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'A fair fight on the plane of reason': Princeton's Robert George

Issue: "BMOC: Big mandate on campus," Sept. 14, 2002

The story is told that whenever former Princeton president Harold Shapiro received an angry telephone call from someone demanding to know why Princeton had hired a professor with such fanatical views, the first thing he did was check to see where the call originated.

If the person shouting into his ear was phoning from outside Princeton's ivy-covered walls, Mr. Shapiro knew the caller was referring to philosopher Peter Singer-promoter of infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality. If the call came from within the university, he knew it was a complaint about Princeton's other notorious troublemaker: Professor Robert George, an Oxford-trained Catholic moral philosopher whose presence at deeply secular Princeton often raises liberal hackles.

Perhaps that's because Mr. George is a seasoned fighter who agrees to philosophical duels with secular opponents, then blasts their arguments with their own chosen weapons: reason and rationality. They expect him to stand on faith, Mr. George notes, but he critiques their faith in "feminism, multiculturalism, libertinism, and lifestyle liberalism-what I lump together as a family called the secularist orthodoxy."

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The real cultural clash, he maintains, "is not between great civilizations but within the civilizations of the West-between those who cling to traditional Judeo-Christian values and those who have abandoned them" in favor of secularist orthodoxy. The secularist faithful, used to attacking Christian faith, have a harder time defending their own.

The secularist assault "attempts to deride and denigrate Christian teachings by claiming that they're irrational and represent prejudice," Mr. George notes. "If you just quote Scripture, you're begging the question, because secularists don't accept Scripture. Secularists demand to know what reason there is for affirming Christian moral teachings. They assume that reason is on their side. What I try to do in my work is to turn the tables on secularism and say, fine, let's have a fair fight on the plane of reason. Let's see whether Christian moral teachings or secularist ideology is the more rational view."

Take the controversies over embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. Secular scientists often "depict this as a battle between science and religion," claiming that religious people are trying to restrict science, Mr. George says. Ironically, "It's the scientists who have to cover up the scientific facts about the status of the human embryo in order to justify morally the research they want to do. When people know the science, they realize the human embryo is not some creature distinct from a human being, it is a human being in the early stages of its existence."

Mr. George brings the same reasoned arguments to the President's Council on Bioethics, of which he is a member, and to public debates over such issues as same-sex marriage-earning the respect of evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson and James Dobson. "Students fight to get into his classes," Mr. Colson says, "and once they're in, their often unexamined cultural assumptions are confronted with the full weight of the Christian intellectual tradition."

In recent years Mr. George has spent increasing amounts of time speaking to evangelicals eager to learn how to sharpen their own worldview weapons. Gerard Bradley, a Notre Dame law professor, notes, "Robby has come to be seen by many evangelicals as a trusted ally in the culture war. He has been quite effective in showing that liberalism's professed neutrality on moral issues-such as when life begins, or the morality of different sexual acts-is in fact false."

In short, when Christians are confronted by those who disdain Christian moral teachings as irrational prejudices, the most useful defense is often a good offense. "It's secularism that has difficulty giving a rational account of itself," Mr. George maintains. For example, "Every time secularists say, 'Don't impose your values on others,' they're stating a moral claim about people's rights. They're implying there is a moral order. Now, how can that be defended on a secularist's account? They never say. They don't say because they don't know."

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