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Professor in Rome

Interview | Berry College's Peter Lawler critiques those who

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

ROME, Ga. -- Peter Augustine Lawler was giving a walking tour of his Berry College campus to a visitor this summer when a problem emerged: One heel of the political scientist's well-worn loafers was hanging by only a few strands of rubber.

A lesser mind would have tried to repair the shoe, the way many other academics attempt to fix worn-out American liberalism, but Mr. Lawler acted radically and tore off the heel entirely. The walk did not have a happy ending-he half-shuffled, half-limped back to his car-but one of America's most prominent conservative professors had once again gone boldly where few colleagues had gone before.

Mr. Lawler has taught at this highly ranked, 1,800-student school northwest of Atlanta for 26 years, and such longevity is also unusual in today's flighty academic culture. He takes obvious pleasure in emphasizing that Berry is a place where professors teach a lot and have at least 10 scheduled office hours for students, who in turn are expected to come to class, participate in discussions, and refrain from cheating. As Mr. Lawler describes his charges, "They may not read the assignments, but they don't brag about it."

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Nor does the slightly stooped, dry-humored teacher with a face like Edmund Muskie brag about the condition of his office, which is invitingly open with papers and books strewn everywhere. The one showy statement is a huge framed letter of appointment to President Bush's bioethics council, but that's made up for by a bumper sticker on his office door advocating the election of one John Mayes to the Floyd County Commission. It contrasts well with the John Kerry for President sticker on the adjacent professor's door.

Mr. Lawler, who describes himself as "a cradle Catholic" and writes about sin and grace from an Augustinian sensibility, has written or edited 10 books, including Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls and Postmodernism Rightly Understood. He regularly criticizes those who prefer "comfort over truth and . . . call true whatever makes them comfortable." He suggests that one evidence for creation and the Fall is that people frequently feel some sense of alienation in the world-and that it is better to be discontented in that sense than to be bored or diverted.

Mr. Lawler recommends to students that they not spend a lot of time asking themselves whether they are happy, because "beings that calculate incessantly about how to be happy rarely are." Much like one of his favorite authors, Walker Percy, Mr. Lawler perceives the immense melancholy that engulfs those who are trying too hard to be entertained-and he quotes Mr. Percy's lapidary line, "better to be a dislocated human than a happy chimp."

He argues that man is separated from animals by the need to live a morally demanding life, and he criticizes attempts to overcome a sense of dislocation by ignoring moral demands concerning activities like sex, which for many has become "simply the presentation of one's body, or one's sexual parts, to another. Human sex becomes like chimp sex."

He sees hope because many Christians are becoming aware of why they believe what they believe: "Orthodox belief in America today is not primarily a remnant of decaying traditionalism. Most such believers have chosen or converted to a way of life usually not shared with equivalent intensity by their fathers." He even suggests that we may be in "another Great Awakening, a powerful spiritual reaction against the soul-deadening excesses of liberalism. . . . Orthodox believers are not reliable political conservatives. They have little use for either country-club Republicans or therapeutic Democrats."

He has also written perceptively about poverty in the United States: "Very few Americans today are malnourished or cold, and those called poor often have DVD players and air conditioning. Being poor is more humiliating than ever, however, because it is harder to blame the rich for one's condition, and because it is hard to see virtue in choosing a miserable condition that really might be avoided." And he notes, "The real human scarcity is scarcity of time."

Here are some other Lawler thoughts:

WORLD: What's the danger if genetic engineering to knock out physical disease leads to genetic engineering to eliminate psychological disease?

LAWLER: The first danger is that if we lost our uneasiness we would stop caring whether physical disease was cured. The second danger, of course, is that we would surrender the anxiety that leads to both boredom and wonder, and which is part of our openness to God and the good. But what's the foundation of this drive to mood management? It's a really bad one: that life is so bad I can't get through the day without mood technology. Lurking behind every effort to transform ourselves psychologically is an intense anxiety: Even our feelings demand constant and conscious technical manipulation.

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