George shows, Christians can fight and win the culture war by confronting secularism with the very weapons secularists claim to champion: facts and reason."

The War Can Be Won

Most secular academics in the fields of philosophy, political science and law were taught to believe that the idea of natural law (and the sanctity of life) is of no contemporary significance, says Prof. Robert George. They acknowledge that it’s historically important to the development of the western tradition, but they conclude that "it’s to be studied the way you would study fossils as opposed to living organisms."

When he chose to enter the field of academia, it was that view George set out to challenge. "The first challenge was to get their attention," he said. "My strategy was to gain a hearing for the natural law view by showing that there were major logical and philosophical difficulties in liberal ideology which, when confronted squarely, open people’s minds to the idea of natural law and require it to be treated – not as a relic – but as a credible contender in contemporary debates."

George is notorious for turning the liberal pro-choice movement’s own arguments against them. Though he usually uses a more analytical approach, he occasionally resorts to satire to get his point across. A classic example is the following satirical statement, in which he highlights the logical inconsistency of the liberal view that people can be personally opposed to abortion, but pro-choice.

"I am personally opposed to killing abortionists," George wrote. "However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even nonjudgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity-not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately pro-choice."

When viewed from that perspective, the principles "blithely affirmed" by the "moderately pro-choice" camp are found to be defective, said George. "If your principles are defective, you go looking for other principles. And that’s where natural law teaching gets a hearing."

While many Christian academics have chosen to separate themselves from the liberal establishment, Prof. Robert George has "given us a better answer," said Charles Colson, former Nixon aid, Founder of Prison Fellowship and close friend of George, in his June 15 BreakPoint radio commentary. "He’s standing his ground in a secular institution and demonstrating that Christian teaching is rationally defensible, reasonable, and even intellectually superior to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy."

"The secular bias of most academics is real. But as Professor George shows, Christians can fight and win the culture war by confronting secularism with the very weapons secularists claim to champion: facts and reason."

 

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