Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The most "dangerous" conservative in America?

There is an interesting profile piece, "The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker" on Robert George in the New York Times. He's a jurisprudence professor at Princeton University. He's a very bright guy who is also very concerned about the culture, sanctity of life and marriage. He's also a mover and shaker in the intellectual and cultural world.
At the center of the event was Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker. Dressed in his usual uniform of three-piece suit, New College, Oxford cuff links and rimless glasses­, George convened the meeting with a note of thanks and a reminder of its purpose. Alarmed at the liberal takeover of Washington and an apparent leadership vacuum among the Christian right, the group had come together to warn the country’s secular powers that the culture wars had not ended. As a starting point, George had drafted a 4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.

...He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as “one of the biggest brains in America,” or, on one broadcast, “Superman of the Earth.” Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told me he numbers George among the most-talked-about thinkers in conservative legal circles. And Newt Gingrich called him “an important and growing influence” on the conservative movement, especially on matters like abortion and marriage.

“If there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy,” the conservative Catholic journal Crisis concluded a few years ago, “its leaders probably meet in George’s kitchen.”

I think he might well be one of the most "dangerous" conservatives, because ultimately the battle in our culture is a battle over ideas - good and bad ideas. He's definitely one of the leading conservative intellectuals who also has an ability to popularize and turn ideas into action.


Anona said...

Robert George’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts,” contains both sense and nonsense—but more of the latter.

George, a Princeton professor of jurisprudence and founder of the American Principles Project, is a preeminent conservative scholar. In the op-ed, he considers the federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 and claims that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality would be “disastrous,” constituting a “judicial usurpation” of popular authority and inflaming the culture wars beyond repair.

First, the good points: George is quite right to insist that the Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution, not to make policy. He’s also right to argue that marriage law has been, and should be, tied closely to the needs of children. And he exhibits a refreshing “don’t panic” attitude, asserting that “democracy is working”—although by democracy, he seems to mean only voter referenda, and not our more complex representative system, with its various checks and balances. On the latter, broader understanding, I’d agree that “democracy is working:” in the last year, five additional states have embraced marriage equality.

But the misunderstandings in George’s piece are legion.

Anona said...

(1) George provides a lengthy analogy with the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which recognized abortion rights. But while this analogy may be relevant to the culture-war angle, it says absolutely nothing about the legal merits—since rather different issues were at stake in Roe.

What’s more, it’s not even clear how relevant it is to the culture-war angle. Most abortion opponents believe that abortion involves large-scale killing of innocent babies. Compare that to Adam and Steve setting up house in the suburbs. Whatever your view of homosexuality, there’s no comparison in terms of moral urgency.

(2) George also considers—and summarily rejects—an analogy with the 1967 Loving v. Virginia. He writes,

“The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving. Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy.”

Anona said...

Seriously? Perhaps “everyone agreed” that they were marriages in some sense—as one could say equally about same-sex marriages—but they certainly didn’t agree that they were valid marriages. When the Loving trial court judge declared, “The fact that [God] separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix,” he expressed the widespread view that interracial marriage violated a divinely ordained natural order.

George’s reference to the “evil regime of white supremacy” is also telling. In order to undermine any analogy between racial prejudice and homophobia, right-wingers often paint all those who opposed interracial-marriage as angry KKK types. But most opponents of miscegenation sincerely believed that the Bible condemns it, that it’s unnatural, and that it’s bad for children. In other words, they cited the same “respectable” reasons as modern-day marriage-equality opponents.

That these two groups cite the same reasons doesn’t show that their arguments are equally bad or their motives equally flawed. It does show, however, that religious conviction doesn’t secure a free pass for discrimination, and that friendly, well-intentioned folks can nevertheless be guilty of bigotry.

Anona said...

3) George, a noted natural-law theorist, asserts that marriage “takes its distinctive character” from bodily unions of the procreative kind. By “procreative kind,” George doesn’t mean that procreation must be intended, or even possible—oddly, sterile heterosexuals can have sex “of the procreative kind” on George’s view. He means penis-in-vagina. According to George,

“This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.”

“Historically” is the key word here—as in “not any more.” There’s a reason consummation laws have been almost universally discarded (and were seldom invoked when present). Such laws reflected, not the law’s majestic correspondence with Catholic natural-law doctrine, but an outdated mixture of concerns about male lineage and female purity.

(4) Finally, George asserts the standard false dilemma: Either accept the traditional natural-law understanding of marriage, or else have no principled basis for any marriage regulation:

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union—and thus to procreation—will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play. But there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.”

Anona said...

No principled basis? How about the fact that polygamy—which historically is far more common than monogamy—is highly correlated with a variety of social ills? Or that the stability provided by long-term romantic pair-bonding is good for individuals and society—far more profoundly than typical “friendships”? Or that the state legally regulates important contracts of all sorts, and the commitment to “for better or worse, ‘til death do us part” is a pretty important contract? Here as elsewhere, George seems incapable of recognizing any principles beyond those prescribed by a narrow natural-law theory.

Ultimately, the trouble with George is that his theory—which is supposed to be rooted in “nature”—is in fact divorced from reality. The reality is that gay people exist, fall in love, pair off, settle down, and build lives together—sometimes with children, often without. When we do, we seek the same legal protection for our relationships that other Americans take for granted. If the denial of such protections is not an appropriate subject for judicial scrutiny, I’m not sure what is.