'Most influential Christian conservative thinker' Robert P. George joins News board

Published: Sunday, Sept. 12 2010 12:58 a.m. MDT

Though he's an openly religious man, George's defenses don't rely on faith alone. Instead he parries attacks with natural law theory, which is that moral truths can be explained in philosophical and logical ways and not just "God commanded me."

To explain natural law theory, George often turns to a quote from Pope John Paul II: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." Just as a bird with a broken wing can't get off the ground, "I believe that faith and reason need to both be in the picture if we're to arrive at the best and fullest understanding," he told the Deseret News recently.

For the marriage argument, George reminded his BYU audience that throughout the world, governments consider the family as the fundamental unit of society and rely on families to produce law-abiding, public-spirited citizens.

"In the absence of a strong marriage culture, families fail to form, and when they do form they are often unstable," he said. "With families failing to perform their health, education, and welfare functions, the demand for government grows, whether in the form of greater policing or as a provider of other social services."

In addition to the common-good argument for marriage, George explained that sex is a reproductive principle that, unlike digestion or walking, is only fulfilled between a man and a woman becoming one-flesh in "organic unity." Such unity is not achieved by two men or two women in a "love-makes-a-family" type arrangement, he argues. Abandoning traditional marriage also opens the door for acceptance of polyamory, or non-monogamous relationships, as a "legitimate marital option," George said.

Though George is a staunch family proponent, he doesn't speak much of his wife or grown son and daughter out of protective instinct. It's understandable for a man who frequently receives profanity-laced threats. During his rare family time, George enjoys reading English literature, anything by Jane Austen, and playing a mean bluegrass banjo and guitar.

The professor

George, 55, begins his Princeton classes with a tight, noteless discussion of an issue, bouncing between both sides of the argument, before opening the floor to his students. It's Socratic style, and they're welcome to contribute anything if they can defend it.

During the discussion, George, always dressed in a three-piece suit, will dart about the room, run down an aisle or climb atop a desk in his excitement to make a point.

"(He has) a real, almost boyish delight in a really good argument," said former student Sherif Girgis, who took George's Civil Liberties class several years ago and after a master's at Oxford is back to Princeton for a Ph.D. in philosophy. "He (can) present a topic or an argument for the 1,000th time as if he (is) presenting it for the first, with all the kind of drama and anticipation that comes with discovering a new area of knowledge."

George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (a prestigious endowed professorship formerly held by President Woodrow Wilson), is also a professor of politics and an associated faculty member of Princeton's Department of Philosophy where his strong conservative views leave him in the minority.

Yet while many of his opinions are broadly known, some students say they'll leave a 90-minute debate still unsure where he personally stands, thanks to his rigorous arguments for both sides.

Girgis recalled one small discussion group that began with George rushing in a few minutes late, as usual.

Wearing his trademark grin and smoothing down his tussled hair, George asked the dozen or so students the topic of the day. It was an issue on which George's position was already very well known publicly, and Girgis said he feared a fruitless, cornering conversation.

Yet almost immediately, George was putting forth ideas and challenging students to seriously reconsider their own viewpoints, some perhaps for the first time ever.

"And he did it just with so much coolness and such peace, where it was clear that he wasn't interested in making anybody look bad or in making himself look good," Girgis said. "He was just fascinated by the ideas."

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