Conservative Heavyweight: The Remarkable Mind of Professor Robert P. George

Professor Robert P. George is pacing around a Princeton auditorium before 200-plus undergraduates, preparing to wage an intellectual shock-and-awe campaign against illogical thinking.

“Some politicians say that they’re ‘personally opposed’ to abortion, yet ‘pro-choice,” says the 48-year-old professor of constitutional law and moral philosophy. “But we must ask: Is this a position that can survive the test of logical coherence? After all, if abortion is wrong, surely it is wrong because it is the unjust taking of the life of a developing human being.” He pauses to let that sink in and then launches another question: “And if one believes that, then what could possibly justify a regime of law that licenses so grave an injustice?”

“Of course,” George adds, climbing up on a front-row chair and crossing his arms, “If abortion is not a form of homicide, if the developing embryo or fetus has the moral status of an unwanted growth—such as a tumor—there would be no grounds on which to ‘personally oppose’ abortion. So the question is this: Is the developing embryo or fetus a human being or a mere unwanted growth? Notice that this is not a religious or even an ethical question. It is a question of human embryology and developmental biology.”

George hoists a foot onto the chair back, plants his forearms onto his knee, and fires off another round of questions: Is it morally acceptable to conduct research on embryos not yet implanted in the uterus, even if the embryos must then be killed? What about so-called spare embryos in frozen storage, which have no prospect of implantation? Is abortion ever morally justified, despite its homicidal character?

Students begin offering tentative answers—but not before they’ve taken a moment to think. As smart as these kids are, after half a semester in George’s Civil Liberties class, they’ve learned not to blurt out a thoughtless opinion: George will force them to defend it, which could prove embarrassing.

One bespectacled youth speaks up: “I don’t think I was an embryo,” he announces. His classmates chuckle, but George responds seriously. “You weren’t an embryo. Were you a fetus? Were you an adolescent?”

“I am not a physical organism,” the young man insists; he is his ideas, beliefs, and desires.

George pounces on the person/body dualism implicit in this remark and forces the class to confront the implications of affirming it: “If ‘I’ was not an embryo or fetus, neither was ‘I’ once an infant,” he says. “To have destroyed the fetus or infant that later became ‘me’ would not have been to destroy me. So at what point then do we say ‘I’ began to exist? At what point do we draw the line on killing?”

George then drops a cerebral smart bomb: “If dualism is true, the answer won’t be ‘birth,’ ” he notes. Will it be six months after birth? A year? Two years? Three? After all, when does a child achieve thoughts, beliefs, and desires?

Pro-choice students must now confront an uncomfortable fact: The logical implications of their position entail believing that killing three-year-old children is morally acceptable.

Another student jumps into the debate. “I don’t connect myself with the drunken idiot I was last weekend,” he begins.

“Neither do we!” George interjects as the auditorium erupts in laughter.

It’s a classic Socratic approach to education for students I who want their education supersized. Plenty do: George’s classes on constitutional interpretation and civil liberties are huge by Princeton standards and always jammed despite his reputation as a tough-grading GPA-wrecker.

George is that oddest of odd ducks on an Ivy League campus—especially in the politics department: a conservative. The Oxford-trained legal philosopher was hired at Princeton, given tenure, and even installed in a prestigious endowed chair first held by Woodrow Wilson despite his outspoken pro-life, pro-family views. Adding insult to ideological injury, George went on to found, in mid-2000, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, which invites the likes of Lynn Cheney, John Dilulio, William Kristol, Robert Bork, and Jean Bethke Elshtain to Princeton to communicate—before packed student audiences—an appreciation of the blessings of the American Founding and the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

This conservative invasion almost didn’t happen. The 1993 battle over George’s tenure was hard-fought; he achieved it only because enough of his liberal colleagues respected the exquisite quality of his mind (along with his character and friendship) enough to overlook the political views they loathed.

“It was a remarkable thing for him to get tenure when he had done nothing to disguise his views,” explains Amherst philosopher and longtime George pal Hadley Arkes. “After all, it was quite risky for the politics department to give tenure to a strong, attractive young conservative in a department of only 50 people. Why, as the saying goes, he could just unbalance the whole place!”

George very nearly has. During regular duels with secular opponents, he delights in sending philosophical wrecking balls through flimsy claims that secularist ideology—feminism, multiculturalism, libertinism—is the only “reasonable” position and that Judeo-Christian moral teachings are simply an irrational set of prejudices. In fact, George asserts, Judeo-Christian teachings are rationally superior to secularist moral teachings. Arguments like these make George Princeton’s conservative foil to pro-infanticide, pro-euthanasia, pro-bestiality bioethicist Peter Singer, whose campus offices are within sight of George’s.

During his lectures—although he’s careful not to indoctrinate—George offers robust intellectual competition to the politically correct, secularist liberal dogma that students are, in any case, beginning to tire of. Former students— such as National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru—say George is scrupulously fair in presenting the other side of every issue—just before he demolishes it. Lisa Hess, a recent Princeton grad who took George’s class in constitutional law and interpretation, says, “Students are drawn to him, not just sensing controversy in the air but compelled by a teaching style based on principles that force thoughtful conclusions, and not merely relativistic admirations for different theories.” George’s no-nonsense style and love of fiery debates made his lectures “the only ones at Princeton that kept me awake each week from start to finish,” Hess adds.

Students are not the only ones being jolted awake by George. He’s one of the key figures—probably America’s most prominent—in the revival of natural-law theory as an approach to ethical and political issues. Before this revival, many scholars dismissed natural-law theory as a matter of merely historical or narrowly Catholic interest.

Not anymore. Says Dennis Thompson, Harvard’s Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy: “George has forced many of us to take natural-law theory more seriously as a worthy philosophical view because he presents arguments, not just assertions. Along with John Finnis, his former teacher at Oxford, he has developed an approach that could be called analytic natural law,” which is “both more rigorous and more accessible than traditional natural law.”

George, Thompson adds, is “committed to following his reasoning where it leads him—even though, in my view, the reasoning sometimes misleads him.”

George operates at high velocity, moving easily within the worlds of academia, politics, and religion. He serves on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, where, says council chairman Leon Kass, George brings “enormous integrity and decency. He is an absolutely lucid and careful thinker, deeply committed to the dignity of the human person from its earliest beginnings.” Like Socrates, Kass notes, George meets his interlocutors “on their own grounds but show[s] them that their arguments take them to places they don’t want to go.”

George once took an entire commission where it didn’t necessarily want to go. He was appointed by the first President Bush to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights literally minutes before President Clinton took the oath of office—meaning Clinton was stuck with a conservative rabble-rouser for six years. Rouse rabble is exactly what George did: He filed a successful lawsuit to have Clinton’s appointment of an acting staff director declared illegal and sponsored a landmark examination of discrimination against religion in the public schools.

George has also found time to write or edit eleven books (his most recent, The Clash of Orthodoxies, sold 15,000 copies—a remarkable achievement for an academic tome); comment in the pages of the Wall Street Journal on everything from stem-cell research to Just War theory; submit briefs to the Supreme Court (where he once represented Mother Teresa, whose “friend of the court” brief asked the Court to reverse Roe v. Wade); and chat with Charlie Rose and John McLaughlin about law and marriage, federalism, and the family. He has been honored by both the liberal American Bar Association and the conservative Federalist Society, “which is extremely unusual and shows how respected he is on both sides of the political spectrum,” says Bill Saunders, an attorney with the Family Research Council who regularly collaborates with George on pro-life and other human rights issues.

George is a fierce and formidable intellectual critic of judicial usurpation of the democratic process, writing frequently about tyrannical judges who blithely overthrow the will of the people, as the Supreme Court most recently did in June in Lawrence v. Texas. He runs a kind of free-lemonade stand of advice for senators, congressmen, Catholic bishops, and evangelical leaders looking for effective arguments for defending, say, marriage as a heterosexual institution or the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. If there really is a vast, right-wing conspiracy, its leaders probably meet in George’s basement.

Last February George flew to Paris to represent the United States at an international bioethics seminar whereat the height of Franco-American tensions over the looming war in Iraq—he discussed global cooperation in biotechnology with French President Jacques Chirac. Back home, George promptly got caught up in a campus curfuffle over an art exhibit—one that used Catholic sacred symbols in deliberately blasphemous ways; the ensuing controversy made national news. As an attorney in practice with four of his five brothers, George is currently representing a West Virginia woman who refuses to pay the portion of her state income taxes that support abortion.

A typical week might find George writing a memorandum analyzing the morality of preemptive war for a cardinal on Tuesday and delivering a talk on the same subject at his local parish on Thursday.

Friends say George is as comfortable in a three-star Paris restaurant as he is fishing in the Canadian wilderness; as competent testifying before Congress as performing bluegrass on the banjo; as happy chatting with a campus janitor as with Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, whom he met at Oxford and with whom he remains friends. He shares a cherished home life with his wife, Cindy, to whom he has been married nearly 21 years; their 17-year  old son, David, and 15-year-old daughter, Rachel; and a large extended family.

What made this Princeton professor—grandson of West Virginia coal miners, graduate of Harvard Law School and Oxford University, and friend of princes and potentates— the person he is today?

All who know George well point to the tremendous influence of his remarkable parents in shaping his character and convictions. George calls his father, Joseph George, a man of “simply piety, generosity, humility, integrity, and compassion.” His mother, Catherine George, “stressed the ways in which living up to the demands of Christian faith was a noble challenge.”

George senior, the son of Syrian immigrants, was drafted out of high school to serve in the Second World War as an infantryman. Following his return home, mutual friends introduced 26-year-old Joseph—an Antiochian Orthodox Christian—to Catherine Sellaro, a 19-year-old Italian Catholic girl whose immigrant father had also labored for a time in the coal mines before prospering as a grocer. The couple wed a year later, and in 1955 Robert arrived, followed by brothers Leonard (1956), Kent (1960), Keith (1961), and Edward (1965).

The five brothers were exceptionally close. Growing up in Morgantown, home of West Virginia University, “we sort of blended together,” George recalls. “It was ‘one for all, and all for one.’ Rarely did any of us get picked on by other kids, but if we did, it was a case of ‘woe unto him by whom transgressions come.’”

George spent much of his childhood bass and trout fishing in local streams, picking up a book only when it was too dark or cold to fish. Sunday afternoons were spent with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins sharing family news and community goings-on in Italian, Arabic, and English.

The George boys attended both parochial and public schools and spent a good deal of time at Church, both as congregants and reluctant caretakers. “My mother had the notion that it was important for us to contribute to the church by mowing the grass and cleaning the church hall,” George relates. “We didn’t think this was such an inspired idea, but we complied.”

In the mid-1960s, George gained a bit of local celebrity as the kid who could reproduce the guitar work of Paul Simon, Stephen Stills, and other acoustic music icons. As a result, George remembers, at 13 he “was welcomed in the campus coffee houses at West Virginia University and had lots of friends who were college students involved in the local folk music scene.”

This youthful exposure to the Sixties counterculture opened George’s eyes to the self-indulgence of the “Me Generation.” He watched as young men persuaded young women into sexual liaisons, allegedly as a means of making a political statement about the need for social change— “covering over lust with a patina of significance,” George says. “It was my first but by no means my last experience with liberal hypocrisy.” Thus were planted the seeds of social conservatism in the son of a staunchly Democratic family.

Five years later, as a college student himself, George came under the tutelage of two Swarthmore College professors: a conservative Episcopal clergyman named Linwood Urban, who taught George medieval philosophy, and political scientist James Kurth, “who encouraged me to question and probe, not to simply accept the campus orthodoxy.” “It was,” George says, “the example set by these wonderful professors that initially got me interested in the systematic pursuit of truth and ultimately led to my vocation as a scholar and teacher.”

For his part, Kurth considers George one of the top three or four students he’s ever taught, “if not the very best,” with a character “as solid as the West Virginia hills.” Even though Swarthmore drew most of its students from homes that were northeastern, suburban, and liberal, George—a traditional, West Virginia Catholic kid—demonstrated an ability to quickly gain the confidence and affection of fellow students. This was not through the manipulation of mere surface charm, Kurth maintains: It was through a charm “that is really the outgrowth of character based on a calm and serene confidence in his values.”

At Swarthmore, George also found time for romance. During his sophomore year, George wandered into a dormitory lounge, following the sounds of classical guitar music. Playing the guitar was a pretty, dark-haired English literature major named Cindy Schrom from Bethpage, New York. It took George approximately 1 5 minutes to decide to marry her; then followed a seven-year courtship.

Both George and Schrom graduated from Swarthmore in 1977 and entered graduate school at Harvard. While George studied law and theology, Cindy began work on a master’s degree in education.

In 1981, George won Harvard’s Frank Knox Memorial Scholarship, enabling him to study legal philosophy at Oxford University under the eminent natural-law philosopher John Finnis. That September, George departed for England, leaving his fiancée behind.

A visitor wandering through Oxford University’s New College gardens in October of 1981 might be forgiven for thinking he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. From an open window poured the exotic sounds of banjo music, played fast and furious, like the famous scene from Deliverance.

“Of course, the music was coming from Robby’s room,” says former Oxford classmate Dermot Quinn (now a professor of history at Seton Hall University). “It’s hard to convey, though, the hilarious clash of cultural signs that the music, in those circumstances, conveyed. A bit of Appalachia had taken over the city of dreaming spires; the sounds of West Virginia were now competing with Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and the New College Choir.”

The Irish Quinn and George had met a few days earlier when both matriculated as New College graduate students. As they lined up for the freshman photograph, Quinn spotted “this benign-looking fellow with thick glasses and a well-turned bow tie. I introduced myself and we began a conversation.” The two retired to a local eatery to continue their discussion and discovered “an almost complete agreement about American politics, in particular the Kennedy family, about which our views were perhaps less than benign. Laughter was the leitmotiv of that lunch, as it has been of our friendship ever since. Here was someone with a mind splendidly furnished: well-read, thoughtful, eager to talk, intellectually curious. He was also warmhearted and, to put the matter very simply, an exceptionally nice and friendly human being. He treated all as equals even when, manifestly, some were not. I doubt if there was a more beloved student among the college staff—the porters, the room cleaners, the gardeners—than Robby.”

George may have been slightly less beloved among those he mischievously nicknamed “the wicked who prosper”— certain overambitious, arrogant American classmates who took for granted their futures as senators, network stars, and CEOs. They provided an irresistible target for George’s love of pranks.

“On one occasion—it resembled a scene from Max Beerbohm’s famous Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson—some of those tiresome careerists found themselves invited to a black-tie feast at All Souls College, where they were to dine in the company of the queen,” Quinn recalls. “There was even a newspaper reporter sent to cover the event. Of course, there was no party—only a few of us looking on from a distance, holding our sides, doubled over with laughter.”

George plunged with equal enthusiasm into his studies. He describes the opportunity to study with John Finnis as “one of the great blessings of my life. John insisted on analytical precision and logical rigor. There was no way to get a bad argument past him,” George recalls.

Finnis’s own thought has been deeply influenced by the American Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez, to whom Finnis introduced George. “My work, like John’s, relies heavily on Germain’s insights into how the human mind grasps certain ends or purposes as intrinsically choice-worthy, and identifies moral principles as deriving from the integral directiveness of these ‘basic human goods,'” George notes.

George so relished Oxford life that he encouraged his brothers to join him. Three of them—Kent, Keith, and Edward—did so, although it’s unusual for Oxford to admit so many members of the same (nonroyal) family. “Oxford has probably learned its lesson now, though,” George jokes. “You let a family of hillbillies in, and the next thing you know they’re entertaining the tourists with renditions of Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Will the Circle Be Unbroken? in your 14th-century quadrangles.”

Despite the intellectual stimulation and high jinks, George missed his fiancée. During Christmas break in 1982, he returned home to marry Cindy at Harvard’s Andover Chapel. The newlyweds set up housekeeping in a row house on Observatory Street in North Oxford. While George continued his studies and lectured in jurisprudence at New College, Cindy found work as an editor at an academic publishing house.

After finishing his doctorate in legal philosophy in 1986, “I got very lucky then and landed the job at Princeton,” George says.

Over the next decade and a half, George began establishing a formidable body of academic work and eventually realized there was a good deal of interest in his ideas outside of academia, especially in Catholic and evangelical circles. George began making his ideas accessible to them through journals and magazines such as World, First Things, National Review, and Crisis. In addition, about once a week, George flies off to speak somewhere—perhaps in Colorado Springs, to address evangelicals eager to learn how to buttress Christian moral teachings with rational arguments, or to the Czech Republic, to participate in a ” conference on church-state relations. Or he may be off to a meeting of one of the two dozen editorial or public policy boards on which he serves.

The Madison Program, which has grown rapidly since its inception, occupies a great deal of George’s time. The program sponsors visiting fellows in the fields of constitutional law and political philosophy, hosts conferences, sponsors an undergraduate student forum, invites lecturers, and provides support for graduate-student and faculty research. Student interest has been so great that Princeton undergraduates have formed a Madison Program club in which to discuss the ideas of speakers. Having a conservative intellectual center at a prestigious university such as Princeton offers “a tremendous ray of hope,” says Frank Cannon, a Washington consultant and George colleague. “It gives enormous leverage to a new generation of scholars and gives them an elite status they would otherwise not have had.”

In his 1791 Life of Johnson, James Boswell wrote: “Nobody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.” In George’s case, there’s no shortage of people with whom he has eaten and drunk, argued, plotted strategy, drafted legislation, played jokes, and waged war on the establishment of secularism as America’s (largely unwanted) national religion—colleagues who are eager to explain why George has achieved so much at such an early age.

Within the academy, “he has had to be smarter, to work harder, and to publish more work of higher quality than those of his peers who have taken paths of less resistance in environments where dissent from the prevailing orthodoxies is not easily tolerated,” says Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon. In addition, George “moves easily in elite academic circles [because] he has thoroughly mastered the philosophies and discourses of his intellectual opponents. In fact, he usually states their positions better than they do and is able to discuss their weaknesses in terms they can understand.”

Many colleagues—such as Prison Fellowship chairman Chuck Colson and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute—attribute George’s success in public life to intellectual brilliance allied with character attributes intellectuals are not particularly known for: civility, integrity, gentleness, and humor. Says Novak: “He has a way of speaking with southern graciousness and northern directness. He keeps a cheerfulness in debate which is rare. People tend to get hot under the collar and demonize the opposition. Robby is so deadly bright he doesn’t have to be nervous.”

George’s advice is valued by the White House because “Robby is a very clear and rigorous thinker. He combines moral seriousness with common sense,” says Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to the president and director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives. “Beyond that, Robby is a delightful and deeply decent human being [with] deep and unshakable convictions.”

Those convictions make George “in intellect, passion, and spirit one of the brightest stars in the constellation of contemporary Catholicism,” says First Things editor Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. In bringing those convictions to the public square, George is “a man who believes part of the intellectual vocation is to be engaged in the things in the world and the most important things of one’s times,” Novak adds.

Yes—but never at the expense of his students, whom the conservative agent provocateur considers his second priority (his family being his first). Today George is giving the commencement address at Michigan’s Hillsdale College. As always he is urging students to think.

“The so-called freedom celebrated today by so many of our opinion-shaping elites…is simply the license to do whatever one pleases,” George tells them. “This false conception of freedom—false because disordered, disordered because detached from moral truth and civic responsibility—shackles those in its grip no less powerfully than did the chattel slavery of old….”

Professor George is on the job.


  • Anne Morse

    Anne Morse is a senior writer with the Wilberforce Foundation.

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