A New Voice for the American Right

The heir to Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus, Robert George is the new leader of American intellectual conservatism

It is hard to determine when Barack Obama’s honeymoon with America ended, but for the past six months — since the anniversary of his election in November 2008 — his political position has steadily worsened. His recent signing into law of the Healthcare Bill has overcome the charge of political impotency but at great cost. It will have implications for his capacity to manage the general budget, but is also deeply unpopular in constituencies where Democrats have small majorities. It is only by promising various compensations in the way of presidential appointments that some Representatives were persuaded to sacrifice their chances in the November Congressional elections by voting for the Bill.

Meanwhile, though scarred, the Republicans see the prospect of electoral recovery and have already scored notable victories in winning the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, as well as one of the Senatorships in Massachusetts. Although it is only 18 months since the Republicans lost the presidency, and they are in the minority in both houses of Congress, there is a growing sense that Obama may be a one-term occupant of the White House. Certainly, there is growing popular opposition to the President. One poll reported that only 50 per cent of voters said they preferred Obama to George W. Bush, with 44 per cent saying they would rather have the latter back as President. The seven polls conducted between late March and early April show overall disapproval levels ranging from 41 per cent to 53 per cent with the averages being 46.1 per cent approving and 47.3 per cent disapproving (in contrast to averages of 65 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively at the inauguration). 

This being so, the Republicans are still struggling to find national leadership both in Congress and among state Governors. While social conservatism does not lack prominent voices, the most articulate and effective seem to be coming from outside the world of professional politicians, a matt

er of some discomfort to party managers. Together with familiar talk radio “shock jocks” and the new Tea Party activists, both of whom are a liability as well as an asset, is a newly prominent line of well-educated commentators and academics, many of them religious, though not in the manner popularly associated with the Evangelical Right.

Among the leading figures of this group is Robert George. Swarthmore, Harvard and Oxford educated, George occupies a distinguished position at Princeton, holding the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence that was occupied in earlier times by Woodrow Wilson, who went on to be President of the University, Governor of New Jersey, two-term US President and Nobel laureate. Very unusually for that traditionally Waspish environment, George is an orthodox Roman Catholic.

Well-known as a scholar, lawyer and public commentator, he has acquired a new status as a leader of American intellectual conservatism, the heir to William F. Buckley Jr, Richard John Neuhaus, Irving Kristol, and Ralph McInerny, who have all died in the past two years. Indeed, if the verdict of a major profile recently published in the New York Times Magazine is to be believed, George is the leading American voice of thoughtful Christian conservatism. But any images of eccentricity or fogeyishness would be out of place: “Robby” George is youthful, stylishly dressed and fully up-to-speed with the electronic information culture. 

George has had considerable influence outside the academy, having been a member of both the US Commission on Civil Rights, and the President’s Council on Bioethics. But his centre of operations is in Princeton’s elite academic environment and it was there that we talked about his ideas and his hopes for America. 

Central to his work is the task of understanding and helping others to appreciate what he describes as “the profound, inherent and equal dignity of every human being and all that follows from that about how we should lead our lives, and govern ourselves as communities”. According to George, this takes us to a true humanism that identifies principles of conduct (including justice and human rights) by considering the various fundamental and irreducible aspects of human wellbeing and fulfilment

In George’s view, religious faith illuminates these principles and helps us to grasp their full meaning and significance, but they may be reasonably affirmed even apart from divine revelation: “That is what it means to say that they are principles of natural law.” At Oxford, he studied under John Finnis, another Catholic and a leading figure in the “new” natural law movement to which George is a prominent contributor. Aware of cultural resistance to these ideas he notes that many people “especially those who regard themselves as especially enlightened” deny them. So the principles need to be defended. “Intellectual work can help people to grasp, for example, the compelling reasons they have for affirming the dignity and fundamental right to life of every member of the human family — and for supporting marriage as the life-long, exclusive union of husband and wife.” 

While in the previous two election campaigns Catholics appear to have favoured the Republican candidate, in 2008 there was a greater division of support and a good deal of internal dispute among Catholics. This raises questions about their political loyalties and about the conflicts within the American Church. George’s assessment is that US Catholics are no longer a voting bloc and politicians cannot appeal to them en masse. Yet, he notes that in presidential and other polls the candidate who wins the votes of a majority of self-identified Catholics almost always prevails. Although historically Catholics tended to associate with the Democratic Party, that is no longer true: “No one doubts that the Democrats lost the allegiance of many Catholics when the party embraced socially liberal policies, beginning with abortion in the 1970s.”

This leads to a provocative reflection on correlations between religious commitment and political outlook: “Broadly speaking, those whose commitment is more intense (as evidenced by regular Mass attendance, daily prayer and the like) tend to be morally and politically more conservative. Those who are less firmly committed — especially the so-called ‘cultural Catholics’ — tend to be more liberal.” He also contends that Obama tried to appeal to conservative Catholics by claiming that he was actually pro-life because while he would expand abortion access, his economic policies would reduce poverty and with it the “need” for abortion. 

While some pro-Obama Catholics promoted this claim, US bishops were resistant and several publicly denounced it. After the election, the divisions intensified when the University of Notre Dame invited the President to receive an honorary degree and speak at its graduation ceremony. Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard, who was also supposed to be honored at the ceremony, withdrew because Notre Dame was defying the instruction of the bishops not to honour politicians who promoted abortion and other grave forms of injustice. To date, the wounds remain open and it is not clear how they might be healed.

Whatever one thinks of his policies, however, the election of Obama as the first African-American President is clearly historically important and I was interested in how George thought his Presidency would develop. As regards the much disputed healthcare policy George predicted that the best Obama could hope for was disappointment among radical Democrats and electoral punishment from resentful Republicans set to leave him an isolated figure during the second half of his presidency. On foreign policy, George is unyielding in his criticism: “In the Middle East, the administration has weakened the Palestinian Authority, thus strengthening radical Palestinian elements, while at the same time frightening and alienating the Israelis.” In Iraq, “he has carried on with the war which he promised to end, and in Afghanistan his actions seem half-hearted”.

Yet George rejoices in the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land. He points out, however, that on social issues, including abortion, sexuality and marriage, African-Americans are more conservative than the electorate as a whole, and hence Obama is far to their Left: “Notable African-American religious leaders have been stepping forward to criticise the first African-American president for his social liberalism. It will be interesting to see where this goes.”

Against this background, I wonder whether Catholic clergy and bishops are becoming sidelined in current US debates. George counters that while the bishops have encouraged lay initiative and leadership on the sanctity of human life and the protection of marriage, they have been more than willing at key moments to speak out themselves. In the debate about healthcare reform, they have been in the forefront of efforts to prevent public subsidisation of abortion and the extent of their success, notwithstanding the enduring humiliation of the clergy abuse scandal, and despite the administration’s opposition, has surprised many observers, liberals and conservatives alike.

Having studied in Britain, returned to it periodically and continued to follow events here, what does George make of British Catholic engagement in policy debates? He is impressed by the richness of the spiritual lives of many British Catholics, but observes that on the whole we seem to have a sense of still being an insular minority in a country where Catholicism remains suspect. 

By contrast in the United States, Catholics are now the largest religious group, approaching one quarter of the overall population, and they are statistically overrepresented in both houses of Congress and in many state legislatures. With six of the nine justices of the Supreme Court being Catholics and many others occupying positions of leadership in the armed services, in business and the professions, as well as a growing number of influential Catholic public intellectuals, it is perhaps little surprise that American Catholics are more assertive than their British counterparts. 

While I concluded that there is certainly no British “Robby” George, my mind also drifted in the direction of wondering whether, with his ever-increasing prominence, he might be tempted to follow Woodrow Wilson and consider standing for high public office. Considering the prestige of Princeton, and George’s influence as a public intellectual, I doubt that he would want to enter machine politics, which is not to say that he might not play an important role in influencing the election of the next president. Certainly his is a name to keep in mind as the Republicans slowly work towards the 2012 elections.

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