Tim and Rick sit down with Dr. Robert George, a renowned professor, legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual, and this year’s recipient of Biola University’s Charles W. Colson Conviction and Courage award. Dr. George has maintained a very devout and a very public Christian faith, and he is a model of what sociologist James Davison Hunter calls "faithful presence" at the most elite levels of American culture. They talk with Dr. George about modeling a genuine love and abiding respect for others even in the face of profound disagreements.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a Professor of Communication here at Biola University, and I'm the co-Director of the Winsome Conviction Project, along with my good friend, Professor Rick Langer.
Rick Langer: Thanks, Tim. And we're excited about what we get to do here today. We're going to have a very special podcast, featuring Dr. Robert George.
Tim Muehlhoff: So let me set this up just a little bit, before Rick introduces our special guest. Dr. George came to campus. He received a prestigious Chuck Colson Award that Biola gives out to people who we think are making a difference in culture. And he then came and did a faculty lunch. Rick and I begged and pleaded that we could interview him, and we were allowed to do that. So what we're about to hear is a live interview we did for faculty over lunch where we got a chance just to ask him some questions that hopefully, you'll find interesting. So with that being said, Rick, why don't you introduce our guest?
Rick Langer: For those of you who don't know Dr. Robert George, he's a renowned professor. He's published over 500 articles and books, as a legal scholar, a political philosopher, and just plain a public intellectual. And he has also served as Director of the James Madison Program on American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. But for us at the Winsome Conviction Project, perhaps most importantly at all, he's not only thought and written and taught from a Christian perspective, he's acted from a Christian perspective. He's modeled a genuine love and abiding respect for others, even in the face of profound disagreements. So we're excited that this podcast allows you to step in and join us for the luncheon that we hosted here and hear some of his thoughts on the challenge of communicating convictions effectively in a contentious and polarized world.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, do you think he'll be intimidated that we've written two books?
Rick Langer: He has 22 honorary doctorates, Tim. I think not.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, let's go to Dr. George. Well, if I can jump in with a dialogue question. So I absolutely concur with Dr. Corey about when you came with Cornel West and that image of you holding hands during prayer. When you were first interviewed for a student newspaper called The Green Light, Cornel commented, there was really something special between you. It was supposed to have lasted an hour. I understood it lasted four hours, the interview. And then you walked back to the car and did another hour. But that's not my question.
There are people we disagree with that we just kind of like. I mean, I may disagree with you. I'm thinking of people in my grad school that we could have humor, and I found it interesting when Cornel West said, "The glue that holds your relationship together is humor." But my question has to do with people that you really disagree with and not just disagree with, but even could possibly view their views as being beyond the pale, being abhorrent. One comment you said that night, I'll never forget, is you were talking about another colleague, and that is Peter Singer, where Singer shocks many readers by suggesting that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth. And that the attending physician could kill a disabled baby on the spot. So when you-
Robert George: It wouldn't have to be disabled. Singer's view is it's not doing any wrong to the infant to kill the infant even if the infant's perfectly healthy, if the parents don't want the infant for up to 28 days. That was his famous article in Spectator Magazine called, Killing Babies Isn't Always Wrong.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow. Did that set this up perfectly? But here's what you said at Biola. I had my original notes and found them. You said this, "If I want him to respect me and my views, I must show him respect." How does one do that with views that, what you just described, where you just shake your head and say, "This is ridiculous. It's immoral. It makes me angry." But how does respect be shown when you're engaging those kind of emotions?
Robert George: You show respect to the person because he's a person, because he or she is a fellow image bearer, a rational creature made in the very image and likeness of the divine ruler and creator of all that is. What is there not to respect about that? Now, you may be shocked by what the person says, but we have to remember in human history, great people, great thinkers, people who in many ways were noble, people we would admire for certain things, held certain views that were reprehensible. We're reminded about that very often these days when it comes to the history of slavery. Great figures not only supported the institution of slavery, but themselves held slaves. I yield to no one in my admiration for the great George Washington. He truly was an indispensable man. He truly was a statesman. If ever there was a statesman, George Washington was a statesman. Where would we be? Where would the world be had it not been for George Washington?
But George Washington was a slave holder. We condemn his views, rightly, but we respect him. And it's the same with somebody who today says something that we regard as reprehensible. So I know that my colleague Peter Singer, is an intelligent man, indeed, a brilliant man. I know that he's learned. I know that he's thoughtful. I know that he's not a demagogue. I know that he's not a hater. He doesn't try to win an argument by yelling epithets at his adversaries. He doesn't call people names. He does business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse. Just as there's a currency of economic relations, pounds and pence in Britain, dollars and cents in the United States, there's a currency of intellectual discourse, and that currency consists of reasons, evidence and arguments.
Tim, my view is when it comes to Peter Singer or anybody else, that we need to be prepared. We Christians, others, need to be prepared to do business, to respect anybody who's prepared to do business with us in the proper currency of that discourse. If you're not a hater, if you're not a shouter, if you're not a demagogue, if you're not a manipulator, if you're not a liar, if you're an honest truth seeker, then no matter how scandalous, outrageous, unjust I consider your views to be, I want to hear your reasons. I want to hear your arguments. And I want to listen to them in a truth-seeking spirit, fully cognizant of the fact that it's possible that I myself am in the wrong or partially in the wrong. After all, if an intelligent, well-informed, well-intentioned person believes something contrary to my beliefs, it's possible.
Now, I don't think I'm wrong about infanticide. I don't think Peter Singer's right about infanticide, or abortion, or any of these other things. But since he's an intelligent person who does business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse, I want to hear what he has to say. And I'll tell you something else, Tim, I've probably learned more about the truth of the pro-life position by being forced by my engagement with Peter Singer and his writings to think about his arguments than I have from my discussions with people I agree with about those issues.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, we're done. Let's pray. Oh, my God. But can I just, real quick, where did we lose it? Where did we lose that kind of respect? In communication, we call that the relational level of communication. We got a chance to go to Capitol Hill and meet with certain people. Certain groups brought us in, Faith & Law, Campus Crusade for Christ, Christian Embassy, but that view was not to be found anywhere. There was no respect. One person said to us, "Have drinks together? We won't even share the same elevator together." And so where did we lose this?
Rick Langer: And let me clarify, that wasn't so much the people that we were talking to in terms of Faith & Law and others.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, no, no, not Faith & Law. No, no, no. Yeah, they're great. Yes.
Rick Langer: It was many of the folks who are legislators and most political-
Robert George: Who wouldn't get into the elevator with the Faith & Law [inaudible 00:08:27].
Rick Langer: Yes. So if it was a Democrat walking up to the elevator, they wouldn't get into the elevator [inaudible 00:08:32].
Tim Muehlhoff: They literally would wait for the elevator to go and then they would-
Rick Langer: And wait for the elevator to go up and down.
Tim Muehlhoff: And they looked at us honestly, like, "You guys are naive. I mean, come on, the house is on fire and you want what, civility? You want respect?"
Robert George: Flight 93, where did we lose it?
Tim Muehlhoff: Where did we lose it?
Robert George: In the garden.
Rick Langer: Well, that's a bummer.
Robert George: It's our frail, fallen, fallible human nature. I mean, we human beings, frail, fallible, fallen creatures that we are naturally want to be affirmed in what we believe no matter what we believe. We like affirmation. We don't like challenge. What's more, we human beings, made the way we are prone to, we tend to wrap our emotions more or less tightly around our convictions. Now, that in itself, just in itself is not a bad thing. Unless we had some emotional investment in our convictions, we wouldn't get anything done. Not just big political causes like the ones that have been fought for by my predecessors with the Colson Award, but even things like getting the kids up, and fed, and off to school in the morning. You can't just believe this is something you should do as a bare belief, as a bare rational affirmation. You need some emotional oomph into it.
So it's not in itself bad that we wrap our emotions more or less tightly around our convictions. But if we wrap our emotions too tightly around our convictions, we quickly fall into dogmatism. We become ideologues. We try to immunize ourselves and our views from critique or challenge, and that is not what it sometimes pretends to be, a passion for truth. That's not a defense of truth. That's undermining the conditions of truth-seeking. Truth-seeking is only possible for people who acknowledge their own fallibility, not just notionally. We all do it in notion. If I ask anybody, "Is anybody in here infallible?" Unless the Pope walks in, everybody's going to say, "No, I'm fallible." It's one thing to believe that notionally, it's another thing to believe it in here, to really understand and appropriate the sense of one's own fallibility. And if you do that, that unwraps that emotional tightness around the conviction.
It doesn't mean that we aren't people of conviction. I want to be a person of... I don't deserve this award, but I want to be somebody who did deserve this award, who is a person of conviction, like Chuck Colson really was, a person of conviction. Like so many of you are, really persons of convictions, all of you. I think it's important to be a person of conviction, but it's important not to be a dogmatist and not to be an ideologue, not to be someone who shuts other people down, or refuses to listen, or turns your back. If an intelligent person has something to say by way of challenge, you should engage that person. And we [inaudible 00:11:42] to our students. We should engage this person in a truth-seeking spirit.
All we can legitimately demand is what we must demand. This we can demand and we should demand, that if you want me to take you seriously, Mr. Adversary, Mr. Intellectual Foe, you need to do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse. Give me your reasons. Let me have your evidence. Let me hear your argument.
Rick Langer: Let me change the focus just a little bit. I believe in 2019, you did a seminar at Harvard Law with Adrian Vermeule.
Robert George: Oh, yeah. Twice, actually.
Rick Langer: Twice, okay, yeah. It sounds like you hadn't done it yet, but I was intrigued by that, I guess, twice over. Because in one sense, that's another example of you having sustained discourse with someone that you probably disagree with. The other thing is that the whole issue of integralism, Christian nationalism, and let me just say more broadly, the dismantling of perhaps the core values of the Western political liberalist tradition seems to be on the plate right now as quite a debatable issue. So everything from should we really have separation of church and state? What do we make of free speech? Do we have room for these sorts of agreements? Should we have some sort of a centralized focus that we favor in governmental things? This has become quite an area of debate, so I would love to have you just speak a little bit to us about this moment, those issues and your perspective on that.
Robert George: Well, I think that the debates that we're having on the Catholic side over what's sometimes called integralism on the evangelical side, what's called Christian nationalism, I think those are legitimate and important debates. Or my former student, the Orthodox Jewish scholar and activist Yoram Hazony has what he calls national conservatism. I think those are very important debates. And I've learned from my own engagement with representatives of those schools of thought, representatives of schools that are much more skeptical than I would be of say, the principles of the American founding, which they identify with, I think probably incorrectly or in an exaggerated way, but that's a debatable point that they identify with a certain enlightenment individualism and irreligiosity.
So I want those debates to happen, and I learn from those debates. I also think it's very important to listen carefully to what people say. Professor Vermeule, who's a very, very brilliant man and a dear friend of mine, and we have taught together and he's someone I respect and learn from, his views have been misrepresented, frequently by his critics. And usually, the misrepresentation is an exaggeration. So they depict him as more hostile to principles of liberty, or the principle of the two cities, or the two swords than he actually is. He does have some skeptical points to make. He has some criticism of the American doctrine of separation of church and state. But his view is much more subtle and nuanced than it's often depicted to be. I'd be surprised if the same isn't the case, at least with some people who represent themselves or represent the school of what's called Christian nationalism.
I know the same is certainly true in Hazony's case with national conservatism. Now, I haven't identified myself with any of those movements. I'm a pretty full-throated defender of the American experiment in Republican government and ordered liberty, and I don't see it as infected with the virus of enlightenment individualism and irreligiosity. But it's entirely possible that I could be wrong about some of those things. And the only way I'm going to know whether I'm wrong about them is to listen to my critics who explain to me why they think I'm wrong, and then I consider what they have to say. And if I need to adjust, then it's fine.
Tim Muehlhoff: But I love how you defend the critics, I love how you defend them publicly and to say, "No, I think that's an exaggeration of a viewpoint." I love that. What a great example to us of giving a strawman, or not a strawman, but a steelman argument of our critics. I think that's great.
Robert George: Well, we've got to keep our eyes focused on what the goal is. Gosh, I tell my students this all the time. The goal, the point of this exercise in education or in public disputation and debate is not victory. It's not victory. It is truth. And if you understand that the common goal of all of us, no matter where we're coming from, whether you're Peter Singer, Cornel West, Adrian Vermeule, Yoram Hazony, Robbie George, if your goal is getting at the truth of things, then although you're in a dialectical partnership, it is nevertheless a partnership where both of the parties are after the truth. And we're working together dialectically to get at the truth of things. And one thing, for sure, we know, none of us has the truth perfectly. None of us is free from error in our thinking. Again, if I would ask the question, how many of you out there, right now, have only true beliefs in your head and no false beliefs?
Pope Francis? [inaudible 00:17:12]. No. All right? And that's true of everybody in the world. And everybody in the world knows that right now, they have certain beliefs in their head that are false. Now, if you love truth, if you are a disciple of Socrates, of Plato's Socrates, if you've read The Gorgias, which was absolutely the pivotal event in my entire intellectual life. When I was a sophomore in college I read The Gorgias. It changed everything. But if you've had an experience like that and you love the truth, then the last thing you want to do is to shut down a critic, because those false beliefs in your head, the only way you're going to be able to swap them out for true beliefs is to allow all your beliefs to be subjected to criticism. If you don't do that, then you're just going to be reinforcing what you already believe.
You'll be reinforcing the beliefs you hold that happen to be true, but you'll also be reinforcing the ones that happen to be false. I tell this to the kids who are tempted to, I don't care whether they're on the left or the right, I tell the kids who want to protest speakers, Cornel and I both believe that the right of protest is sacrosanct. We're willing to fight for your right to protest. But before you protest, before you spend the time and energy on the protest, at least think, might it be better if instead of protesting Peter Singer or Robbie George or whoever it is, Judge Duncan, instead of protesting you sit and listen and not with a view to showing the guy up with your tough, analytical, aggressive question, but with a view to maybe learning something from him. I've already said how much I've learned from engaging Peter Singer.
You can learn even from the people furthest away from you, morally, politically, religiously, in any domain, even outside of those kinds of questions. Let's say you just have a scholarly debate over the interpretation of a literary text, a couple of English literature scholars, and having different interpretations of certain passages in Jane Austin's, Emma, just as an example. Imagine that. It's not political. It's not religious. It's not a moral debate. But they have a debate. They both can't be right to the extent that they disagree. So how should they handle that? How should they teach the matter to their students? Do you only provide your students with your point of view because it's correct? Well, even if it is correct, you shouldn't just give the students your point of view.
Say, "Here's my perspective on this, but Professor Jones up there at Azusa Pacific, she sees this text completely differently than I do. She interprets it this way. Now, I want you to consider her argument in this article about it and consider mine. And then you decide for yourselves." What's wrong with letting students decide for themselves, think for themselves, exposing them to the best that's been thought and said on the competing sides of questions? And if you're truth-focused and not victory-focused, that'll be obvious to you.
Rick Langer: Well, let me pick up one more thread that's moving through our culture at the moment, and that is following the Dobbs decision, what should come next for the pro-life movement? It seems in some ways what has tended to happen is we just have pressed more on any restrictions, removing restrictions that allowed for abortion, felonious intercourse, or danger to the mother's health or things like this. Are there other things we should be doing? What is it that the pro-life movement should be doing now in light of post-Dobbs life?
Robert George: We should be doing more and better what we've always been doing. I was recruited into the pro-life movement by my mother prior to Roe versus Wade. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. I was the oldest of five, all boys, five boys, rambunctious bunch growing up in the hills of West Virginia hunting, fishing. That's where I got that banjo playing. Up in the hills. I got it honestly. Little boys are issued banjos at birth in West Virginia. And being the oldest of the five, I remembered my mother's pregnancies. Not the brother immediately, who's just two years. I don't remember my mother's pregnancy with him. But the other three I remember. And I didn't really need my mother to explain, but my mother did explain that what was inside mom was the new baby. Now, in those days, you didn't know whether it was going to be a brother or sister. We began to rely on its being a brother, because that just kept happening.
But it's a baby. It's not a rhinoceros. It's not a cat. It's not an amoeba. It's not a broccoli. It's a baby in there. So it was pretty easy for my mother to recruit me into the movement, which was almost all female where I was growing up. It was these two guys who were doctoral students in philosophy at West Virginia University and a Catholic priest, whose chapel we would meet in for our Right to Life Committee meetings. And then about 18 women, including my mother. And they were the pro-life movement. Now, what did they do? They did a couple of things. When they advocated on behalf of the unborn, legal protection of the unborn, they advocated against the revision or the change, the so-called reform, I say so-called, of laws in Colorado and California and New York to make abortion more available and permissible. They did all that, but they also took in women who were in difficult situations and pregnant.
Their boyfriends didn't want them, had thrown them out. Their husbands didn't want the baby. They were under pressure from somebody else. These days, often it's the employer, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle pressure from the employer to get rid of it and so forth. And so those women, even back in the early 1970s before Roe versus Wade in 1973, my mother among them, were bringing baby formula, diapers, just cash money. Taking these young women, usually young, quite young, into their homes. It was that reaching out with compassionate care that the pro-life movement has never gotten credit for from the media. Never gotten credit, but they do it. The fact that most of the people doing that are themselves women reaching out, they're not elite women, they're not fancy women, they're not rich women, they're not the super educated women, they're women like my mom. They don't get credit for that. And the media doesn't tell you it's women who are doing it.
So we need to be doing all of that. So we need the political advocacy. We need the preaching and moral advocacy. We need the genuine compassionate care. And on the compassionate care side, there are things we can do in public policy. Now, public policy can't do everything. Government can't replace the kind of thing that my mother and the other women in her group would do for women in need. Private initiative is the foundation and base and the most important thing. But there are ways that we can reform the law that will assist in bringing that kind of compassionate care to women who are in need. So it's an all-fronts battle as far as I'm concerned.
What happened in Dobbs is we were finally liberated to begin the struggle. We were finally liberated to bring about what Chuck Colson's great, great friend and partner in the Evangelicals and Catholics together Project, Richard John Neuhaus, called Our Goal. And Our Goal is every child protected by law and welcomed in life. That's Our Goal, protected by law and welcomed in life.
Rick Langer: One thing I'd just love to hear from you is you look, I won't bother asking you exactly how many years you have been living a life of public, intellectual, and academic and all the things that you have done, but are there moments as you look back that stand out for you where you say, "You know what? I was put here for such a time as this, and I've been able to speak the words that God gave me to speak in the time and place that he put me"?
Robert George: Well, the most important of those moments are not rare. They're frequent. They're in the classroom. If you ask me, "What is it you do?" If I'm just at a county fair or something playing the banjo somewhere...
Rick Langer: With you banjo at the county fair.
Robert George: Or playing the banjo somewhere.
Rick Langer: What's your day job?
Robert George: I played county fairs, rod and gun clubs, fire halls. I played them all in West Virginia and Virginia, Western Maryland. But if someone asks you, "What do you do?" I say, "I'm a teacher," because that's what I am, most fundamentally. I do all this other stuff, this activism and this scholarship. And I've served on all these commissions and all that, but that's not what I fundamentally do. What I fundamentally do is teaching. And I think that's my vocation. And remember what a vocation is, and we all have our vocations, every single one of us. It's a complex thing. It involves your marital situation, and it involves the work that you do, and your relationship with children if you have them, and so forth and so on. So it's a comprehensive thing. But the central idea of a vocation is it's a way of serving. It's the particular way God is calling you, Tim, you, Rick, me, Rob, to serve.
And I have discerned, I believe that God has called me to serve as a teacher. So why did he put me here? Why did he put me at Princeton University, originally in 1985 or then 2005, and now 2023? He put me there to teach. And what does that mean? It means to encourage and empower these young people like your Torrey Honor students I was teaching yesterday, to encourage and empower them to think more deeply, more critically, which always includes self critically, and above all for themselves. And when I see that happening, when I see a student moving away from dogmatism toward critical thinking, and even being his own critic, when the student is making an argument and he's explaining why he holds his view, and then you hear the wheels are turning, and he says, "Now, you might say by way of counterargument..." And then he's making the counterargument.
And now, he's really a little uncertain about, "Maybe that counterargument, I think, God put me here for that. That's why God put me here." Now, there are these other men. Gosh, my life has been so blessed with these moments. I mean, falling into the world of Chuck Colson or Richard John Neuhaus being able to assist in well, being the draftsman for the Manhattan Declaration, the brief that John Finnis and I submitted in the Dobbs case, we waited 49 years, 5 months and 2 days for Roe to fall. And when I submitted that brief with Professor Finnis, the great Oxford, my mentor at Oxford, actually, my doctoral supervisor, and when we had submitted our brief to the Supreme Court in Dobbs, I felt like something really important was happening in that moment.
The other time I felt like that was when I submitted a brief, when I had the very high honor of representing Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1994 when she submitted a brief amicus curate in the Supreme Court of the United States, asking for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe versus Wade back then. And when her plea was denied, I always felt that what was happening is not now, but that someday that brief would, in fact, bear fruit, that Mother Teresa's witness to America about the importance of protecting all of her people, all of her children, her message about the profound, inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family, that the day would come. That that no was not a final no. And it finally came on June 28th of last year. I remember where I was. I'll never forgot the afternoon after school when Roe was handed down.
I was working a pro-life table. I had already been recruited into the movement by my mom. Working at pro-life table at West Virginia University, which was in my hometown. And I was there with a couple of the ladies and we were handing out our pro-life literature. And a student walked by and he saw our table and saw our materials and so forth, and he said, "Hey, there's been a big decision from the Supreme Court on your issue." There was no internet in those days. We hadn't heard the word. It must have been released sometime late morning, and we're there in the afternoon. And we said, "Well, what is it? What was it?" And he said, "I don't know, but it was a big decision. It's on the radio." So we had to go find a radio and wait for On the Hour, because you didn't get the 24-hour news.
So we waited for On the Hour, and then we got the terrible news. Now, it turned out the news was more terrible than we had thought, because the original report said, "Supreme Court legalizes abortion for the first three months of pregnancy." Bad enough, exposing enough unborn children to lethal violence, but it turns out it was even worse than that. I mean, it was at a minimum six months. And honestly, you interpret it together with its companion decision, Doe versus Bolton. It was really a wholesale license of abortion. It was a dreadful, appalling decision, obviously, with no basis in the text, or logic, or structure, or original understanding of the Constitution. So not only was it a moral atrocity, it was a constitutional abomination. It was a pure power grab by the then Supreme Court justices.
And we vowed that day, I mean, not just we at that table, the three or four of us, I mean, pro-life people all over the country, people like my mom, just ordinary people who were in the movement vowed, "This will not stand." And it took us 49 years, 5 months.
Rick Langer: But who's counting?
Robert George: I am. I’m counting. But I don't know if you saw my tweet when Dobbs was handed down and I had fought for it and worked for it, and our brief was cited by Justice Alito. But when it was handed down, my reaction was not really elation. I don't know if you saw the tweet that I put out immediately. I got some criticism for it from my pro-life friends. I said, "This is not a time to exalt. Yes, it's a great thing that we can now really begin in earnest the struggle to protect our unborn brothers and sisters and to love mother and child alike. But we shouldn't exalt because there are a lot of people today, good people, decent people, honorable people who see this differently than we do, who are grieving today because they see this as a great danger to the wellbeing of women and a great assault on the rights of women."
And so we need to proceed as Lincoln advised when he saw the victory finally in sight, as he's giving his second inaugural address, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us move forward." That's my message pro-life movement, "With malice toward none, charity to all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us move forward."
Rick Langer: Wow! There's a good place to put a bow on it. Thank you very much. Well, that was Dr. Robert George, and we were thrilled that you joined us for the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We'd love to have you subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever it is that you like to find your podcasts. And we would also encourage you to check us out online. You could find us at thewinsomeconviction.com website, and you'll find there are a variety of resources for those who would like to communicate more effectively and also to develop deeper and more effectively communicated convictions. So thank you so much for being part of our project here