The Madness of Robert P. George
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:40:37 AM EST
Catholic neoconservatism has been guruless since the passing of  Richard John Neuhaus.  I thought at first, that newly minted conservative Catholic Newt Gingrich might be the logical successor.  Much like Neuhaus, Gingrich was a Protestant who converted to a strident form of Catholicism, thus straddling both worlds.

But I was wrong.   Gingrich is, after all, just a politician who may even be casting an eye towards the 2012 Presidential Elections.  Both neoconservatism and its religiously orthodox variant, theoconsevatism, require leaders who do not themselves seek elected office but instead, seek to influence others who do.  To that end there is another contender for the Neuhaus Throne:  Robert P. George.  I should have known.

Two years ago I  wrote that the Princeton University professor certainly had the intellectual heft to lead the theocratic faction:

As the philosophical mouthpiece for the Catholic Right battalion, he is a busy man. His lofty academic credentials lend an air of authoritativeness to many a theocratic, neoconservative policy position. He has a law degree as well as a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard, and has studied at Oxford. These lofty credentials are helpful when arguing against marriage equality, embryonic stem cell research, justifying the war in Iraq on religious grounds, and opposing women's reproductive rights.

But his academic pedigree not withstanding, Robert P. George is never above demagoguery or dissembling. These are skills that have made him a good fit with neoconservative-oriented Religious Right think tanks, including The Ethics Public Policy Center, The Witherspoon Institute,  The Institute on Religion and Public Life , and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

Most recently he served as the founding chair of the board of the  National Organization for Marriage, which has played a leading role in opposing marriage equality, especially in New Jersey.  

It is small wonder that he was appointed by George W. Bush to serve on the The President's Council on Bioethics, whose portfolio includes matters concerning embryonic stem cell research.

In the wake of The Manhattan Declaration Robert George's rise to theoconservative prominence caught the eye of The New York Times Magazin.  In a December 16, 2009 piece, entitled, "The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker", reporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote:

He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as "one of the biggest brains in America," or, on one broadcast, "Superman of the Earth." Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told me he numbers George among the most-talked-about thinkers in conservative legal circles. And Newt Gingrich called him "an important and growing influence" on the conservative movement, especially on matters like abortion and marriage.

"If there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy," the conservative Catholic journal Crisis concluded a few years ago, "its leaders probably meet in George's kitchen."

The Manhattan Declaration

 The Manhattan Declaration, a theocratic manifesto drafted primarily by George, reflects the author's non-evolved, School of Salamanca view of natural law, one devoid of any new thought beyond the days of St. Thomas Aquinas.

And there lies the rub. When reproductive rights, embryonic stem cell research, marriage and marriage equality are discussed, it is only through the lens of religious orthodoxy.   Economic justice is briefly mentioned at the out set and is then completely forgotten.  Kirkpatrick explains why:

Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on "the moral social" issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' "making utter nuisances of themselves" about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care - "matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will," as George put it.

Robert P. George, for all his acclaimed intellect, still fails to square such a conclusion with a Jesus who spent an inordinate amount of time emphasizing economic justice and virtually no time addressing homosexuality or abortion.

This topsy-turvy view of the Gospels appears to be a very convenient way to rationalize the buccaneer-economic views of neoconservatism.

Why?

First and foremost, the economics espoused by Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is at odds with George's views. His view follows neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol's view that raw Christianity is counter-cultural. And in its raw form, Christianity serves the poor and oppressed, not a neo-platonic oligarchy such as the Koch family or Bradley Foundation patrons (Koch Family and Bradley Foundation money underwrites both theo/neocconservative and libertarian think tanks). George's polemic is the means of removing the counter-cultural economic message from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Secondly, a review of the Manhattan Declaration's primary signatories is a Who's-Who of traditionalist Catholic or Fundamentalist political players who scorn dissent (Opus Dei Archbishop John J. Myers, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput), economic libertarians (Acton Institute Founder Fr. Robert Sirico, Catholic League President and Heritage Foundation fellow William Donohue) and neoconservatives or their religious cooperators (Chuck Colson, Dinesh D'Souza, George Weigel, Institute for Religion and Democracy President Mark Tooley). All advocate a laissez-faire economic outlook and all see the Republican Party as the primary means of accomplishing their agenda.

As an American Catholic I find the religious and secular views of Robert P. George maddening. While giving lip service to religious freedom in the Manhattan Declaration, the statement's content actually promotes religious supremacy.

Reading between the lines of Kirkpatrick's The New York Times piece, George is saying that American law must be based upon an unyieldingly orthodox form of Catholicism. Other faiths may be tolerated provided they cede to his subjective interpretation of Christianity on issues of life and death. Catholics who, like me, view dissent as healthy and the Gospels as an on-going journey of understanding appear to have no place at all in the  theoconservative world according to George.

While George claim's that his view of natural law "... disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture - or even history and anthropology" it all-too-subjectively draws upon a thirteenth century version, one where the state and Catholic Church were  intertwined. Nowhere in this calculation is any reliance upon Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century Anglican theologian whose views on natural law, latitudinarianism and religious tolerance greatly influenced John Locke and in turn, the Founding Fathers.

The irony of George's position is evidenced by his strident opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Beyond the fact that this research is supported by the majority of American Catholics, it is also supported by other Christian denominations as well as all four forms of Judaism. In Robert P. George's view the opinion of these religious views must take a back seat to his own set of beliefs.

Jesus lived His life on earth as a religious Jew according to the concept of Pikuach nefesh: the obligation to save a life in jeopardy. It is upon this halakic concept that Judaism bases its support for this medical research (as well as the primacy of a mother's life in the case of life-threatening childbirth).

There is a much higher presumption that Jesus would subscribe to the current position of his Jewish co-religionists on these matters than George's own dogmatic Catholic view. Make no mistake: the seemingly mild mannered Princeton professor wants to turn the United States Government into orthodox Catholicism's enforcer on sexual and bioethical issues. Such is the madness of the ascendant king of theoconservatism, Robert P. George.




Display:
Boning up on Robert P. George is important because it enables us to address his many fallacies. Here are some excellent articles on the Theocon King:

First there is Max Blumenthal's article from The Nation. Written several years ago, Max, as always, provides a great overview.

Secondly, this diary was posted by Betty Clermont right here at Talk to Action. From a mainstream-progressive Catholic point of view it is a damn good piece, exposing the many inadequacies of George's Manhattan Declaration.

Finally, there is Colleen Kochivar-Baker's recent post over at Enlightened Catholicism, that also exposes the Manhattan Declaration's many shortcomings. Just as with the other two pieces, this is required reading.

Happy New Year!


by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 08:42:52 AM EST

Great post Frank. Maybe the moral of the story is we should be writing neocon theology and angling for the big bucks. Who cares about Christ inspired social justice---it doesn't sell. Thanks for the mention.

by colkoch on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 06:57:05 PM EST
Parent


Thanks again for a timely posting. George sounds like a great nominee for next year's Coughie award.

by khughes1963 on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 12:46:35 PM EST
RPG is already the frontrunner for 2010.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 01:12:41 PM EST
Parent



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