Robby George and Me
September 6, 2019
In recent years, I’ve written quite a bit about the ideas and influence of conservative legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual Robert P. (Robby) George, who serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. At the risk of inserting myself too directly into the intellectual fabric of the stuff I’ve written, it seems reasonable to account for this somewhat weird focus of my labors.
The specific prompt for this essay is today’s *Washington Post* article on one of Robby George’s many proteges, Neil Gorsuch, who is of course also a Trump-appointed justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I’ll have a few things to say about Gorsuch in another essay. For now, it is worth mentioning that, in addition to Gorsuch, Robby George has mentored and advised many of the nation’s most ambitious and influential conservative jurists and politicians, most notably Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The point being, if you pull a thread from Robby George’s impeccably tailored 3-piece suit, some fascinating unraveling is likely to occur.
From my perspective, Robby’s origin story, writings, influence, and prominence make him a terrific vehicle for exploring the more subtle and arcane significance of natural law moral philosophy. I care about natural law because its uses and abuses in the past millennium provide us with an enormously clear and penetrating framework for thinking about the relationship between religion and politics, and about the deeper structures of the history of western civilization, which after this millennium of ascendance is at a monumental tipping point on which it is not too bombastic to say the future of the planet may depend.
However, my own (massively less interesting and consequential) origin story also dovetails with Robby’s, and in the interest of full disclosure, deserves mention. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, less than a mile from the Princeton University campus where Robby has spent the bulk of his adult life. Like Robby, I also attended Swarthmore College, where I was two years behind Robby. I knew Robby indirectly, through mutual friends, although he surely did not know me, a shy and awkward student far more on the margins of campus life. Robby was a political animal even then, student council president (of course), earnestly engaged in the trivia of campus politics, and with his conservative fashion sensibilities, owlish formality, and seriousness of purpose, he distinguished himself to everyone on campus as a bird of distinct plumage, a kind of phoenix rising in the late 1970s from the fading embers of 1960s campus radicalism.
Robby and I have shared a few other data point in our lives. As he did for Robby, Swarthmore political science professor James Kurth served as a mentor who radically, tectonically shifted the entire scope of my thinking, both as an undergraduate and for quite a few years thereafter. Kurth is one of those rare people whom nearly everyone will acknowledge is the smartest person in any room he enters. When I knew him, his politics defied categorization, except to the degree he eschewed liberal pieties and blandishments of the sort that are commonplace on elite college campuses. Another student from my era Kurth deeply influenced, Peter Deutsch, attended Yale Law School and then served for nearly two decades as a member of the Florida state legislature and then as a member of Congress. Deutsch, who is Jewish, and George, a devout Catholic, could not have been more different, personally and politically, but like Jim Kurth, who was at the time having his own internal struggles with ultimate meanings, destinies, and commitments, and who subsequently joined an evangelical Protestant church, both Robby and Peter seemed to have found strength and solace in personal religious journeys and identities that seered within their minds disdain for the shallow, secular instincts of liberal American culture.
I did not accumulate Robby’s alphabet soup of advanced degrees (JD, MTS, DPhil) from the world’s most esteemed universities (Harvard, Oxford), but did receive a PhD in political science from Berkeley, where I studied political philosophy. Today’s Post article tells us Neil Gorsuch assumed his duties on the Supreme Court as if “shot from a cannon.” Robby George’s progress through the staid groves of academe was similarly incendiary and in some sense, of course, virtually preordained. While Robby, like many conservatives, likes to characterize himself as an outsider, he has also and always been very much been an insider. As someone who could rarely escape his own shadow, my academic career following graduate school almost instantly sputtered and died, an outcome that was also probably preordained.
So that is where any convergence between my origin story and Robby George’s origin story terminates. Robby went on to become Robby George and I went on to become an itinerant bumpkin. However, I never stopped thinking about the same foundational questions that have through the years (and in different ways) also absorbed Robby George, Peter Deutsch, and Jim Kurth. Which certainly could have carried me in a theological or spiritual direction, but which ultimately did not.
In college, I wrote a 240 page honors thesis about the liberal response to the rise of the radical right in the United States in the early 1960s, with a special focus on right-wing Protestant fundamentalists who effectively seized the radio airwaves in a manner not unlike the later impact of conservative talk radio. My doctoral dissertation focused on the trial and execution of England’s King Charles I to explore what I took to be the psychological origins of what we now know as liberal democracy. The English Puritans were central to my research, and I subsequently extended my inquiries to the Puritan foundations of American identity (where I discovered and found rapture in the cathedral-like mind of Harvard historian Perry Miller).
If we jump forward several decades, nothing much had changed. I got married. I had a family. I started a company. I wrote a novel. But my sense of how the world worked remained in an undisturbed state of disturbance. I remained a Henry Adams pessimist, well aware of our need for redemption but entirely unable to believe in a God that might assist with the redeeming. And then everything changed. The 2016 election led me in directions that in some ways radically diverged from my previous research interests, but in other ways drove me far more deeply into this central quandary of my existence regarding redemption without a redeemer.
Ironically, perhaps, I give all credit to Steve Bannon, whose obvious importance for figuring out what the fuck just happened following the 2016 election required me to investigate the wellsprings of his dastardly, dangerous, but not un-Kurth-like mind. Going down that rabbit hole forced me to face directly the importance of the Catholic Church – Catholic traditions, Catholic theology, Catholic historiography, Catholic philosophy – for the irruption of illiberal democracy of a European fascist hue on American Protestant shores. Talk about a wake-up call.
So in that sense, the 2016 election was the depth charge in the water that exposed dimensions and layers of a seabed I’d never before considered – both archeologically and architectonically. I take very seriously the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and view this reality as the ultimate, imminent source of crisis for “western civilization” as we currently imagine it, from all angles – historical, political, philosophical, and theological. I now see the ultimate shape of this crisis of western civilization in terms of the complicated, combined influence of the major Abrahamic revealed religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). And I have also grasped the enormous theoretical power of complexity science – of the sort studied at the Santa Fe Institute – to give us a lens on western civilization and western history that can expose and explode what I might call the non-liberal pieties of the Abrahamic faiths. Which is what brought me to Robby George and natural law.
The Abrahamic faiths – based as they are on divine revelation, sacred texts and prophetic moments – require a Creator-centric moral order that exists outside of time and space. Thomist natural law extends and refines, but in no way refutes, the central premises of the Abrahamic religions. By contrast, Creation-centric complexity science actually assumes a fantastic disorder, within time and space, that is random and stochastic, but also self-sufficient and self-sustaining (consider, for example, the distributed intelligence of the hive of bees, the swarm of ants, the school of fish). Complexity science, in other words, locates within Creation itself, the redemption without a redeemer for which I had been searching. The main argument of my Creation Project, then, is that these two perspectives on our existence – do we privilege the Creator or the Creation – are not entirely incompatible, but that they are virtually so, and we are at a moment in our history as a species where we have to choose decisively.
I have no personal animus to Robby George. I don’t know him personally. I only know him by reputation, by the company he keeps, and by his writings. But Robby is enormously influential in ways that I can, by personal dispositon and by professional training, fully appreciate. His views on natural law distill nearly everything about the foundational beliefs of western civilization that the lens of complexity science calls into question, and that require root-and-branch reassessment. I’ll say no more about myself, but the coming conflict between Abrahamic faiths and complexity science is the ultimate unraveling of the Robby George thread-pulling I initiated at the start of this essay.