Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, and the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Professor George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is the author of a number of books, including: In Defense of Natural Law; Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality; and The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis. His scholarly articles and reviews have appeared in such journals as the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and the Review of Politics. He holds honorary doctorates of law, ethics, science, letters, civil law, divinity, humane letters, and juridical science. Professor George has been described by the New York Times Magazine as this “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Dr. Robert George, which was conducted by John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. An edited version of this interview aired in two parts in July 2013 on the Council’s weekly radio program, “Family Policy Matters.” Dr. George discussed issues from his latest book, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.
John Rustin: Dr. George, you argue in the book that the secular liberal elite in our society is harnessing the power of the government to attack the conscience rights of those who disagree with them. Can you give us some recent examples of how liberal secularists are attacking the liberty of conscience?
Robert George: Yes, I’d like to begin with the odious Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) mandates, which have been imposed by the Obama administration and are now the subjects of litigation. These are mandates made by the DHHS pursuant to the Obamacare legislation— the Affordable Care Act—in which the employers—whether they are believers or unbelievers, people of faith or not, Christians, Jews, Muslims, you name it, including religious institutions that are employers—are compelled by force of law to provide insurance coverage that includes, not only contraceptives and sterilizations, which some religious people object to, but even abortion inducing drugs, which a great many, perhaps most, religious people of all different faiths object to. These mandates are coming despite the protests of the Catholic bishops, Evangelical leaders, and other religious leaders… and now the Obama Administration is being sued. There are about 60 lawsuits around the country; they’re in the lower federal courts headed for the Supreme Court of the United States, which will ultimately decide. The Obama Administration has been losing these cases far more than winning them in the lower courts, and I predict that at the end of the day, even the liberal-leaning U.S. Supreme Court will slap down the Administration because this time it has simply gone too far in trampling on the conscience rights of Christians and other believers. And that’s just one area in which we see this happening.
JR: We certainly are aware of that in North Carolina, as we have seen efforts in the state legislature to restrict, at least to some degree, the scope of Obamacare, as it is called… We hear a lot from homosexual marriage supporters about “civil liberties” and “rights,” so to speak, but very little about religious freedom. But you show in the book that religious freedom is central and even fundamental to other basic civil liberties. Why is this so?
RG: The very first right mentioned in our Bill of Rights—even before we get to the great rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of the people to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances—[is] the free exercise of religion. And that’s no accident. It’s because the free exercise of religion is not only historically foundational to civil liberty in our tradition, it is philosophically the very foundation of all other civil liberties, because it protects that aspect of our freedom, which is most intimate and essential to ourselves as human persons. [That is] our freedom to think for ourselves, our freedom to relate ourselves as best we can to the greater sources of meaning and value in the universe, as we in our best judgment perceive them. So when freedom of religion is under assault as it is by the left in this country, we have to fight back! We cannot take this lying down—we have to be the great defenders of our own liberty and the liberty of all of our other fellow citizens, irrespective of their particular tradition of faith.
JR: Dr. George, you have a great chapter in the book that explains why moral truth matters. This is a question that we as Christians need to be able to address in the current debate over marriage and human life and the other issues that we deal with on a daily basis. Can you help us understand why moral truth does matter, and why it is so important for Christians to be equipped to answer this question in the realm of public debate?
RG: Moral truth matters because morality is not some abstraction; it’s not a set of arbitrary rules handed down by God or by nature that are unrelated to the wellbeing or flourishing of human beings in societies. On the contrary, moral rules are specifications, entailments, of the integral fulfillment, the integral wellbeing of human beings and the communities they form. Why does God will what He wills by way of moral commands? Not arbitrarily, but because God wills the integral good of those of us who are His creatures. God made us in the very image and likeness of Himself. We’re told that, of course, in Genesis 1. There’s even a kind of philosophical affirmation of that in nonreligious terms, and that’s the idea that as rational and free creatures, we’re possessors of a literally god-like quality—the ability to cause these things that we are not caused to cause. We are endowed, in other words, with reason and with freedom of the will. Of course that doesn’t mean we’re gods , but it explains a little bit about what it means to be made in the image of God, since that can’t mean that God has hair on His head or two eyes, or five fingers on each hand, or a nose. No, it means that God is the causer of things He is not caused to cause. In other words, He is rational and free. And He has, in His wisdom and goodness, shared with us—His creatures [who are] made in His very image and likeness—rationality and freedom. That rationality and that freedom are to be directed toward the integral fulfillment of human beings, and the communities that we form. God wills our good; we should will our good and the good of our neighbor, but not our partial good—not the mere satisfaction of our desires, whatever they happen to be. Rather, our true good—our integral flourishing is what God wills and moral norms protect. So that’s why morality matters; it’s not an abstraction; it’s linked to our flourishing as human beings.
JR: One of the key points that you make in the chapter on moral truth is that secular liberalists often accuse Christians of trying to moralize and of making exclusivist “truth claims” on issues such as marriage. But you argue that even those who support the redefinition of marriage, or abortion, “make truth claims all the time.” Can you give us some examples of the truth claims the other side makes that are in contrast to what is real truth?
RG: Where to begin? How about “women have a right to control their own bodies”—there you go, there’s a truth claim. How about “people who would discriminate against gays are bigots” now there’s a truth claim, right? How about the view that “love makes a family,” there’s another truth claim. Liberals can’t get three sentences out of their mouths without making a truth claim, and I don’t criticize them for that—that’s reality, that’s the human condition, we do believe things. Now, the question is, are our beliefs true beliefs? Are we willing to test our beliefs in the domain of reason? I think those of us who are Christians ought to be in the forefront of saying “Yes, let’s test our beliefs, especially our moral beliefs, on the plane of reason. Let’s argue for our beliefs in the public square. Let’s listen to the arguments that are advanced by secular liberals and those on the other side against our views, and let’s ask them to listen to our arguments. Let’s have a full and fair debate on the plane of reason.” Let’s just take again the abortion case: nothing would please me more than to get the pro-abortion side to agree that we’re going to resolve the question of abortion by relying on a) the best scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and b) the application of the principle that all human beings, irrespective of race or sex or ethnicity, and equally respective of age or size or development or condition of dependency, are equal in worth and dignity, and deserve therefore the equal protection of the laws. There’s my invitation to those on the liberal side. Let’s see if they’re willing to take me up on it. We can leave the Bible out of it—we can leave the authority of religion out of it… I’m happy to do that. Let’s have the debate.
JR: And speaking of the debate, Dr. George, I thought about your book the other day as I was reading through the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, which struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In his dissent from the majority opinion, Justice Scalia pointed out that the majority opinion negatively portrays traditional marriage supporters, as, and I quote, “enemies of the human race.” Can you comment briefly on the high court’s ruling in the recent DOMA case, particularly in terms of how it represents another example of the enemy of conscience that you talk about in your book?
RG: The Court got the decision wrong, that’s for sure. There’s nothing in the logic or structure, or original understanding of the Constitution that forbids the national government from having its own definition of marriage for purposes of federal law, so long as it doesn’t attempt to impose a definition of marriage on the states. So they got the decision wrong, and that’s bad enough, but what is worse—what is truly disgraceful—is how Justice Kennedy in his opinion for the court handled the matter. He failed—quite shamefully—in two very important respects. One was he utterly failed to engage in any kind of serious way the arguments put forward by the side opposite to the one in whose favor he ruled. It’s an elementary obligation of judicial statesmanship, for a judge, especially an appellate judge, most especially a Supreme Court justice, to give sound reasons for his decision, and engage in a serious way the reasons put forward on the other side, and give his reasons for rejecting them. [Justice]Kennedy didn’t do that. And even worse—and here’s the second really shameful thing—is that Justice Kennedy resorted to the abusive tactic of suggesting that anyone who stands for marriage as the conjugal union of a husband and wife is essentially a hater, a bigot, someone who is simply out to demean other people, or to harm them…. That is a defamation of millions and millions of [Justice] Kennedy’s fellow citizens.… What it amounts to is an intimidation tactic; it’s trying to marginalize and stigmatize people of good will who disagree with the effort to redefine marriage. It’s really quite intolerable, and Justice Scalia was absolutely right to castigate [Justice] Kennedy for resorting to that tactic.
JR: Unfortunately, I think that the characterizations that were made in that majority opinion will have far reaching implications for not only the issue of marriage, but will serve as the basis for all kinds of lawsuits and challenges on all sorts of laws that have a basis in God’s moral law and His truth. And I think that we have just begun to see the beginning of that with respect to that decision. Do you have any thoughts about that?
RG: All I can say is that I share the worry. The left has for sometime been using this intimidation tactic. They’ve won some victories with it, and now they’ve won a big victory with the Supreme Court of the United States with it. Justice Kennedy has joined in that effort of intimidation, stigmatization and marginalization. And having had success with it, they will continue to do it. I mean they’ve… been encouraged to keep at it by a justice writing for a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States itself, so why would they give it up at this point?
But it’s important for Christians not to become disheartened. We have to redouble our efforts; we have to stand fast; we have to speak out; we have to be unafraid. If we’re Christians, if we’re believers, we realize that it’s not our job to produce the victory— that’s God’s job—but it’s our job to be faithful; it’s our job to stand up and fight, to speak the truth out loud, to refuse to be intimidated, to be willing to suffer any slings and arrows, any blows, any costs, that come for standing up for what is right and true and good. People shouldn’t think that, “Well, I’m entitled to remain silent because I don’t want people calling me bad names, I don’t want to be known as a bigot, I don’t want to be abused by friends or coworkers, I don’t want to put my career prospects or social standing in jeopardy.” Christians throughout history and down to this day have suffered martyrdom for what we believe to be the truth. Today in Africa and Asia and other places, there are people who are killed, often by methods of torture, for the Christian faith. They are willing to give up their lives for the truth. Are we unwilling to speak the truth for fear that someone will call us a bad name? That would speak very poorly for us, if in fact that is true. I’m with Pastor Harold Senkbeil who said, “Jesus has enough secret agents. He doesn’t need any more.” What Jesus needs are bold and courageous witnesses who are truly willing to speak moral truth to cultural and political power.