Robert George Encourages Americans: Celebrate Fidelity
Princeton professor explains why he and some friends have decided to proclaim June as the month in which Americans collectively recommit themselves to fidelity.
According to Professor Robert P. George, fidelity is the key to addressing the problems that beset contemporary America.
A leading Catholic public intellectual who is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, George has described the Church’s clerical abuse scandal as a “crisis of infidelity” that requires a recommitment of fidelity to Church teaching “about God, about the dignity of the human person, about sex and marriage, [and] about justice.”
Likewise, in the academy and in a variety of forums, he has called for a revitalization of fidelity in politics and other sectors.
Now, following a March 2023 Wall Street Journal poll that marked declining levels of support for organized religion, family formation, community involvement and patriotism, especially among the young, George is working with a group of friends to make the month of June “Fidelity Month.”
During a May interview with the Register, he discussed his hopes for this new campaign and explained why Americans need to recommit to faith, family and country.
You have declared June to be Fidelity Month, and you’re calling for a renewed commitment to fidelity regarding faith and country, family and community. Why does that need to happen now?
I declared June to be Fidelity Month, by the authority vested in me by absolutely no one. But I did feel moved to find an occasion for Americans of all faiths and shades of belief to come together to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to some very basic core values that have always been points of unity and sources of strength in this exceptionally pluralistic society.
Recent polling data put out by The Wall Street Journal showed that there has been a very precipitous drop in Americans’ understanding of the importance of faith, of family, of patriotism. And I cannot help but draw the inference that this drop is both a cause and an effect of our current social ills: crime and delinquency, drugs, alienation, failure of family formation and family disintegration. Loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions. The mental-health crisis among young people cannot be attributed primarily to COVID-19 and the lockdowns because all the data show that this crisis was well underway before COVID-19 was on anybody’s radar.
Did the survey’s findings surprise you, or did they confirm what you have seen in the classroom at Princeton, where you teach?
We’ve had three suicides by students at Princeton in the last 18 months or so. We’re feeling the effects of the mental-health crisis of alienation, despair or meaninglessness as much as anybody else. In increasing numbers, students are also seeking mental-health-care services. I’m glad that students are accessing those services when they need them. But I’m very worried that the need is as great as it is.
Isn’t the source of these problems a religious matter? In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that our highly individualistic culture would be reduced to factionalism If the glue of faith dissolved. Isn’t that happening now, with politics filling the void and leaving us polarized and alone?
Even the most devout atheist would see that there is an important spiritual dimension to this problem. There is a failure to understand that the things that are worthwhile in themselves, like family and friendship, honor and integrity, knowledge and beauty, are to be prioritized above merely instrumental values like wealth or power or status.
That’s a spiritual problem. And if you ask a great Buddhist authority, a great monk, for example, or a devout Buddhist, they’re going to identify the problem in the same way that I as a Christian would do.
You want religious leaders to promote fidelity to family, community and nation within their own faith communities. Yet organized religion, and specifically Catholicism, has lost credibility due to a lack of fidelity. After the McCarrick scandals, you wrote about the crisis of infidelity among priests and called for a recommitment to fidelity. But the same also applies to lay Catholics who are unfaithful to spouses or neglect other responsibilities.
Fidelity Month is for everybody: Protestants and Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians and Latter-day Saints and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus.
But now speaking specifically as a Catholic, it saddens me that, as a result of failures of fidelity in the priesthood, and even among the laity, the Church is off the field of battle when the culture needs her witness the most.
Many people who are not themselves Catholic would grant that the Catholic Church is not playing the leadership role that it could play in the renewal and revitalization of a culture of fidelity.
There’s another problem: Some of us have become so preoccupied with the spectacle of decline playing out in cable-news shows and on social media that we fail to engage with those around us, to take steps in our parish or community that can make a difference. To foster a culture of fidelity, don’t we need to take a hard look at our daily routine?
Fidelity is like charity: It begins at home. It is transmitted through the generations, parent to child, grandparent to grandchild.
It begins around the dinner table when we say our grace, or, for Catholics, when we have family Rosary.
The family is the domestic church. And there’s a beautiful understanding of this in the Jewish tradition: The home even more than the synagogue is the center of religious life. Fidelity to our spouse means we are not only faithful in the sexual sense, but in serving her, putting her first.
Being faithful to your children means being a mom or dad, being present for them. There’s a lot of [parental] infidelity today that takes the form of allowing devices to entertain our children.
I’m not an extremist on this, and I’m certainly not a Luddite, but if we are finding it convenient to allow our children to be entertained by games and devices so that we can be about our own personal satisfactions, then we’re not fulfilling our duties of fidelity to them.
Now let’s talk about fidelity to country and community. It’s in the home that [we come to understand that our] responsibilities are not narrowly familial and that it’s good to reach out to others, to build relationships and bonds of trust.
Where that happens, the family will find itself supported by institutions of civil society. Edmund Burke, the great British statesman and parliamentarian, talked about these institutions of civil society as the “little platoons” that play the primary role in inculcating virtue.
It begins with a family, which is supported by other institutions in the wider community. The family, in turn, supports those institutions as well.
Fidelity Month is all about getting the institutions of religion, of marriage and of family — the little platoons of civil society — in our local communities and our country back into shape.
You’ve chosen the myrtle as the symbol for Fidelity Month. Why?
The myrtle has long been the emblem of fidelity, going back into antiquity.
So if we want to restore a perennial virtue, the virtue of fidelity, let’s use an almost-perennial symbol of that virtue, the myrtle.
Deacon John Barry designed our Fidelity Month logo, with the two myrtle branches and other meaningful symbols.
Given that Fidelity Month will be held in June, a month now widely associated with the secular “Pride Month,” are you concerned that some might frame your campaign in a negative light — as something opposing “Pride Month”? Have you provided a practical framework or general guidelines to help people stay focused on what you’re trying to accomplish?
It’s a free country. People are entitled to their beliefs and to express their beliefs. They can celebrate them by focusing on a day, a week or a month.
But nobody gets a monopoly on a particular day or a particular month. As a Catholic, I think of June as the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I don’t think by designating June as Fidelity Month, I’m interfering with or detracting from or making some statement about the Sacred Heart. Catholics can observe June as the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with their fellow Catholics and Fidelity Month with everybody else.
If someone wants to observe their favorite cause and also observe Fidelity Month, I’m fine with that. The more the merrier.
How do you plan to mark the start of Fidelity Month?
We’re going to launch Fidelity Month with a webinar that we hope will be on June 1. We’re encouraging everybody to use the logo on their social-media accounts, and make flags, if they like. We’re not going to have any intellectual property in our logo. We’re putting it in the public domain, and we hope the grassroots will take advantage of the logo and feature it wherever they can to remind themselves, their families, their neighbors and their friends about the importance of fidelity and bring them into the Fidelity Month movement.
We’re encouraging various institutions to recognize Fidelity Month, perhaps with special lectures or events. A church, synagogue or mosque, a private or religious school could have a special speaker or panel.
We’re not going to try to control this from the top. We’re just encouraging people at the grassroots to take the Fidelity Month ball and run with it.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, describes Christ, the Incarnation, as the “rising star of hope.” But Benedict also writes that each of us can be stars of hope to others by our faithful, loving service. Is this your wish, as well, as you launch Fidelity Month?
My hope is that we will reprioritize our values in this country and in our society.
Some things are good in an instrumental sense: For example, it’s good to have money, but not because money is intrinsically valuable. If you’re like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, you’ve misunderstood the value of money. It’s valuable because of what you can do with it. You can build businesses. You can create jobs. You can make a good income and use that money to support your family, your community and engage in philanthropy.
But you can also do bad things with money. It can be all-consuming and lead you down the wrong path. Power and influence also can be good, but they are not good in themselves. Then there are intrinsically good things like faith, family, friendship, honor, integrity, knowledge and beauty. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten our priorities mixed up. So let’s put the things that really matter above the things that matter, but not all that much.
The Wall Street Journal survey you discussed in this interview noted that money has become more important for Americans, with 43% citing it as “very important,” up from 31% in 1998.
Here’s my hypothesis: People are more concerned about money the more they feel insecure because they are alienated and lonely and cut off from others. Where people are experiencing that insecurity, they’ll look to money as the last line of defense or protection against their lives completely falling apart.
To the extent that we can restore people’s sense of security by rebuilding institutions and relationships so that people will not feel alienated, lonely and vulnerable, you will see belief in the importance of money diminish.
The virtue-education movement in schools typically featured definitions and concrete examples of specific virtues, like humility or perseverance, as students were often confused about what they meant. Some young people may also be confused about the meaning of fidelity, or have few examples in their lives of people modeling this virtue.
We want to hold up models of fidelity during this month: the saints, martyrs and other heroes who have given their lives for the poor and their faith, or who have made sacrifices in order to stick to their principles, or who have served their country, like the men who hit those beaches at Normandy.
People learn more by example than by precepts.
We want to lift up people like Mother Teresa, to show that fidelity is all about serving others and living for others. In a certain sense, it is about vocation.
So this is much, much more than the “Thou shalt nots”: “Don’t cheat on your spouse.” “Don’t cheat on your income taxes; that’s unpatriotic.”
The reason you don’t cheat on your spouse is not because there’s some purely abstract rule against extramarital affairs; it’s because we believe in the goodness of marriage, and we know how infidelity harms flesh-and-blood human beings, the spouses and their children who are so often the secondary victims of marital infidelity. We want to highlight the good things that fidelity serves and supports.
The 2pm ET June 1 webinar is titled, “A Call to Fidelity.” Participants include: Robert George, Lila Rose of Live Action, Ana Samuel of Cana Vox. Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Bill McClay of Hillsdale College, Jacqueline C. Rivers, Ph.D., executive director and senior fellow for social science and policy of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and Yuval Levin, Ph.D., director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.