Dark Ages Now: Robert George’s Plan for America


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.

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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  • jgbeam

    “And I would like him to look me in the eye and tell me that Christ died for morals like his.”

    If you were ever so fortunate to meet Robert George he would say just that. Look up the Manhattan Doctrine.

    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • steveloveswomen

    This article is the intellectual equivalent of “Peter Singer is a big, stupid meanie who wants to kill all children and make apes our leaders!”

    Since it isn’t worth refuting every shallow claim here, let’s just look at one. Most people would agree that the Anglican “Communion” is more “progressive” than the Catholic Church. Which one is thriving more and sees greater unity today? A faith that defines itself as primarily “progressive” is no faith at all, but rather just a religious-sounding endorsement of the zeitgeist. Remember how “progressive” fascism was?

    What a pile of nonsense. Seriously, if you can’t handle intellectual argumentation on George’s level, maybe you should just stick with whatever it is you can handle.

  • mhcnyc

    Your article is right on target. The Manhattan Declaration is an embarrassment to real Christians everywhere and has been denounced by many churches. Unfortunately, the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist people have managed to get the spot light much to the detriment of the Christian religion. Thanks to this group, people are leaving churches and younger people are simply making fun of Christianity. These people have no interest in the message of Christ or God, just in being able to manipulate the Bible (all they really worship) into a weapon to condemn and control others. It’s not new. The RC church has used the same system for thousands of years.

    The good news is, real Christian are now speaking up and denouncing the use of our religion for the personal gain of a few crazies like Robert George who now gets his 15 minutes of fame on the backs of others. I encourage those who really care about the church and Christianity to speak out against this corruption of the faith and let people know that Christianity won’t be taken over by radical fundamentalists as has happened recently in Islam. America will not stand for a Taliban running the lives of people. We’ve seen what this does in other countries and it’s time we put a stop to it here before we end up like Iran or Afghanistan.

  • john-culhane

    Your post is very helpful. I just posted on George’s article, too, and expect to follow up with a second post later today or tomorrow. You and your readers might be interested. Here is the link: http://wordinedgewise.org/?p=636

  • princess-rot

    Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason.

    Translation: “We talk out of our collective assholes about things we don’t understand.”

  • ahunt

    A faith that defines itself as primarily "progressive" is no faith at
    all, but rather just a religious-sounding endorsement of the zeitgeist.

     

    Not following. Can you elaborate?

  • prochoiceferret

    Most people would agree that the Anglican "Communion" is more "progressive" than the Catholic Church. Which one is thriving more and sees greater unity today?

    The Anglican Communion is doing perfectly well. A few conservative-leaning churches are breaking off, but we’re not talking about a major crisis in the faith, like, say, a long-running sexual abuse scandal.

    A faith that defines itself as primarily "progressive" is no faith at all, but rather just a religious-sounding endorsement of the zeitgeist. Remember how "progressive" fascism was?

    No, I don’t, actually. And I would say that a faith that doesn’t have a strong progressive element is no faith at all, but rather just a religious-sounding endorsement of outdated and harmful social conventions. Why is your formulation any better than mine?

  • crowepps

    Most people would agree that the Anglican "Communion" is more "progressive" than the Catholic Church. Which one is thriving more and sees greater unity today?

    Hmm – I would guess the Anglican, where the members of the congregation are actually involved enough to care about the decisions of the church heirarchy.  The Catholic Church, on the other hand, even in countries with almost exclusively Catholic populations, is seen as irrelevant to civil government, laws are passed in the teeth of its strong objections (gay marriage Mexico City – abortion Italy – civil divorce Spain) and its heirarchy as entirely out of touch with the laity and increasing as grossly corrupt.

  • crowepps

    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.

    Well, we have partial agreement, because I don’t have any objection to the bishops making utter nuisances of themselves railing about gays or abortion as long as they don’t advocate specific remedies. The problem with George’s argument is that it seems convoluted to allow them to advocate specific remedies where the Gospels don’t comment at all and yet disallow them when it comes to poverty which the Gospels clearly deplore. Of course, George isn’t gay, and won’t ever need an abortion, so on those issues they won’t affect him, but alleviating poverty might actually cause him some personal inconvenience.

     

    A philosophy which shifts all the burdens to other people while exempting oneself on the basis that doing so embodies ‘public reason’ has been around as long as humans have existed, but it requires narrowing the definition of the ‘public’ who are capable of doing the reasoning as ‘people just like me’.

  • ahunt

    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.”

     

     

    Not following…why doesn’t this same reasoning apply to the issues surrounding contraception, gay marriage and abortion?
    I’m so confused!

  • ahunt

    Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason.

    Doesn’t this conviction assume that gay people, contracepting couples and women who seek abortions are all members of the “sectarian” public?

  • crowepps

    Aside from his baseless assertion that his is the ‘high ground’ it also assumes that anyone who isn’t a conservative isn’t qualified as a member of the public or capable of reason which would exclude most of the population from the discussion.  Of course, I’m sure he would defend the idea that the ‘elite’ (as he defines it) should be making policy for everyone else, since that’s also ‘traditional’, although I’m a little dismayed that he doesn’t recognize that his own personal pressure group is also a ‘sect’.

  • crowepps

    Because he agrees with them on those issues.

  • colleen

    A faith that defines itself as primarily "progressive" is no faith at
    all, but rather just a religious-sounding endorsement of the zeitgeist.

     

    Yes, clearly, the only  ‘faith’ worth having is conservative,  patriarchial, undemocratic and authoritarian.

     

     

    Remember how "progressive" fascism was?

     

     

    One of the problems with religious right males is that they’re raised with such a sense of entitlement and utterly unjustified superiority that they can say something this breathtakingly stupid and believe they have made a thoughtful point.

     

     

     

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • ahunt

    John…much of what you reference is beyond my education…but I’ve always understood emotion as the antenna of reason. Thanks for the thoughful analysis.

  • princess-rot

     

    Doesn’t this conviction assume that gay people, contracepting couples and women who seek abortions are all members of the "sectarian" public?
    Submitted by ahunt on December 23, 2009 – 5:02pm.

     

    Ahahaha, no. I gather from the sarcastic tone that you got over such wishful thinking years ago.

     

    You know "sectarian public reason" really means "things wealthy white males want everyone else to do for them". This should have been my last post: "We talk out of our collective assholes about things we don’t need to understand because the consequences of these things largely affect people who aren’t like us."

     

    I beg your pardon, I’m being cynical again and I must go and look at pictures of kittens before I snap and start a blog.

  • paul-bradford

    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.

     

    My retort to George is that I have no objection at all to bishops’ "making utter nuisances of themselves" on the issue of human rights for the very young but I wish that he (and the bishops) would respect the fact that there are legitimate "differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will" on the question of whether criminalization is an appropriate step for us to take. 

     

    At any given time, just a little more than 1% of our population is pregnant.  That means that 99% of us AREN’T pregnant.  The reason I part company with the criminalization crowd is that they attempt to influence (control?) the behavior of the 1% but ask nothing of the 99%.

     

    There is a clear connection between public policy (which is primarily controlled by the 99%) and the abortion rate.  When we make pre-natal care available to all women the rate goes down.  When we make it difficult and expensive for women to access care, the rate goes up.  When we insist on the firm execution of firm laws to mandate paternal support of children the rate goes down, when we’re lax on this issue the rate goes up.  When we promote effective means for birth control (I would, obviously, prefer that we call it ‘conception control’) the rate goes down, when we leave women and their partners to fend for themselves on the issue of family planning the rate goes up.

     

    When we protect women from domestic violence the rate goes down.  When women are subjected to domestic violence the rate goes up.  When we institute adequate services for children of color and for disabled children who need to be placed in loving homes, the rate goes down.  When we abandon these children to racism and ableism the rate goes up.  When we develop progressive policies to accommodate pregnant workers and pregnant students the rate goes down, when we tolerate unjust policies the rate goes up.

     

    I could go on.

     

    My point is that there is a natural affinity between those of us who are concerned about the welfare of the very young and those who want us to make a serious investment of social capital to improve the lives of women.  There is also a natural affinity between those who are unconcerned about the fact that the abortion rate is far too high and those who couldn’t be bothered with the task of assisting women.  It could almost be said that any public policy that’s good for women is good for their children (which is more evidence to my claim that liberal attitudes toward abortion are bad for women).

     

    The injustices that are regularly inflicted upon women are easier to cover up and ignore when abortion is seen to be a "solution" to the very real and pressing problem of unwanted pregnancy.  When protection for the unborn becomes an urgent matter, the need to deal with the needs of women becomes more acute. 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • justhinkin

    Very well said Kathleen! This Robert P. George should be ashamed of himself! I’ve also posted on him, maybe you’d like to read it, here’s a link: http://topenetrateamatteroftaste.blogspot.com/2009/12/and-asshole.html

  • lexcathedra

    Thoughtfully written, thanks!

  • millertime

    Christ did not die for morals. He died for your sins and mine.

  • crowepps

    History News Network – 2/22/10

     

    The Manhattan Declaration and "Traditional" Marriage

     

    By David Lee McMullen

     

    While most Americans have not yet heard of the Manhattan Declaration, it is rapidly gathering support among conservative Christians.  More than 400,000 have signed the declaration since it was introduced in November.  While an initial reading suggests that it is simply a rehashing of familiar issues – abortion rights, gay marriage and religious freedom – there is much more to it, especially when one understands the history.

    On the surface, the declaration draws yet another line in the sand with respect to these highly divisive issues used for political reasons to rally the support of fundamentalists.  They are emotionally charged, and the positions taken are inflexible, guaranteeing that there can be no compromise, only continuous confrontation. 

    However, if the declaration is viewed from its historical context, the real motivations of its sponsors become clear.  The document is part of the ancient struggle to keep women in a subservient position, allowing men to treat women as property rather than human beings of equal standing, able to think and act for themselves.  This misogynistic attitude is common among many fundamentalist groups, not just Christians, and is the foundation for the belief that man – be he father, husband or spiritual leader – is the dominate member of the family, the community and the church.

    Abortion rights are at the center of this struggle, defining who has ownership of a woman’s body.  For example, why have extramarital relations traditionally been more acceptable for the husband than for the wife?  Historically, the explanation has more to do with control, property rights and protecting the bloodline.  Birth control offered women the opportunity to establish their independence, to take control of their bodies.

    As late as the nineteenth century, women in the United States had few legal rights.  Women did not have the right to vote, divorce was rare, children belonged to the father, and a rich widow who remarried surrendered all of her property to her new husband.  Unmarried women, protected by their fathers, could be turned out on the street by the eldest son, who inherited all the property when the father died.

    Woman in the United States have struggled long and hard against such oppression and they have achieved a great deal since the first Women’s Convention of 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York.  Yet even today, women have not reached true equality, as witnessed by the inequity in salaries that still compensate male workers more because “men have families to support.”  Such an approach forces single mothers into marriage or onto the welfare rolls.

    In 1949, in her groundbreaking work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir documented the oppression of women and built the foundation for the modern feminist movement.  She was followed by others, including Betty Friedan, who published her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and cofounded the National Organization of Women, a group that has provided women with a powerful voice for more than forty years.

    Today, women in the industrialized nations are making meaningful strides toward true equality, but globally women continue to suffer enormously from misogynistic attitudes and cultures.  Amnesty International says, “Women and girls suffer disproportionately from violence – both in peace and in war, at the hands of the state, the community and the family.” 

    With respect to same sex marriage, the connection is not immediately clear, not until one looks at the language used in the Manhattan Declaration – “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.”  Fundamentalists see marriage as the basic structure upon which a male-dominated society is built.  Traditional family relationships allow heterosexual men to maintain control of their “property.”  Alternative unions threaten this power.

    Finally, the declaration purports to protect “the rights of conscience and religious liberty.”  On the surface, who can be opposed to religious freedom?  Americans are often reminded that the Puritans came to New England so that they might practice their religion freely.  True, but woe unto the Massachusetts Bay colonists who got out of step with Puritanism.

    Narrow minded views of religious freedom, such as those expressed in the Manhattan Declaration, are simply a continuation of the struggle between those who would grant spiritual freedom to all, regardless of their beliefs, as opposed to those who seek to perpetuate the old Puritan practice of persecuting non-believers, better known as witch hunting.

    Women are not inferior.  They make innumerable contributions to our world.  Their right to equality should be respected by all.

     

    http://www.hnn.us/articles/122968.html

  • dlmcmullen

    Glad you liked my essay.  More of my writing can be found at:

    http://ramblinghistorian.blogspot.com/