The Most Influential Conservative Christian Thinker in America
Robert P. George was recently christened by the New York Times as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker”—and Richard John Neuhaus’ heir. But take a look at the foundation of his ethics:
In the American culture wars, George wants to redraw the lines. It is the liberals, he argues, who are slaves to a faith-based “secularist orthodoxy” of “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism and lifestyle liberalism.” Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason. George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.
He can build a truly remarkable edifice on the sand of human reason because in it are mixed rocks of general revelation and common grace. That is, God has revealed enough about Himself in creation (Rom. 1:19-20) and in the human conscience (Rom. 2:15–16) to provide some genuine moral light for the nations. That light is suppressed by a non-Christian world (Rom. 1:18), but—by God’s common grace—not completely (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17). Most people still get piqued when someone else takes more than his fair share of the orange.
George recognizes that there is one major part of his foundation which, if proved to be sand and not stone, would cause his whole project to collapse:
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history. It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges. Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said. “Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”
Because of original sin, evangelical Protestants know that George is indeed misleading his followers. Original sin and its result, total depravity, make a natural law ethic impossible—or at least insufficient. But Catholic tradition has created an out, a depravity loophole. Original sin is more the absence of good, they say, than the presence of evil. And anyway, baptism erases it. The official Catholic Catechism reads this way:
Original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted…. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.
The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable.
From a secular perspective (courtesy of the Huffington Post), natural law thinking is only religion warmed-over. And as the Huffington article I just linked to points out rather tartly, getting an ought from an is can be a tricky, uncertain business.