Robert George takes on conservative defeatists
“I don’t believe the seeds for 1968 were planted in 1776,” said Robert P. George in a Facebook discussion. The McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, he’s the conservative Christian academic whose name is recognized by New York Times reporters, and the most hopeful Christian public intellectual I know.
Someone had posted an article on the marriage debate and others jumped in to blame the problem on “the Enlightenment.” Their point seemed to be that America is an Enlightenment creation, inevitably moving to the legalization of same-sex marriage and the wide social acceptance of the innovation.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention led to the barricades of 1968 and the cultural revolution we call the sixties, and that led to the current tidal wave of enthusiasm for making normal and normative the homosexual imitation of marriage. Men who never in a million years would have considered same-sex marriage possible, much less legally protected, set the trajectory. Therefore, though no one quite said this, Christians can’t do anything about the continuing liberalization of American law and culture and should give up public resistance.
Many thoughtful Christians do say this. The likelihood that the Supreme Court will make same-sex marriage the law of the land and the recent sharp increase in public hostility to moral conservatism have increased the number of them. It will jump sharply if the Court rules as it’s expected to do, especially if (as seems certain) the major Republican politicians fall into line with the new orthodoxy.
The advocates for retreat make different claims though they come to pretty much the same answer. Some think the problems inherent in the American founding, others that modern America has rejected its founding. Both think the game over. Christians need to create alternative communities and hold on to such independence as they can. Some call this “the Benedict option,” named by my friend Rod Dreher after a famous passage from the end of Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue:
I understand the impulse. I understand the analysis and the reasoning, much of which seems to me sound. Some very thoughtful people, like Rod, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, and of course Macintyre, argue this way. I see the appeal of the alternative. And not just the appeal, but the prudence: if we’re going to lose, we better start building our forts now. Supplies need to be laid in for a long siege.
But retreat even now seems to me wrong. Robby George certainly thinks so. He insists that issues like same-sex marriage can still be contested in the public square and public arguments can still be made with some hope of success. (In this he’s joined by the irrepressible and irreplaceable Ryan T. Anderson, now the public face of the defense of marriage.)
In the Facebook exchange, he rejected the intellectual genealogy, but noted that the people who think America misdirected from the start are still his allies and comrades. But — this is my take, and doesn’t apply to Rod and the others I mentioned — allies and comrades who’d left the front lines to read books in the library and argue causes and effects in the coffee shop. “My point is simply this,” Robby wrote,
He was responding to two tendencies, I think: 1) that of some conservatives to retreat into analysis, and particularly historical genealogy, when faced with a cultural and political challenge; and 2) that of some of them to find the problem in a force that can’t be resisted, like the Enlightenment roots of the American founding, which justifies disengagement from a battle we can’t win. He calls this defeatism.
I’m not so hopeful as Robby. He has greater faith than I do in the American people and the force of public reason.
He may, for example, think the natural law arguments for marriage as it has been understood to be more publically compelling than I do. We have an instinctive sense of the natural law, as St. Paul noted, but our recognition of what is natural can be neutralized. You may see that men and women are made for union with each other, but if you understand marriage as primarily an affective relation, as most Americans do, you’ll have no strong reason to oppose same-sex marriage. If your society has for decades separated sexual intimacy from the creation of children, you’ll find it easier to accept intrinsically sterile marriages, especially as children can be provided in other ways.
I hope Robby’s right about the possibilities for success, though I don’t think he is. I still agree with him that we must stand up and bear witness. For one thing, genealogy isn’t destiny. Even if the trajectory was set when it was fired, a missile can change course, or have its course changed. The believer in an active God can hope even when things seem darkest.
For another, we must play the game until the clock expires. As an American, this is the game you’re given to play. It’s our giving to Caesar what belongs to him. It’s also giving to others, especially those most likely to be harmed by social disorder, what belongs to them.
For a third, even if you think there’s no possibility of winning, we can at least lose less badly than we would if we all gave up. Political and legal struggles are not winner take all battles, but wars in which the losing side can keep some territory it would have lost if it had surrendered and negotiate better terms than it would have gotten.
And for a fourth, we can prepare the retreat at the same time we play for the win. Preparing the retreat is mainly doing what we ought to be doing already, but doing it better, pushed into action by the threat that we might not be able to do it at all. Each of us praying more, giving more, moving deeper into the Tradition, strengthening our parishes, making our families and our parishes into communities that draw the wounded, marginalized, and lost — this we can do while writing letters to congressmen, supporting the good guys running for office, marching in protests, posting Facebook messages, and speaking in public and with our friends for the unborn child and for marriage, and for all in need.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.