THE CLASH OF ORTHODOXIES: LAW, RELIGION, AND MORALITY IN CRISIS by Robert P. George ISI Books, 2001 387 pages, $24.95
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The campus revolutionaries of the 1960s and '70s are ensconced by now in influential governmental and academic jobs. They've also all but taken over the media and, for a decade, have been trying to tell Americans what they may and may not say when exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech. Among intellectuals, a new “orthodoxy” has largely supplanted a centuries-old tradition of Western civilization. Meanwhile America, once the beacon of democratic freedom, has become a major exporter of the culture of death.
Although it is not easy to argue with a culture so deeply entrenched, yet one in which so much has gone wrong (where to begin?), Robert P. George, a legal philosopher and professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, is up to the job. The “clash” of worldviews in the title is often depicted as a struggle between “reasonable” public policy and “unreasoning” private religion. George respectfully and vigorously disagrees. “I want to show that Christians and other believers are right to defend their positions on key moral issues as rationally superior to the alternatives proposed by secular liberals,” he writes. “My criticism of secular liberal views is not that they are contrary to faith; it is that they fail the test of reason.”
Prof. George demonstrates that many current views are based on bad philosophy. The mind-body dichotomy in Descartes paved the way for the notion that there can be human “non-persons” (fetuses, the terminally ill) with no right to continue living. Hume's assumption that reason is merely “the slave of the passions,” an instrument for fulfilling desires, redefines human nature. Man, instead of being a “rational animal,” becomes a beast that can rationalize same-sex marriage, embryo experiments and, it seems, just about anything.
George calmly demolishes modern liberal myths. “Even the apparently private acts of private parties can and do have public consequences,” he writes. “What is true of public health and safety is equally true of public morals. … The central harm of pornography is moral harm … [analogous to] the harmful impact of carcinogenic pollutants on the physical health of people subjected to them.”
George's criticism is both colorful and constructive. He eloquently defends the traditional concept of natural law. God's reasons for commanding or forbidding certain actions can be grasped by human reason; to “legislate morality” is not to impose religious belief, but to acknowledge the eminently reasonable practical wisdom of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In a chapter titled “Natural Law and Civil Rights,” George traces this concept through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King (who quoted Sts. Augustine and Aquinas in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).
I have heard Professor George lecture twice on subjects treated in this volume: the legitimacy of a government that allows the killing of pre-born infants and the dignity of the human embryo. George is an excellent speaker, one who clarifies the twists and turns of the secular dogmas he critiques. In print, however, particularly when summarizing and contrasting two positions, he occasionally constructs labyrinthine sentences that are difficult to negotiate. Reading his essays requires extra effort, but they are well worth it.
On Jan. 16, 2002, George was named a member of the new “President's Council on Bioethics.” That appointment, like this anthology of essays, is a sign of hope for those who cherish traditional values: A brilliant scholar and courageous spokesman for their worldview is working to restore a “healthy moral ecology” to our nation.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.