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Robert George on US Society: ‘Our Divisions Are Very Deep’
The Princeton professor, a leading voice for civil discourse, discusses the polarized state of America.
By Matthew E. Bunson
Robert George is one of the United States’ leading political philosophers and commentators. He serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and he has also taught at Harvard Law School.
He has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He has also served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as the U.S. member of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology.
George is a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal and the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books).
He talked with Register senior editor Matthew Bunson about the current crisis in civility in America and the challenges facing Catholics who give witness to the faith in public life.
As you are one of the country’s leading political philosophers, how would you analyze the current state of American political life?
The best way to approach such a question is to assess our nation’s fidelity to its constitutional principles and to the basic civilizational values without which a constitution of liberty cannot be sustained. Judged by that standard, the state of our political life is very poor.
Our institutions and our leaders rarely do more than pay lip service to the principles of limited government, the separation of powers, federalism, respect for the autonomy and integrity of civil society and the rule of law. As a result, the very idea of republican government — that is to say, government not only of the people (which all government is) and for the people (which all good government is, even the rule of a benevolent monarch), but by the people — has been gravely undermined.
We are to a very large extent ruled by an elite who have by various mechanisms established a form of secularist ideology — secular progressivism — as the state religion. Using — in truth, abusing — the judicial system, this elite has deprived the people of the United States of their rightful constitutional authority to, for example, protect human life in all stages and conditions and to embody in their laws the concept of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. Moreover, it has illegitimately enhanced the power of government, especially the central government, at the expense of the just authority of the family and other institutions of civil society.
You have spoken and written on the importance of civility in public and political discourse. What has caused the current crisis in civility? Are there historical parallels?
Even when political struggles are about means rather than ends, things can get pretty rough and tumble in a democratic polity. But the dangers of partisanship, mutual distrust and contempt and polarization are even graver when political struggles are about ends, and not merely about the best means to agreed-upon goals. And we live at a time of deep division about ends — about good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice. That’s why people rightly, alas, speak of a “culture war.”
Our divisions are very deep. They represent a conflict of worldviews — of, in a sense, “religions,” though the culturally dominant religion of our time is, as I’ve noted, a secularist faith. It is the religion (or pseudo-religion) that has given us abortion and assisted suicide, the divorce culture, the normalizing of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing, gender ideology (including “transgenderism”) and same-sex “marriage.”
Moreover, in recent times, the victories of secular progressivism have been attained largely by demonizing opponents — Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and other defenders of traditional norms of morality — as “bigots” and “haters.”
Since the majority of people in elite sectors of the news and entertainment media themselves embrace secular progressive ideology, it was comparatively easy for secular progressives to stigmatize and marginalize anyone or any organization that refused to get on board with, for example, their effort to redefine marriage. They were able to bully a great many people into submission or, at least, acquiescence.
By vilifying their opponents, sending a message that no one who supports the idea of marriage as a conjugal union can be a reasonable person of goodwill, they sent a clear signal — a threat, really — to anyone who might even consider standing up to them. It was a strategy of intimidation — and it worked. And when strategies work, be they in politics, business, sports, or anywhere else, they are quickly copied. And that is what is happening now.
And it is not just the secular progressives. Other people — aware that they can use social media to go around the journalistic, entertainment and educational establishments and directly to the public — are deploying the demonization strategy against their opponents — including secular progressives. The so-called “alt-right” is one example.
President Trump himself has been effective on occasion in deploying it via Twitter and at rallies. Secular progressives are learning the hard way that their adversaries can play their game of vilifying and bullying opponents. Just deserts? I’ve heard some conservatives say so. But it is terrible for the country.
You asked about historical precedents. Well, something very much like the polarization and nastiness we are witnessing today famously characterized the struggles between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It reached a boiling point in the presidential election of 1800 between Vice President Thomas Jefferson and President John Adams, placing the very survival of the young nation in jeopardy. When Jefferson won, some Americans wondered whether his opponents would accept the result, and there were even rumors that Adams and the Federalists would refuse to relinquish power. Fortunately, President Adams, who was a good man, honored the election result, and we avoided a civil war — though only temporarily, as it turned out. And, of course, that takes us to the other major historical precedent, the struggle over slavery and racial injustice that did result in civil war. Here, too, the disputes were not merely about means, but about ends — about fundamental matters of right and wrong. And although the war, after consuming the lives of nearly three-quarters of a million people, ended after four years, the struggle went on for more than a hundred more, and we are still living with its aftershocks today.
What do you see as the solution?
Something that is very hard to achieve — and may be impossible. Despite our profound differences, Americans on both or all sides of the great cultural struggles of our day must recognize their opponents (or most, or at least many, of their opponents) as reasonable people of goodwill who, doing their best, have arrived at different conclusions about fundamental moral questions — including basic questions of justice and human rights. If that is to happen, political and intellectual leaders, as well as people in the media, are going to have to model treating their adversaries with respect — and not demonizing them.
My dear friend Cornel West and I have tried to do that in our courses together at Princeton and in our public appearances around the country. The trouble, as I said earlier, is that demonization works. And people know it works. It has paid huge dividends for the same-sex “marriage” movement and some other secular progressive causes. That makes it hard to resist, especially for people who deeply care, as we all should deeply care, about matters of justice and human rights.
Advocates of same-sex “marriage” believe that redefining marriage is a moral imperative, a human-rights issue. I think they are profoundly mistaken about that, but I don’t doubt their sincerity. And I understand their desire to achieve what they regard as a requirement of basic justice by any means necessary — including by demonizing people who disagree with them by labeling them as “bigots” and “haters.” But they need to be aware that once that strategy is seen to work, people with very different ideas will adopt it and justify their using it on the grounds that secular progressives themselves set the terms of the contest as no holds barred.
The biblical warning from Hosea — that “he who sows the wind, will reap the whirlwind” — is apt here. And secular progressives have sown the wind.
Of course, the demonization strategy was scarcely an invention of the same-sex “marriage” movement or the progressives. In the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his allies notoriously vilified and defamed those who did not share their views about the extent of communist infiltration of the United States government or the best ways of fighting Soviet and other forms of communist subversion and aggression. But McCarthy’s campaign of intimidation ultimately failed. He was, in comparatively short order, defeated and shamed. His name lives now only in infamy. “McCarthyism” is almost universally treated as a term of opprobrium — even by people who practice it.
What is most needed in American political life at this moment in history?
Courage — the courage to stand up to bullies and refuse to be intimidated.
You did not support the candidacy of Donald Trump for president. What is your assessment of his administration so far?
To say that I did not support the candidacy of Mr. Trump is the understatement of the year. I fiercely opposed it — though I also opposed Mrs. Clinton.
Like it or not, though, Donald Trump was elected president, and our duty as citizens, it seems to me, is to support him when we can and oppose him when we must. My personal policy has been, and will continue to be, to commend President Trump when he does things that are right and criticize him when he does things that are wrong.
I had urged the same stance towards President Obama, whose election and re-election I also fiercely opposed. I commended President Trump for his nomination of Neil Gorsuch, an outstanding jurist and a true constitutionalist, to fill the seat on the Supreme Court that fell vacant with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. I have also commended him for some other judicial and executive branch appointments.
I have criticized as unnecessary his policy on pausing immigration from certain countries, and I have criticized as weak to the point of meaningless his executive order on religious freedom. Indeed, I characterized it as a betrayal of his promise to reverse Obama era anti-religious-liberty policies.
Donald Trump is not, and usually doesn’t pretend to be, a man of strict or high principles. He regards himself as a pragmatist, and I think that’s a fair self-assessment. Of course, he is famously transactional. He puts everything on the table and makes deals.
As a pragmatist, he doesn’t have a governing philosophy — he’s neither a conservative nor a liberal. On one day he’ll give a speech to some evangelical pastors that makes him sound like a religious conservative, but the next day he’ll lavishly praise Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is waging an all-out war on those who stand up for traditional moral values in Canada.
Would you comment on Trump’s speech to the Poles?
It was a good speech, and my fellow critics of the president ought not to hesitate to acknowledge that fact.
People on the left freaked out about the speech, but let’s face it: They freaked out because it was Donald Trump who gave it. Had Bill Clinton given the same speech, they would have praised it as visionary and statesman-like.
One thing you have to say for President Trump is that he has been fortunate in his enemies. Although he gives them plenty to legitimately criticize him about, they always go overboard and thus discredit themselves with the very people who elected Mr. Trump and may well re-elect him.
His critics on the left almost seem to go out of their way to make the president look like a hero — and even a victim — to millions of ordinary people who are tired of what one notably honest liberal writer, Conor Lynch of Salon.com, described as “the smug style in American liberalism.”
Are there any potential parallels at all in his speech between Trump and Ronald Reagan? What does Trump need to accomplish to meet Reagan’s lofty standard for the presidency?
Well, the speech was Reaganesque in some ways. That’s true. And in this respect, it contrasted with Mr. Trump’s decidedly non-Reaganesque inaugural address. But there is a massive difference between Reagan and Trump. Although Reagan could sometimes be brought round to a compromise, he was a man of deep conservative principles. Trump is not. He is non-ideological and transactional.
To become like Reagan, the leopard would have to change his spots. It would require the equivalent of a religious conversion. He would have to embrace conservative principles, come to feel them in his bones, and let them call the tune when it came to governing. I’ll say a Hail Mary.
What advice do you give to Catholics trying to be a public witness in this current political and media environment?
My advice is the advice Pope St. John Paul the Great always gave. It is the advice that inspired me when I heard him say Mass in Boston when I was a law student at Harvard in the ’80s. He got it from his Boss — it’s straight out of the Gospel. Here it is: “Be not afraid.” Really, that’s it.
Have courage. Be bold. Do not let yourself be intimidated. Do not yield to the bullies. Stand up. Speak out. Fear God, not men. Be willing to bear the cost of discipleship. Be prepared to take up your cross and follow Jesus — even to Calvary.
Speak the truth in love, leaving no one in doubt about where you stand. Bear faithful witness. Be gentle as doves, but wise — even cunning — as serpents. Do not compromise your principles — out of fear or even in the hope of advancing worthy goals. Do not fall into the error of believing that a good end justifies a bad means. But do work tirelessly for the best causes — especially life and marriage, but also, and relatedly, to lift up the poor, the downtrodden and the persecuted, both here in the United States and abroad.
Praise God when we seem to be making progress; trust him when we seem not to be. Remember that it is ultimately God’s job, not ours, to bring the victories. They will come on his timetable and on his terms.
Our job is to be faithful — to stand up, speak out, and bear witness. And by the way, no Christian is exempt from that duty. So no excuses.
Who do you consider to be a particularly good witness for Catholics today?
Mary Ann Glendon.
Is there an American saint or candidate for canonization you especially admire?
My favorite American saint is St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
Do you have a favorite saint?
Given that we may be entering another Diocletian age, I find myself increasingly drawn to St. Lucy.
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