Dark Ages Now: Robert George’s Plan for America

Kathleen Reeves

George argues that his view of "moral order" doesn't have to be connected to “divine revelation or biblical Scripture”—but can simply be defended as the most reasonable order.

A story by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times Magazine profiles Robert P. George, the purported “intellectual architect” of the rise of conservative Catholic bishops in American politics. George is the chairman of the National Organization for Marriage and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton—a man admired by conservative legal scholars and political henchmen alike. Like other members of the religious right, George focuses on “culture war” issues like abortion and gay rights, while ignoring poverty, war, and health care (in other words, the issues involving people’s lives). What’s interesting about George is his way of accounting for this inconsistency—he embraces it, while other Christian conservatives shy away from the issue. George claims that the Gospel is clear on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, but inconclusive on the liberal stuff:

To be sure, he said, he had no objection 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.

Perhaps because George has a PhD, he thinks he can pull this off. Embryo- and sex-related issues are “moral social” issues, but poverty and health care are somehow neither moral nor social. He himself acknowledges the weakness of his argument when he allows that Catholic leaders may talk about poverty, but without talking about how we should alleviate it. Apparently, feeding and clothing the poor (with George’s tax dollars) is too rash—but talking in church about feeding and clothing the poor with hypothetical food and clothes is fine.

But George, perhaps playing to his audience (godless liberal academics), takes his argument “outside” religion altogether. Get ready for this: it’s wild.

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It is the liberals, [George] argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberationism.” Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason.

George argues that the moral order advocated by conservatives need not be connected to “divine revelation or biblical Scripture”—that it can be defended, quite simply, as the most reasonable order.

George makes some dubious distinctions between Aristotelians (he is one), who believe in “an objective moral order,” and followers of Hume, or, in his view, modern liberals, who believe in determinism rather than free choice. George ignores the fact that Hume himself reconciled free will with determinism, and, more relevantly for the non-philosophically-inclined, George’s picture of liberals is a caricature. Liberals don’t think that we’re all slaves to our emotions, that we’re dumb animals shaped entirely by our circumstances. Liberals, like conservatives, believe in character and morals. That’s why we’re willing to let the government take from our earnings each month! That’s why we help our neighbors shovel their driveways! Liberals are humans, too.

Liberals don’t doubt that there is an objective moral order—we’re just skeptical of humans’ ability to perceive it. Hence: Inquisition, witch trials, slavery, genocide—or, as Kirkpatrick writes, “what secular pessimists call history.”

But George insists that reason is absolute, and all humans possess it—in other words, we may do wrong (by being gay or using a condom), but we know it’s wrong. And it’s wrong not because the Bible says so, but because contraception and homosexuality are unreasonable for society.

And why is gay sex or contraception or masturbation unreasonable for humanity? Towards the end of the article, Kirkpatrick plunges (bravely) into the dirty details of George’s position on sex. Marriage is a mind-body union, George claims, so marriage requires sex, and sex belongs only in marriage. And only procreative sex belongs in marriage, because the mind-body union is fully realized in reproduction.

What about heterosexual couples who can’t reproduce? George’s answer to this is very poor and requires a sports analogy:

Marriage is designed in part for procreation in the way a baseball team is designed for winning games, he says, but “people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field.”

In that case, can’t gay couples also be teammates? They can’t reproduce, but they sure can try! (Hat-tip to Sean Penn’s line in Milk.) But seriously, if an infertile couple continues to have good Catholic married intercourse, knowing they’re infertile, then George’s argument falls apart.

But it’s an argument he’ll keep tweaking while the world explodes around him. As George told students in a seminar at the Princeton Theological Seminary last fall,

“Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom? Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite…Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.”

The good news is that other Catholics beg to differ. A law and theology scholar at Notre Dame calls George’s camp “Rambo Catholics” and “ecclesiastical bullies,” and another (who opposes abortion and gay marriage) thinks it’s bogus to claim that Obama is “morally inferior.” And George’s rise now, after 20 years “out of the public view,” is perhaps a sign of the growing influence of the Christian left. Progressive Christians have proven that the Church is not a doomed relic of the dark ages, but people like George will do their best to preserve that relic—or, more accurately, shape it in the image of their own bizarre prejudices.

So, George will keep writing theological (or “reason-based,” if that will get him farther) denunciations of anal and oral sex (since during and only during vaginal intercourse, two bodies “are biologically united”) and books like Embryo, the story of a frozen embryo rescued during Hurricane Katrina (which makes God knows what point).

George’s biology is a little wacky, but his morals are downright chilling. And I would like him to look me in the eye and tell me that Christ died for morals like his.

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