Robert P. George is not a political consultant. “I’m not Karl Rove or David—what’s his name?—Axelrod.” In fact, he says, “Any candidate who’d ask me for campaign advice should drop out immediately, because he’s too stupid to be running for president.” Yet few advisers are having more influence on conservative thinking this presidential campaign cycle. The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, George is an unofficial counselor to several Republican hopefuls, including Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush.
He’s also helping conservative officials all over the country wrestle with the recent ruling on same-sex marriage, or, as he puts it, “how ought we to think about, say, a Supreme Court decision where the Supreme Court has clearly overstepped its authority. And I might discuss that with, say, Senator Cruz, or anyone else who wanted to talk to me about it.”
A traditional Catholic in a secular academic world, George believes that almost all of the answers supplied by faith can also be arrived at through reason—or, as he tells students, by “using the old noggin.”
“What he brings to the debate is even more method than ideas,” says his friend Mary Ann Glendon, of Harvard Law School. That method being his commitment to the proposition that, as he explains it to students, “when two people who are well disposed engage in debate, despite their differences they are bound together as a little community integrated around a common good. What is that good? Getting at the truth.”
Among the candidates, his closest relationship may be with Cruz, who was one of his students at Princeton. But starting early next month, George is planning to do a series of hour-long interviews with presidential candidates on moral and constitutional questions on the Catholic cable channel EWTN, which is one reason why he won’t be endorsing any candidate. “My object is to drill down, and find out how their minds work,” even when he’s helped some of those minds think through various issues.
Planned Parenthood, at the center of America’s politics since the release of videos purporting to show employees negotiating over fetal organs, is one matter candidates call him about. “I’ve argued that you cannot try to fund good and honorable activities or services for Planned Parenthood while blocking the bad stuff it does, like abortions, because of the fungibility of money, and that what we need is a complete de-funding of Planned Parenthood, together with mechanisms for providing desirable services to women. So that might be the kind of issue I’d talk to Rick Santorum or anyone else about.”
He doesn’t supply them with rhetorical ammunition, he says, or the exact answer. “What I try to help these guys think through is: What’s the truth of the matter? What should our response be?”
And on Planned Parenthood or any other issue, George doesn’t always say what conservatives want to hear. For example, he feels the makers of the Planned Parenthood sting videos were wrong in one respect: “I defend the videos, and I think the videos tell us the truth about Planned Parenthood, but it’s wrong to lie about who you are to gain access to get to people.”
How He Leads Conservative Debate
George’s intellectual formulations are ubiquitous on the right. But just as important has been his process—the cheerful contesting of these crucial issues with those with whom he disagrees.
In fact, George says, “The best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade is that I regularly teach with Cornel West, who is as far to the left as I am to the right, but we love each other, and he’s got exactly the same attitude I have” about the inherent value of discussion, “and the same fears I have, that he’ll fall in love with his own opinions. It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth.”
And the best single piece of advice that one of the country’s most ardent culture warriors has for students, he says, is this: “Cultivate friends you disagree with,” as well as those with whom you agree, because together you’ll locate the soft spots in your own thinking and find common ground to build on.
George’s wife of 32 years, Cindy, whom he met in college, is Jewish, and he’s also heavily committed to finding common ground with other believers, including Orthodox Jews, Mormons, evangelical Christians, and Muslims. Right after Ben Carson, an old friend who also served on George W. Bush’s bioethics commission, said he didn’t think a Muslim should be president, George posted this message on his Facebook page, which didn’t mention Carson, and didn’t have to:
“Non-Muslim friends, please get to know your Muslim neighbors. You will find that the vast majority of American Muslims reject political Islamism and violent extremism and share our basic values…They are loyal Americans who love our country. Do you doubt that? Talk with them…Would I be willing to support a Muslim for public office, and even for president? You bet I would.”
George, who was appointed by John Boehner to head the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has spent his career at the busy intersection of church and state, religion and politics. And that can be a dangerous corner; in 2012, a self-described “pro-choice terrorist” pled guilty to threatening George’s life, and that of a priest, after police found cyanide in his apartment. The man served three years in jail before being released to a halfway house earlier this year.
Friend of as many church as political leaders, he knows the mind of his church so well that as the 2013 papal conclave began, he was the only person I heard predicting that it was Jorge Bergoglio who was most likely to walk out of the Sistine Chapel as the next pope, Francis. But while others hear Francis’s call on church leaders to avoid “harsh and divisive” language as a plea for at least a ceasefire in the culture wars, George does not.
Both inside the church and inside the Republican Party, the struggle is not so much over what the right answer is on the topics he cares most about, but over how much to insist on the social issues that George sees as indivisible from economic questions, because they’re “civilizational,” and “existential” matters about what kind of a people we want to be.
Kim Davis and 2016
The 2016 race on and to the right is as much as anything about what the GOP is willing to stake on George’s conviction that a country that will look away from the Planned Parenthood sting videos, or force Americans to violate their religious beliefs, is a fundamentally different place than the one we’ve been living in.
Just as Lincoln refused to accept Dred Scott as the law of the land, for example by issuing passports and patents to African Americans, George argues that the president and other officials “need not treat as binding” an anti-Constitutional ruling in our day.
Since the Constitution is the law, he doesn’t see Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who went to jail after saying that her Christian faith didn’t allow her to sign the marriage license of a same-sex couple, as having been involved in civil disobedience.
But Davis, an independently elected official in her state’s executive branch, might still be bound by the view of Kentucky governor, who disagreed with her.
“That’s a close, complicated case,” George said of Davis’s situation, “and I don’t have a confident opinion about that,” given the governor’s position. But even if she is bound by his view, George said, she should still be protected by Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RIFRA, which “doesn’t mean she can deny marriage licenses, but she can force the state to carry it out without signing her name.”
Another subject on which he’s frequently consulted by Catholic politicians on the right, though not by any of those in the current presidential field, is the death penalty, which he opposed before his church did.
On abortion, the way he sees it, sonograms and science are making it harder and harder to say, as his friend Cornel West did in a phone interview, that “I don’t know when life begins, or I’d have to agree with him; I want to be in solidarity with any human being. I just don’t think the child is there.”
“He’s my dear, dear brother,” West says of George.
But have they changed each others’ minds over the last decade of deep discussion? “More on texts” in the Great Books course they co-teach “than politics or policy,” West says. So, no actual switches?
George laughs when told that: “I suppose that’s right.” Though, “I think I have a greater appreciation for the plausibility of some views, like race-based admission.”
From his conservative female students, he’s said, he’s also changed his mind in recent years about the prevalence of campus sexual assault, which he’s come to see as a widespread problem.
Rising as an Ex-Democrat
So how did the 60-year-old former Democrat, who didn’t even join the GOP until around 2000, become the most important intellectual strategist of the right?
Over lunch in D.C.–a steak only, medium rare–he says his political evolution hasn’t been all that dramatic, because when he was growing up in West Virginia coal country, the grandson of two FDR-loving miners, there were plenty of pro-life liberals around, and many pro-choice conservatives, too.
In those days, you were liberal if you supported civil rights, which his family did. “My own views have changed a bit, but the deeper down, the less change, and I still think fighting poverty has got to be at the top of the agenda, along with the protection of human life, the protection of fundamental civil liberties, things like religious freedom–right up there has to be fighting poverty.”
Poverty was not at all an abstraction for him in his hometown of Morgantown.
“West Virginia being a little out in the provinces, the 70s is when the 60s happened there,” he says. He recalls getting his earliest glimpse of “liberal hypocrisy” as a young musician.
In high school, he’d spend Friday nights playing guitar with college kids in campus coffeehouses, and Saturdays playing bluegrass on the banjo with locals at the rod and gun clubs.
At the coffeehouses, he says, “there was a lot of what we would today call hooking up–just meaningless sex–and I remember coming to realize that some of the guys were talking the girls into these meaningless sexual encounters by persuading them that they weren’t meaningless, that they had political meaning…overthrowing the old ideology that had kept people down and repressed them and twisted their personalities, and that we needed to get rid of these hang-ups. If anything put me on the road to becoming a conservative, it might have been that.”
The Roe v. Wade decision, which was handed down when he was 17, was another crucial factor. He’d already been drafted into the pro-life movement by his mom, and was volunteering at an anti-abortion information table in West Virginia University’s student union when he heard that the decision had come down, and ran to a radio to get “what for us was very bad news.”
His political influence began with a speech he gave at Notre Dame as a young academic, lambasting as incoherent the idea that one can oppose abortion rights personally but support them as a matter of public policy. The notion intrigued Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, who gave him a call to talk about it.
After George H.W. Bush was defeated, but before Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, he was asked—on whose recommendation, he still doesn’t know—to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “I was no longer a Democrat, but I was not yet able to bring myself to actually become a Republican. To this day, I still don’t know how they found me; I was just some assistant professor at Princeton.” He was sworn in hours before Clinton’s inauguration. “I guess I was President Bush’s revenge.”
He went on to advise President George W. Bush, especially during the stem-cell and cloning debates, and no longer had too many qualms to join the GOP, having long since given up on the Democrats on both abortion and the anti-poverty programs that seemed to him to have been so counterproductive.
“That didn’t lead me to Ayn Rand, but I did say; ‘OK, that’s not working; what else can we try?’ What I’ve never bought is the idea of benign neglect, or if the market produces a solution then it’s a just solution and so it’s OK. This is why I love what the pope says about this. To say that an outcome isn’t necessarily just, just because the market produces it is not to say the market’s bad, or we shouldn’t have a market economy.”
In fact, unlike any national politician in either party, George sees no daylight between himself and Pope Francis, whom he calls “the Boss.” “What is there to be unhappy about?” he asks.
Though the collapse of the family contributes to poverty, as he sees it, “there are places where families are intact and we still have poverty, so we mustn’t indulge the illusion on the Republican side that all we’ve got to do is restore the family. The Democrats are right to point to economic factors. Their prescriptions I’ve become very skeptical of, but they’re right that there are economic factors.”
Told that when he talks about poverty, he still sounds like a Democrat, he laughs and says, “I’ve often thought I wish I could vote for the Democrats again; they’ve just gotta stop killing babies.”
The Professor and the Candidate
His former protégé Cruz is less dogmatic than people think, he says—for one thing, because he’s capable of arguing both sides of an issue. And Cruz wasn’t, in his view, just one more smart guy on a campus full of them: “What I loved about Ted as a student was that he was genuinely interested in ideas…He would come and sit in my office and we would explore all of the possible arguments and counter-arguments, and he was capable of very sympathetically arguing a view he did not hold just to see where it went…In fact, since we tended to agree on matters of constitutional interpretation, if you just happened to be some other professor who didn’t know Ted and you were walking by—I always keep my door open when I’m meeting with students—you would hear what would sound like a terrible argument. We love to see where an argument goes.”
They’ve kept in close touch ever since, both as friends and colleagues, for instance speaking jointly at a meeting of Coptic Christians after violence in Cairo. The last time Cruz was in Princeton, George had him over for afternoon tea, along with a mutual friend from Jamaica who loves that tradition.
In the current campaign, Cruz has “played the hand he’s been dealt very well” where Donald Trump is concerned, George feels, and so stands to inherit many of his anti-establishment supporters if Trump drops out.
Meaning that Cruz doesn’t really admire him?
“About that,” he said, leaning into my digital recorder, “Professor George said absolutely nothing.”
He doesn’t know, he says, whether any of the candidates he talks to are going to win, or whether his arguments will prevail, either, even if, “as a Christian, I know how the story ends because I’ve peeked ahead to the end of the book.”
But that faith in the final chapter is why, George says, he meanwhile wakes up every day smiling, he says, and thinking, “the world is so messed up, but we’re going to turn this thing around.”