Published February 16, 2023
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the conservative coalition has seemed badly frayed and unable to reach a consensus on what it ought to stand for. Fortunately, Robert P. George, the conservative gadfly of Princeton University, who has labored with intellectual pluck and uncancellable fortitude in the conservative movement for almost 40 years, offers a pathway to cement a conservative consensus and recapture institutions now dominated by progressives.
Known primarily as a philosopher, George, who holds the McCormick Professorship in Jurisprudence at Princeton, has stood out as an intellectual star and institution builder. He is not just an academic who has done significant work in natural-law theory, philosophy of law, and bioethics; he’s also the founder and director of the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics, and was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Among the many rewards he has received is the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal. A devout Catholic, George is known for wedding the domains of faith and reason, helping the faithful understand that reason can deepen the truths of revealed theology, and countering the claims of critics who think all faith-based moral claims are purely fideistic.
One of George’s signal contributions is Making Men Moral, his 1993 treatise arguing for a robust conception of public morality, challenging John Rawls’s conception of liberalism but without relying on religion alone to ground moral claims. Instead, George protested against the supposed neutrality of Rawlsian “public reason.” He accused Rawlsianism of smuggling in its own “comprehensive doctrines” that resembled secular assumptions about morality, thereby allowing liberalism to game the system in favor of its own biases. In 2009, a New York Times profile acknowledged (or, shall we say, conceded) that George is the most important living conservative Christian thinker.
In looking at his approach to achieving conservative consensus, it’s helpful to identify the origins of his political philosophy in American letters. First is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which the carnage of war gives way to the better angels of civic love and charity guided by the rule of law. Second is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which uses the Christian natural-law tradition to highlight how the propagation of a racial caste system violated America’s founding principles. George has told me that, in his estimation, these two documents come after the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in capturing the essence of American public philosophy.
For George, American democracy’s charter to protect God-given rights is the raison d’être of American constitutionalism. Rights, for George, are moral norms codified in legal statutes to protect moral goods intrinsic to individuals. Conservatism, then, is not only a procedural negotiation for securing and distributing government’s legitimate power; it is a moral vision built on pre-political truths about the nature of the human person and the propensity of people to organize politically and as families in society. A vision of the just society, beginning with a profound respect for the human person, is what animates George’s conservatism. It’s a deeply political conservatism only because it’s anthropological in its origins.
According to George, humans are not just rational creatures pursuing their self-interest; they are moral creatures endowed with the power of practical reason to help identify noninstrumental moral goods that enable their flourishing. Man is not Homo economicus or reducible to material forces alone. According to the basic-goods thesis of George’s natural-law theory, humans’ well-being and pursuit of beauty, knowledge, recreation, work, friendship, marriage, family, integrity, and religion provide them with intelligible reasons for action. These goods are just that — goods pursued for their own sake. Societies and political communities, in turn, order themselves to allow individuals to experience and participate in the range of goods that fulfill them — what philosophers call the common good. These arrangements require legitimate political authority to oversee their coordination and cooperation.
George’s vision does not require the morality police or throne-and-altar Catholicism for its realization. Government is inherently limited because its legitimacy is tied only to those areas where individuals and private associations require an overarching authority to do what they cannot do for themselves. A regime that seeks to enforce every moral good in exacting detail could damage other goods by breeding an environment of suffocating moralism. Liberty is key in George’s ideal regime since it’s what allows people to find what is good for them. This vision echoes Lincoln’s words: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.” As the concept of subsidiarity has it, government is less suited to ameliorate a problem the further removed it is from the problem.
Averse to the idea that morality is a purely private matter but also uncomfortable with religious establishments, George is unlikely to be claimed by either old-school Republicans who wish social issues would disappear or post-liberals who see liberal democracy as irredeemably compromised. Both a sacrosanct principle of limited government and a substantive moral vision underpin George’s work, and he shows how the two, though in tension, must work together. Social conservatives who want pornography banned, for example, and civil libertarians who do not want government silencing disfavored speech can both find something to like in George’s political philosophy.
The key issue in such a conflict is what goods are being furthered or harmed. As pornography can induce deforming personal and social behavior that damages the goods of human dignity and marriage and family, so can prudential judgments restrict its availability. Differentiating what is prurient from speech that may be unwelcome but necessary is the very essence of what statecraft requires. Speech can retain the presumption of liberty since speech is ordered toward truth-seeking. A society voluntarily exposing itself to opposing viewpoints is necessary to advance knowledge while the possibility of moral reformation keeps comfortable orthodoxies from becoming unquestionable.
Underneath all these questions about the role of government is the issue of its working to protect moral goods and the conditions that make them accessible. As there are objective moral goods that benefit the human person, so there are objective moral harms that degrade him or her. George’s vision for government — what some would call “perfectionist” since it holds that government has a legitimate interest in promoting the right kinds of moral ecologies — holds that government can and should act to promote the moral conditions that cause people to flourish and that it finds its legitimacy in doing so. Hence, George’s project, overall, is to advance a notion of government as an institution that protects the conditions that allow individuals to obtain moral goods necessary to their happiness.
In the context of American political philosophy, George is a Madisonian conservative. He believes in the enduring reality of pre-political duties recognized and protected through the rule of law. In political practice, however, he’s an insurgent social conservative who refuses to abide by the rules set by the woke scolds of cancel culture. He refuses to be canceled. Stifling orthodoxies that forbid all questions are precisely the types of totems George seeks to upset. He refuses to be silent or to allow his speech to be drafted into the service of falsehoods. “Ordinary authoritarians are content to forbid people from speaking truths,” he has said. “Totalitarians insist on forcing people to speak untruths.” We should reject both authoritarianism and totalitarianism and instead embrace a George-style conservatism that’s humane, open, and hopeful.
Modern conservatism must be guided by moral humaneness. It should seek to align the contours of society with the givenness of moral order. Since respect for the human person in all stages of life is at the heart of what George’s conservatism seeks to establish and protect, it is pro-life. It is favorably disposed to the role of religion in fostering civic virtue without going so far as to endorse illiberal forms of “Christian nationalism” or requiring the establishment of a state religion. The family in George’s political philosophy is the wellspring of sound social order, so protecting the primacy of the natural family and rejecting the debasements of the sexual revolution and its permutations (e.g., gender ideology) naturally follow.
A conservatism of the Georgian variety requires a fundamental openness in society’s moral ecology, regulated by the rule of law. Openness is merely the antithesis of the closed society that lets stifling ideologies go unchecked, lawlessness fester, and wokeocracy nest deep within core institutions. At the same time, George is not averse to rebuking his own tribe when it veers toward authoritarianism or deviates from the permanent things. But his commitment to truth-seeking means that, for him, protections afforded to speech and religious liberty are among the most important (with neither absolutized into ridiculous caricature). Efforts undertaken by George to protect academic freedom and to form parallel institutions that champion the Western tradition are counter-assaults to the speech-policing critical theory so standard in today’s academic settings. As George has told me, this part of his career has simply been a matter of using the liberal playbook against liberals, reappropriating the very tools corrupt liberals used to destroy formerly sane institutions. George hopes to lead a long march back through the institutions to recapture them.
The need of the hour in my corner of Protestant Evangelicalism — and I suspect it’s shared in the broader precincts of conservatism — is to hold strong convictions without being cruel or, frankly, just plain crazy. This requires us to be fundamentally hopeful, which George insists is different from being optimistic. Optimism is reducible to optics; what George has in mind is cultivating a disposition of joyful defiance that is as persistent as it is tactical. As citizens, we are free to fight back against liberal encroachment; if we refuse to do anything to neutralize liberal acids, we are left merely griping about the corrosion. Grievance-based politics, expressive individualism’s therapeutic coddling of “identity,” and scolding wokeism should have no part in America’s future because they have no share in truth.
These realities are why I organized and recently published a volume of essays on George’s thought, Social Conservatism for the Common Good. The collection brought together some of today’s leading Protestant intellectuals to explore why George is important not only to Protestants who fear that the culture is slipping away from them but also to conservatives seeking a way forward.
It may seem odd for a Protestant ethicist such as I to find resonance with a deeply Catholic thinker such as George. But books have a way of being gifts from Providence that come along at just the right time. An author or argument that we don’t even know we need can enter our lives in surprising ways. The right books in front of the right readers at the right time can forge personal revolutions. Having grown up as an Evangelical kid armed to the teeth with his inerrant Bible, I know that a hidden secret in Protestantism is that many who can cite an inerrant Bible verse to give a biblical rule on, for example, the evil of abortion are often unprepared to offer a reasoned defense of that biblical truth in the debate that follows.
Coming upon George’s volume The Clash of Orthodoxies, as I did in college, was a Copernican moment for me. There I saw the same moral truths that my Christian faith stood for, but here they were explained in a powerful way without immediate reference to Scripture. It was not that I was embarrassed by what Scripture taught. The opposite was the case. I was so convinced of Scripture’s truthfulness that I was quietly wondering how I might effectively affirm the rational truthfulness of its moral claims to those who didn’t accept biblical inspiration. What I did not know then, when I first cracked open George’s book, was that I was being exposed for the first time to natural-law theory, which I’m now trying to rehabilitate in Protestantism. I was learning how “special revelation” and “general revelation,” as Protestants term them, speak with an integrated and unified voice — that facts revealed from faith can never conflict with truths deduced from reason.
If there are more-attractive paradigms for conservatism’s future, they should present themselves now. Until then, I can think of no better consensus-oriented conservatism than what Robert P. George has been espousing for almost 40 years. He’s a via media between liberal proceduralism, which hesitates to legislate moral concerns, and full-on religious establishment. He shows that Christians do not have to reject America to affirm their faith. They can champion traditional morality, he reassures us, even as nonreligious conservatives reject the stultifying effects of wokeism on the public mind. With grace and tenacity, he models how conservatism can channel the very best of the American tradition.
EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.