Public Defender

An Interview with Robert P. George

Considering his resume, one might expect to be intimidated interviewing Robert George. He is, after all, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and the founder and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, drafter of the Manhattan Declaration, founder of the American Principles Project, co-founder of the Renewal Forum, past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, and author and co-author of numerous books, including Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, The Clash of Orthodoxies, and Conscience and Its Enemies. He has even been called America's "most influential conservative Christian thinker." But while his command of the issues is imposing, his manner is anything but.

Dr. George graciously shared his views about where Christians should be focusing their energies and prayers, why working in the political sphere is important, and whether the culture wars have already been lost.

According to a survey by LifeWay Research, 59 percent of Christians believe they are "losing the culture war." Where do you think we stand? Have Christians lost the culture wars?

Well, we're Christians, so we don't believe in permanent losses. We certainly have lost some battles, including some important battles pertaining to marriage. But it would be entirely un-Christian to abandon hope and to abandon our mission—which is to be salt and light in the world.

It is not our job to produce the victories. As my late and very deeply missed friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus always used to say, the victory is ultimately up to God. It's God's job to achieve the victory. Our job is to be faithful. Our job is to stand at our posts and do our duty. In season and out of season, it is our task to speak up for the truth and to fight for justice and the common good when we seem to be winning and when we seem to be losing. We must let no human power intimidate us into silence or bully us into acquiescence.

No doubt many Christians would agree, but feel discouraged nonetheless. Many have probably heard both of these arguments: that politics can't fix what's wrong with America morally, and the flip side to that, which is that it's our obligation to try and use politics to correct injustices. What would you say to Christians about whether and how to use politics to help achieve their goals, particularly given the difficulties in the battle for traditional marriage?

There is no Easter without Good Friday. No great cause can be won in the face of ferocious resistance without sacrifice and suffering. Jesus told us that if we want to be his disciples, it is necessary for us to take up our crosses and follow him. The days are past, if they ever existed, when we could be comfortable Christians. Being a Christian is now uncomfortable, and it's probably going to become more uncomfortable. Being a Christian means—and will mean—being called names, being laughed at, being ridiculed, being discriminated against, being deprived of opportunities in one's social life and professional life. It means enduring patiently and prayerfully all of those sufferings that will be imposed on us. But the promise and our hope is in the Resurrection. Good Friday does not go on forever. Jesus' sojourn in the tomb is temporary. Just as we take up our cross and follow him, sharing in his suffering, we're offered a share in his Resurrection and in eternal life.

Now, there are people who say that we cannot cure what ails our culture or our world through politics. And of course we, as Christians, believe there is a great deal of truth in that. The problems are fundamentally moral and spiritual. And they're not the kind of things that can be completely remedied by laws and politics. But to say that therefore we should withdraw from politics is to proclaim what is less than a half-truth. The full truth is that while our work must extend well beyond the political sphere, it must include work in the political sphere.

We Christians are called to be citizens of this world as well as of the world to come. We're called to be the very best of good citizens. And that means working tirelessly for justice and the common good. It means securing protection for the unborn, the newborn (who are increasingly under threat), the handicapped, the cognitively disabled, the frail elderly. We will be held responsible for our failure to speak for the oppressed.

And the same is true if we turn our attention to the institution of marriage, the fundamental unit of society, on which the welfare of every other institution depends. The struggle to defend marriage, the rebuilding of the marriage culture, is a struggle for justice and the common good. The victims of the collapse of the marriage culture are ultimately children—little boys and girls who, as the marriage culture continues to unravel, find themselves without a mother or without a father, and in some cases with neither.

Writing in the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat predicted that before long, gay marriage will be legal in all 50 states. He suggested that eventually religious schools and colleges could lose access to public funds and have their tax-exempt status revoked. Do you see that happening?

Yes, it's possible that the Supreme Court will do to marriage what it did to the sanctity of human life and to children in the womb in Roe v. Wade. I'm not certain that will happen, but it's certainly possible. If and when that happens, you will see an acceleration of efforts to whip into line those persons and institutions that continue to dissent by declining to give approval to same-sex partnerships as marriages.

If that happens, there will be a strong temptation to yield, and I have no doubt that some people, given our human weakness, will permit themselves to be implicated in activity that they know in their hearts is immoral. But others, I trust, in many cases inspired by faith, will refuse to yield. They will refuse to render unto Caesar that which is God's.

No doubt many will suffer. And not all of them will be Christians. There will be observant Jews, there will be Muslims, there will be others.

But those who are Christians will perceive their suffering as a participation in the suffering of Christ, as a participation in the Good Friday that ultimately leads to Easter, to the triumph of life over death, righteousness over unrighteousness.

Won't there be huge ripple effects—for example, in terms of what's normalized and taught in public schools?

Oh, sure. Of course, in many places public schools are already teaching a message about marriage and sexual morality that is profoundly contrary to the traditional teachings affirmed by Jews as well as Christians of all denominations. Institutions are coming under pressure in their hiring practices, for example, to conform to liberal ideology about marriage and sexuality.

Supporters of redefining marriage have made their argument in the form of an analogy with racial segregation and racial injustice, attempting to stigmatize, marginalize, and demonize Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others who believe in the traditional definition of marriage. And it's been a very effective strategy despite the fact that it is intellectually bankrupt. The consequences of that strategy will play themselves out as people who oppose the teaching of the Abrahamic faiths and other faiths on sexuality and marriage depict those who seek to honor their convictions about marriage as bigots.

So, for example, anti-discrimination laws will be used to force churches to hire people who lead lives contrary to the Church's teachings in their schools, in their social services, their soup kitchens, their drug rehab centers, and so on. This will have a terrible effect on the Church's ministries because the success of those ministries hinges on those participating as providers sharing the faith-based convictions that inform the enterprise. Some—perhaps many—ministries, in order to protect their own consciences, will have to fold up. The same will be true for the teachings of Christian schools and probably Jewish and Muslim schools. Their accreditation would be placed in jeopardy. So there will be many grave consequences for freedom and for conscience.

Where do you believe Christians should be focusing their energies and prayers when it comes to the culture?

I think there are three foundational issues that deserve priority. They're not the only important issues, nor should they be the exclusive objects of our concern. Yet they deserve priority because they are foundational. They are (1) the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, (2) the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and (3) religious liberty and the rights of conscience.

Unless a person is respected in his fundamental right to life, there is no point in worrying about what his environment will be like, whether the air he breathes will be clean or the water he drinks will be pure. Yes, good stewardship of the environment is important. But even more foundational is the sanctity of human life.

Marriage is also foundational. It's the fundamental unit of society. The institutions of society, whether they're economic, political, or legal, whether they're business firms or courthouses or legislative chambers, all depend on the people who operate within those institutions having at least some significant measure of virtue. Yet none of those institutions can simply issue a command to produce virtuous people. Businesses need workers who show up for work on time, who aren't drunk or on drugs, who don't embezzle. But businesses don't produce virtuous people like that. Courtrooms need jurors who will be honest, who won't be corrupt, who won't be subject to bribery. But a judge can't simply snap his fingers and create such people. If such people are to be produced, they will be produced not by the government, not by the legal system, not by business firms. They'll be produced by the family, the family based on the marital bond of husband and wife. That's why marriage has a foundational significance up there with the principle of the fundamental dignity of the human person.

And the same is true of religious liberty. We value all of our liberties: our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, our right to protect ourselves and our families, our right to be free of unwanted governmental intrusions, our right to a trial that's fair. All those rights are terribly important. But none of them will mean much if the foundational right of freedom of religion and conscience is lost. •

is the author of the newly-released book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids, published by Our Sunday Visitor.  She has been covering family issues for twenty-five years, as a producer for CBS News, a contributor to National Catholic Register, and a Senior Editor for Salvo magazine.  She has written for, First Things, WORLD magazine, and Touchstone.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #29, Summer 2014 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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