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

Published: Saturday, Sept. 11 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

The experience reminded Girgis of how much he could learn from that kind of rigorous debate.

"Philosophy can give you the tools to be a jerk," he said. "You can run circles around people who don't have the same training, or use jargon to run past them when you don't have a good point, but it was clear (George) had eschewed all of that. It really opened up to me the possibility of intellectual engagement being a form of friendship ... even with people with whom you completely disagree."

The listener

No matter the issue or the opponent, George approaches all discussions with the motto that there are "reasonable people of good will on either side."

That openness has allowed him to form friendships across the spectrum, including with liberal Princeton colleague, Cornel West, with whom he frequently has lunch and even co-teaches a class.

"We've got deep respect for each other and a very genuine friendship, a deep love of each other as human beings and as intellectuals," West told the Deseret News. "And yet, we do go at it, because he is a conservative brother, and I am a progressive brother, and we have these very wonderful, intense conversations."

West is as prominent on the left as George is on the right, serving as a powerful voice on the issue of race in America. His book, "Race Matters," addresses racism in American democracy and has sold more than half a million copies. The deeply spiritual West, with his black Baptist roots, finds in Catholic "Brother Robby" not only a political foil but also a friend, thanks to their shared love of knowledge and truth, theological differences aside.

"He's so congenial, he's so willing to listen," West said. "He has a receptivity to other person's views, so opposite of the stereotypical conservative voice that's just hollering and enraged. (George is) out listening. That's just rare no matter what kind of politics you have."

The duo's freshman seminar, "Great Books and Arguments," was so successful the first year that they repeated it, and will be teaming up for another class next year.

George and West have also traveled the country together, spoken together in the public square and held dialogues in high schools to help students learn the importance of civil debate.

West credits George's admirable traits to his West Virginia upbringing where "love was in high supply."

"By the time (George) got to graduate school, he was spiritually intact," West said. "And that is the real anchor and foundation and pillar when it comes to having the confidence and inner security to listen to others."

For many in the religious community, it's not just about listening to the other side. It's about listening to those on your side who come from different backgrounds.

"It's become clear to people of faith that they share an enormous amount, especially when it comes to morality, justice and the common good," George said. "There's no reason we can't work together."

The connector

Outside the classroom, George forges links with religious individuals and denominations across the world that advocate the same things he does.

"Not only do I consider that work important, but of all the work I do, it gives me the most joy," he said. "I derive enormous personal satisfaction from working together with my fellow Christians and other believers to advance mutual understanding and cooperation."

George said his own faith has been strengthened by his interactions with leaders of the LDS Church including Elders M. Russell Ballard, Russell M. Nelson, Quentin L. Cook, Jeffrey R. Holland and Dallin H. Oaks, all members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"I see in people like that, people that I recognize not just as good men, but as spiritual leaders," he said. "They exemplify the kind of relationship with God and love of God that expresses itself in love of neighbor, which is exactly what Jesus was teaching us. I learn from them, even though I'm not LDS."

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