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From the March, 2000 issue of Touchstone


On Robert George by James Hitchcock

On Robert George

Anti-Catholicism is rife in American intellectual circles, even more so, I think, than in the general culture. It is not the old-fashioned Protestant kind, in which the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon, but the “enlightened” kind in which the Church is the enemy of progress. Much of it stems from the Church’s opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and if the Church would change its positions on those issues, most of the hostility would cease.

Catholics as such are not necessarily discriminated against in academia. My impression is that graduates of Catholic colleges (although not Catholic graduate schools) do about as well as anyone in finding academic jobs. However, my impression is also that such people probably fall away from the Church in greater numbers than do Catholics in general, and those who still practice their faith are likely to be closer in theology to Hans Küng than to Pope John Paul II. Sometimes they weigh in with criticisms of the Church that reinforce the hostility of their secular colleagues.

All this having been said, it is a pleasure to recognize a major exception to the pattern, which is the recent appointment of Robert George to the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, one of the most prestigious professorships in the country in the area of political thought. Its first occupant was Woodrow Wilson.

Robert George happens to be a friend of mine, and I am not unbiased. But he is indeed one of the nation’s premier political thinkers, and his achievements are attested to not only by the fact of this recent honor but also especially in the way he defied all the stereotypes in achieving it.

His specialty is the relationship of law and morality, which of course relates directly to some of our most “neuralgic” public issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia. Rather than hiding his light under a bushel, Robert is perhaps the country’s leading pro-life intellectual, in the very forefront of our continuing culture wars. In the process he has inevitably offended a good number of people in academic life for whom the secular worldview is simply taken for granted.

Last year Princeton achieved fame (notoriety?) by appointing to its faculty a philosopher named Peter Singer, who aggressively argues that certain categories of human beings, including babies, have less moral standing than do certain categories of animals. He is a fanatical advocate of abortion, euthanasia, and other things. Robert George has been on the Princeton faculty for a number of years, and he perhaps knew that he was under consideration for the McCormick chair. No one would have been surprised if he had lain low on the Singer appointment. Instead he was outspoken in his criticism, raising fundamental moral questions about the limits of civilized discourse.

Princeton happens to be my alma mater, and while I deplore Singer’s appointment the university should still be honored for its genuine open-mindedness in promoting Robert George to a distinguished chair. Such genuine liberalism is rare in today’s academic world, just as Robert’s kind of moral courage is rare.

If academic life were really what liberals always claim it should be—a setting for the free exchange of ideas—there would be a Robert George on every faculty in the country, and universities would go out of their way to recruit them. I fear that day will never come, but his appointment gives us a rare glimpse of what our intellectual life could and should be like.

James Hitchcock

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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