Monday, December 21, 2009

NYT: Robert P. George, the Conservative Christian Big-Thinker

David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times has an excellent article about David George, the key intellectual force behind the Manhattan Declaration, a conservative Christian document that conservative Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals have signed on to.

George is a natural law theorist, who argues that things like same-sex marriage and abortion are against the natural law - they are so repugnant that it is self-evident they are wrong. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights invokes natural law in that it asserts no logical basis behind the declarations. However, people should be very cautious when invoking natural law, since it can be a cloak for all sorts of unjustified prejudice. And prejudice against the LGBT community, for example, shouldn't be allowed under natural law - it can be demonstrated that the LGBT community is harmed by legal as well as social prejudice, and it is much harder to demonstrate that heterosexuals are harmed by allowing them to marry. Moderate and progressive Christians must challenge the Manhattan Document.

An excerpt from the article:

On a September afternoon, about 60 prominent Christians assembled in the library of the Metropolitan Club on the east side of Central Park. It was a gathering of unusual diversity and power. Many in attendance were conservative evangelicals like the born-again Watergate felon Chuck Colson, who helped initiate the meeting. Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, was there as well. And so were more than half a dozen of this country’s most influential Roman Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop John Myers of Newark and Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

At the center of the event was Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker. Dressed in his usual uniform of three-piece suit, New College, Oxford cuff links and rimless glasses , George convened the meeting with a note of thanks and a reminder of its purpose. Alarmed at the liberal takeover of Washington and an apparent leadership vacuum among the Christian right, the group had come together to warn the country’s secular powers that the culture wars had not ended. As a starting point, George had drafted a 4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.

Two months later, at a Washington press conference to present the group’s “Manhattan Declaration,” George stepped aside to let Cardinal Rigali sum up just what made the statement, and much of George’s work, distinctive. These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”

Even marriage between a man and a woman, Rigali continued, was grounded not just in religion and tradition but in logic. “The true great goods of marriage — the unitive and the procreative goods — are inextricably bound together such that the complementarity of husband and wife is of the very essence of marital communion,” the cardinal continued, ascending into philosophical abstractions surely lost on most in the room. “Sexual relations outside the marital bond are contrary not only to the will of God but to the good of man. Indeed, they are contrary to the will of God precisely because they are against the good of man.”


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. The National Organization for Marriage, the advocacy group fighting same-sex marriage in Albany and Trenton, Maine and California, has made him its chairman. Before the 2004 election, he helped a coalition of Christian conservative groups write their proposed amendment to the federal Constitution defining marriage as heterosexual. More than any other scholar, George has staked his reputation on the claim that same-sex marriage violates not only tradition but also human reason.

It’s part of a philosophy that has found support among a group of Catholic bishops who have become some of the most persistent critics of President Obama and the Congressional Democrats. George serves as their intellectual point man. In the past few years, many of the evangelical Protestants who once defined the religious right have turned inward after their disappointment with President George W. Bush. In their place, George’s friends among the Catholic bishops have stepped to the fore, hammering Obama for his pro-choice Catholic cabinet nominees, for being invited to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement, for his stem-cell research policies and most recently for his health care proposals.

As Democrats have stepped up their explicitly religious appeals to Catholic voters, these bishops have pushed back against the intrusion on their turf. While Democrats talked of finding common ground on abortion, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the informal leader of this side of the American church, gave a much-publicized speech denouncing Obama as “the most committed abortion rights candidate in history.” Chaput chose to publish his remarks on the Web site of a think tank co-founded by George — the man who had himself argued in an essay disseminated widely last fall through conservative circles, Fox News and Christian radio that Barack Obama was “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek” the presidency.


Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.

A few months later, in a July 17 letter to Congress, the bishops did something close to that in the health care debate. Setting aside decades of calls for universal coverage, the bishops pledged to fight any bill that failed to block the use of federal subsidies for insurance covering abortion. “Stalin famously asked, ‘How many divisions has the pope?’ ” George wrote to me in an e-mail message after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a vote on an amendment that satisfied the bishops’ demands. “I guess Pelosi now knows.”

In the American culture wars, George wants to redraw the lines. It is the liberals, he argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism.” Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason. George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.

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