Portsmouth Institute 2013 Conference: “Catholicism and the American Experience,” Day 1, Robert George


As always, the Portsmouth Institute conference on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey school (in the Rhode Island town whose name readers can readily guess) will undoubtedly prove to have been among the highlights of my year. Apart from the cultural experience, blending as it does with the beauty of the campus, to spend a few days in reflective consideration of deeply intellectual and spiritual ideas is to translate what is usually a solitary experience into a communal discussion.

The school’s history and political science teacher, Clifford Hobbins, captured the importance of the theme right at the outset, when he quoted Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Hobbins offered the quotation in the process of introducing Robert George, of Princeton University, who wasn’t able to attend for reason of a serious injury.  Instead, Mr. George appeared via pre-recorded Internet video.

George’s talk took up the theme by addressing the question of how we know what is evil and what makes “good men,” as well as the increasingly topical issue of the appropriate role of religion in such determinations.

For starters, he rejected the notion that government laws can be taken as the gauge.  George referred to the writings of Martin Luther King, arguing that there are just and unjust laws, and a citizen is only responsible for those that are just, and we are, indeed, obligated to disobey those that are not.  In King’s view, we can tell which are which by their harmony with moral law.

As George rephrased the conclusion: “Good is prior to right and, indeed, to rights.”  Rights “depend on a sound understanding of human flourishing.”  That is, our rights are defined by those activities that are necessary for our becoming better, more full, fully flourished people.

Toward that end, religion “provides an organizing principle” to order all of the activities in our lives toward the good.  We have a right to the free exercise of religion because full flourishing requires our having asked the big, existential questions that give meaning to everything else that we do throughout life.  We are, in that sense, “homo religiosis,” as he puts it.

George stressed that it does not follow that everybody must take religious pursuits as their vocations.  In a fully considered life, there is no line between activities that are religious and activities that are not.  Life is made richer by the quest for meaning, and even the mundane undertakings of our days can be enhanced with consideration of the why.  (Here, I’d note, we see the problem with the narrow exemptions that governments deign to grant to religious organizations, as with same-sex marriage.)

The obvious problem with the characterization of rights in this way is that human beings repeatedly prove themselves all too willing to proclaim that they have the answers to the question, “Why?,” and to seek to impose their conclusions through the law in accord with their own conception of “the good.”  (That their prescriptions often benefit themselves in some way is no surprise.)

The restraint that George proposes against such abuses is that “it’s of the nature of faith that it can’t be imposed.”  Or, as he subsequently put it, “a coerced faith is a faith in the quotation marks” around the things that we are made to say.

If we behave in accord with religious practices to which we’re forced, the greater good that we’re serving (the “why”) is the avoidance of punishment or, at best, the good of tenuous, unjust peace with those empowered to make the imposition.  This applies to theocracies that force prayer or that beat women in the street for impious habiliments.  But it also applies to secular legal regimes that lower the weight of the federal government (and the cost of litigation) on local communities for overly pious decorations or that sic government agencies on groups with views at odds with their own.

Contrary to the hubris of the modern technocrat, the lines are difficult to see, which is why they ought to be answered from the individual, through the family, then the community, upward.  As illustration, George explains that the Catholic Church used to hold that “only the Truth has rights.”  As a matter of philosophy, theologians argued that “error” cannot have rights, and therefore the government should support what the Church had designated as the Truth.

The conclusion of internal debates, setting the thinking under which the Church currently operates, was that, yes, “error does not have rights,” but people have rights, even the right to be wrong.  Religious pursuits (broadly defined to include all searches for meaning) are a good of themselves, because they help to orient the individual toward the prioritization of meaning.

To infer a summary from George’s talk: The sincere seeker of Truth will more readily accept God and Christ (assuming the Church to be correct) than will the person who mouths the right prayers because he or she is forced to do so.  And as a matter of practical reality, we have to address each human being from his or her actual starting point, given current beliefs and cultural context.

This necessitates a careful balance, because social (ultimately religious) movements can, in coordination with the incentives of government policies, push people toward the dehumanizing mode of being that does not consider meaning important to human life.  I’d offer the example that explicitly cutting religion out of the public school system, while still proclaiming its curricula to offer comprehensive development of the full child, pushes the view that meaning and religion are in fact dispensable in a well-lived life.

A government school can lead children to conclusions about morality and homelessness, and even to political advocacy on that cause, but without existential underpinnings, concepts of the good thereby derive from the assertions of the adults, with the incentive of those adults’ approbation.  As they grow toward maturation, children formed in that way will not even have the moral language to challenge the assertions of people in positions of authority.  The grown-ups say it; the newspaper celebrates it; so it must be good.  And the reverse would also be true of the ungood.

Thus we come to George’s conclusion, namely that religious believers should not tamper with rights of free exercise of religion — even as they resist the movement to restrict what “free exercise” can include — because the freedom of itself implicitly limits the scope of government.  Erode one principle in the Bill of Rights, and “tyrannical regimes” will expand the erosion, ultimately substituting whatever real moral good the theocrats were promoting with the regime’s own self interests.


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