Princeton’s Robert George Reflects on the State of United States Society

507cf-georgeRobert George, the conservative Catholic Princeton professor of jurisprudence and political philosophy, assesses the state of the country in an interview with Matthew Bunson of National Catholic Register.  He discusses civility, secular progressives, Donald Trump, republicanism, Ronald Reagan, and Catholicism.

Here is a taste:

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.”

Read the entire interview here.

My Latest at Religion News Service: “The Evangelical Courtiers Who Kneel Before the President’s Feet”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C.

President Trump, flanked by evangelical leaders Paula White, right, and Jack Graham, in blue suit, speaks during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

Here is a taste:

(RNS) According to Merriam-Webster, a “court” is “a sovereign’s formal assembly of councilors and officers.” A court is made up of “courtiers,” which the dictionary defines as “one in attendance at a royal court” or “one who practices flattery.”

We can debate whether to call Donald Trump’s circle of advisers a court, but the president of the United States certainly has his fair share of courtiers. Many of them are evangelical Christian leaders. These Court Evangelicals have sacrificed the prophetic voice of their Christian faith for a place of power and influence in the current administration.

The Court Evangelicals were on full display last week in the White House. On the eve of the National Day of Prayer, these Christian leaders dined with Trump and received an insider tour of the second floor of the White House. The Christian Post reported that Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory team, told his congregation the Court Evangelicals were “reduced to being like little children” when Trump took them into the Lincoln bedroom. Evangelicals used to save phrases like that for their encounters with God during worship.

The following day, many of the Court Evangelicals were in attendance as Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty. The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and secure their support.

Trump’s executive order did not end the so-called Johnson Amendment, a clause in the tax code that forbids churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This is because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code. That job belongs to Congress.

Moreover, Trump’s executive order did not secure religious liberty for Christian institutions in jeopardy of losing federal funds for upholding conservative positions on reproductive rights and marriage.

A lot of evangelicals voted for Trump because he said he would deliver on these religious liberty issues. On the day the executive order was released, Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of American evangelicalism, ran an article on its website titled “Trump’s Religious Liberty Order Doesn’t Answer Most Evangelicals’ Prayers.”

Christianity Today was not alone in its critique. A National Review columnist said the executive order was “worse than useless.” One blogger wrote that conservatives were groaning and the ACLU was snickering. A Princeton University professor tweeted: “the executive order is meaningless.”

The Court Evangelicals were not fazed by these criticisms. Like all good courtiers, they remained loyal. They took to Fox News and other conservative news outlets to inform their constituents of all that was accomplished by one stroke of the president’s pen. Their defense of Trump’s executive order was just as strong as their defense of Trump in the wake of the now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape.

Read the rest here.

Trump Throws A Bone to Conservative Evangelicals. Now He Can Move On.

jeffress

Trump and Robert Jeffress in the oval office this week

The evangelical community’s response to Donald Trump’s recent executive order on religious liberty has been largely negative.  As I wrote yesterday: “I don’t think Trump cares about religious liberty.  But he is very good at saying the kinds of things that will keep conservative evangelicals on board the Trump train.”

Let’s review.

First, Trump’s executive order does not repeal the Johnson Amendment. Despite what the POTUS says, the IRS still has the right to remove the tax-exempt status of a church that has a pastor who endorses or opposes a political candidate.

Second, the order does nothing to “exempt some religious organizations” from the Obamacare contraception mandate.

Third, it says nothing about the threats to religious organizations that uphold traditional views on marriage.

As veteran religion reporter Terry Mattingly informs us, the American Civil Liberties Union thought the order was so void of meaning that it felt there was no need to file a lawsuit against it.  Here is a taste of the ACLU press release:

After careful review of the executive order covering the Johnson Amendment signed by President Trump today, the American Civil Liberties Union has determined not to file a lawsuit at this time.

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero issued the following statement:

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.

“President Trump’s prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’

As I have been writing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, there are internal divisions in the Trump White House over religious liberty.  Mike Pence is on the conservative evangelical side.  Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are on the other side. This executive order suggests that the Ivanka/Kushner camp has the upper hand.

Princeton University professor and defender of religious liberty Robert George agrees:

And then there are all of the court evangelicals–the men and women swayed by the power of the presidency.:

Robert Jeffress believes that “religious liberty is now protected, not assaulted.”

And there is more:

Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. told Fox News Radio that the executive order “proves to me President Trump’s a man of his word.”  (Did he read it?).  He also suggests that he can now speak politically on behalf of Liberty University and doesn’t always have to preface his remarks by saying that he is only speaking as an “individual” and not as a representative of the institution he presides over.

There is a very good chance that Trump is duping the likes of Jeffress, White, and Falwell Jr. Trump needed evangelical support to win the election and he will need evangelical support in 2018 and 2020.  This executive order keeps some evangelicals in the fold.

Some might say that the order is symbolic of Trump’s sensitivity to evangelical concerns about religious liberty.  Maybe. But it seems more likely that the order is symbolic of Trump’s political savvy and the willingness of some evangelicals to fall for it as they continue to genuflect on the altar of political power.

Robert George: A Christian Scholar on the Spiritual Disciplines

Confessing History Available for Pre-OrderAs many of you know, I am very interested in the ways that my Christian faith informs what I do as a scholar, historian, and teacher.  Back in 2011 I joined my friends Jay Green and Eric Miller in editing Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. My book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past has a couple of chapters that reflect my interest in the integration of faith and history.

If I get a chance to continue writing about faith and the academic vocation I would like to explore the way that spiritual practices or spiritual “disciplines” might inform the work of Christian scholars. (Perhaps such a study might revive my own inconsistent efforts at engaging in these practices).

So much of the conversation on faith and scholarship, at least in the field of history, revolves around Christian epistemology, philosophy, or theology.  It is driven largely by those Christians who associate with the Reformed Protestant tradition.  In Confessing History we tried to push this conversation away from the epistemological questions long associated with what Douglas Sweeney has called the “Calvin School” of Christian historiography, and into the area of calling/vocation and practice.

It seems like there could be a third way of thinking about connecting faith with history. We know how Christian theology and philosophy inform the presuppositions of believing historians.  We are starting to learn, thanks to the authors in Confessing History, about how believing historians might practice their craft as scholars, teachers, and public scholars.   But we don’t have a lot of work on how things like prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines might influence our work.  (I discussed this a bit in Why Study History?, but a good place to start is A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods).

I was thus very encouraged and inspired today reading Kevin Spinale’s interview with Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals. George talks to Spinale about how the spiritual practices of his Catholic faith informs his work as a scholar, teaching, and public intellectual.

Here is just a small taste:

Prof. George, how do you pray?

GEORGE-WI

Robert George

On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.

I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.

Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?

That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.

It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.

It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.

I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.

In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]

Read the entire interview here, including George’s thoughts on vocation, suffering, spiritual desolation, and Catholic higher education.

Robert George: The Princeton Professor and Intellectual Advising the GOP Presidential Candidates

Melinda Henneberger has written an excellent feature for Bloomberg Politics on Robert George, one of the great Christian and conservative intellectuals in the United States today.  What I especially appreciate about this article is its fairness. 


George has provided advice on moral issues to Ted Cruz (his former student), Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and others.  Unfortunately, apart from abortion and gay marriage, I don’t hear much of George’s nuanced views when I listen to these candidates.  George is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and one of our foremost advocates for the application of natural law to moral and political issues.  He also hangs out with Cornell West, sees no difference between his views and the views of Pope Francis, thinks poverty is one of the most pressing moral issues of our day, and wishes he could go back to voting as a Democrat.

(He also went to Swarthmore with Way of Improvement Leads Home reader and friend Fred Jordan.  I think they may have even been roommates).

Intrigued?  Then check out Henneberger’s piece.  Here is a small taste:
Among the candidates, his closest relationship may be with Cruz, who was one of his students at Princeton. But starting early next month, George is planning to do a series of hour-long interviews with presidential candidates on moral and constitutional questions on the Catholic cable channel EWTN, which is one reason why he won’t be endorsing any candidate. “My object is to drill down, and find out how their minds work,” even when he’s helped some of those minds think through various issues.
Planned Parenthood, at the center of America’s politics since the release of videos purporting to show employees negotiating over fetal organs, is one matter candidates call him about. “I’ve argued that you cannot try to fund good and honorable activities or services for Planned Parenthood while blocking the bad stuff it does, like abortions, because of the fungibility of money, and that what we need is a complete de-funding of Planned Parenthood, together with mechanisms for providing desirable services to women. So that might be the kind of issue I’d talk to Rick Santorum or anyone else about.”
He doesn’t supply them with rhetorical ammunition, he says, or the exact answer. “What I try to help these guys think through is: What’s the truth of the matter? What should our response be?”
And on Planned Parenthood or any other issue, George doesn’t always say what conservatives want to hear. For example, he feels the makers of the Planned Parenthood sting videos were wrong in one respect: “I defend the videos, and I think the videos tell us the truth about Planned Parenthood, but it’s wrong to lie about who you are to gain access to get to people.”

On Liberty University, Bernie Sanders, and "Coddled" Undergraduates


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This tweet comes from Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.  His tweet raises an interesting question.  Would a conservative speaking at a public university or secular private college receive the same kind of welcome that Bernie Sanders received at Liberty University?

Over at New York Magazine, Jesse Singal notes how Liberty University students “survived the unsafe space created by Bernie Sanders and his pro-choice views.”  She writes:

No one should mistake this for a group of conservative students eagerly flocking to hear a dissenting voice — attendance was mandatory  for everyone who lives on campus, and this is not a school where protesting is welcome.

But it’s still interesting to put this event in context, given what some other university students have done when faced with controversial speakers or events. For example, Emily Yoffe, who has written about the connection between alcohol and sexual assaulthad a speaking offer at a West Coast college rescinded after a student organization told her that her presence would make victims of assault “feel unsafe.” At my alma mater of the University of Michigan, for example, a showing of American Sniper was canceled (though later un-canceled) after students complained that the movie’s depiction of Iraqi Muslims would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” Unsuccessful attempts to get Bill Maher and George Will canceled as speakers at the University of California – Berkeley and Michigan State, respectively, involved similar arguments about creating dangerous-feeling environments. Sometimes the tactic works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s definitely a trend of students arguing that allowing certain speakers to speak poses an emotional risk to some members of the student body.


Without jumping into the broader debate about political correctness, it’s worth pointing out that, if we’re going to buy the theory that the mere presence of a certain type of speaker on campus creates an unsafe space that expands across that campus, bringing the risk of psychological harm to students, Liberty must have been an incredibly unsafe place today. Many, if not most, of its students, after all, deeply and viscerally believe that abortion is murder. And here was a speaker who didn’t agree with them on that — he was, from their point of view, in favor of mass murder. And yet they let him talk respectfully, they asked him questions, and it seemed like everyone was able to have a civil conversation (albeit a mandatory civil conversation).
As of yet, there are no reports of widespread psychological trauma out of Lynchburg.

And I also think it is appropriate to put all of this in the context of Barack Obama’s recent response to the “coddled” college and university students discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic.  Here is the president: