Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.

Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:

But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.

For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.

It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.

Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.

Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:

I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.

Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.

“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”

On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.

Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.

As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”

  • Roger McKinney

    It seems to me that there is a protestant tradition that salvation restores the mind and makes reason for the Christian possible. Non-Christians have a great deal of difficulty using their reason because their ability to reason is corrupted, but once “saved” that ability is restored. A lot of protestants would disagree, though.

  • John Galt

    It’s hard to take seriously this kind of picayune debate. It gives Christianity a bad name. Hey, here’s an idea: why don’t Christians work on the basics: praying, loving God, and forgiving their enemies? And what if Christians all got together and started working for peace?

    These more fundamental issues are orders of magnitude more important and relevant to modern times than worrying about obscure scholastic technical questions. These kinds of arguments aren’t Christianity: they’re egoism.