Andrew Walker, "Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George" (Crossway, 2023)


Robert P. George is the indispensable man of American social conservatism. The Princeton professor is a scholar of such intellectual power that he almost single-handedly rescued the anti-abortion movement from the fringes of the American sociopolitical and legal landscape in the 1990s when the secular left assumed that the reign of abortion on demand for any reason was a done deal. George (born 1955) reset the debate and provided the intellectual framework that enabled a generation of pro-life advocates to craft tactics and policies that led ultimately to the Dobbs decision of 2022 that overturned Roe v. Wade. Conservatives are not often regarded as innovators. But George changed the paradigm. The book we will discuss today shows how he has done that.

And that momentous accomplishment is only one milestone in the career of this multi-faceted scholar. George is one of the few scholars to wield influence in multiple fields of study. A lover of the humanities and liberal learning, he has made major contributions in his primary fields of analytic philosophy and its subbranch, the philosophy of law. He has also done important work both in academic writing and through public service in the form of membership and chairmanship of federal government bodies in such fields as bioethics, religious freedom and civil rights.

All of these accomplishments and more are discussed by leading Protestant scholars and thinkers in Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement With Robert P. George (Crossway, 2023), edited by the evangelical scholar, Andrew Walker. Walker contributes an introduction and an interview with George himself, both of which make clear why the latter is so admired in evangelical circles and what qualms some of them have about some aspects of his activism. Carl Trueman, for example, suggests that as wokeness has corroded and coarsened public discourse, George’s gentlemanly approach is no longer effective.

By contrast, other of the chapter authors engage in some self-criticism and lament the fact that the evangelical community lacks a figure comparable to the Catholic George and cite his exhortations to Christians to face the fact that the days of “comfortable Christianity” are over and that they must gird themselves to stand for what he and Walker refer to (quoting T.S. Eliot) as “the permanent things” in the face of the onslaught of an openly and increasingly dominant anti-religious mindset in elite sectors such as academia, media, Hollywood and popular culture. George’s stand on traditional marriage is one example of his willingness to oppose the left’s cultural and legal power.

As a leading public intellectual (a term, interestingly, George does not care for on the grounds that to him it smacks of a hankering for celebrity status), George maintains an active speaking schedule in front of general audiences often in partnership with his close friend the progressive and, importantly for this book in which this friendship, so important to George, is allotted a chapter, Baptist Cornel West.

At his homebase of Princeton University, where has taught since 1985, George has molded cohorts of students in constitutional law and in jurisprudence generally. By founding, in 2000, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, George has provided a model of a sphere within a university that provides a lively forum for the exchange of ideas across the political spectrum that benefits students, faculty, visiting scholars and post-doctoral students from around the globe. There are now many centers and institutes modeled on the Madison program, both here in the US and abroad. George has been the driving force of a movement in academia to protect freedom of thought from encroachment from the left and the right. He is deeply committed to free speech and tirelessly makes the case for unfettered truth seeking in academia and in life outside it.

One particularly notable facet of George’s career and impact is that even though he is a cradle Catholic and a man squarely situated in the left-wing bastion of the Ivy League, he is widely admired in the Protestant evangelical community and recognized within it as a champion of the shared values of those two branches of Christianity. Most particularly, George is lauded for his witness as a scholar, activist and as a man as to the value of every human life and the imperative need for all Christians and people of faith to protect our fellow human beings from the moment of conception to the last days of our lives when we may lose our cognitive abilities as well as those who are intellectually or physically impaired at any stage of life. To be clear, George is a scholar first and stresses that he is a philosopher and not a theologian. Nevertheless, some of the chapter authors, in discussing his methods in his writings on natural law (of which he is a giant), lament that George does not quote scripture enough. The tensions between George’s insistence on the need for both faith and reason and the push of several of the authors for George to be more explicitly religious in his scholarly writings are on full display in the book, to fascinating effect.

Although the primary audience for the book is evangelical Protestants, it is must reading for those who are neither evangelicals or even Christian but who care about American politics and morals. It is an exemplary festschrift and one finishes the book with a much greater understanding of the richness of evangelical intellectual life and why so many evangelical scholars and activists admire and seek to emulate Robert P. George and hold him up as a model of excellence in academia and of skill as a networker and institution builder.

This book is ideal for those interested in how ideas are developed and communicated by one of the most brilliant and beloved intellectual and moral leaders of our time. Many of the scholars in the book are making their own marks in moral philosophy and law and the other branches of scholarship that the formidably learned Robert P. George has shown can change things for the better for the most vulnerable among us. Courage has been the watchword of George’s career and the authors of the book provide example after example of how George has manifested it throughout his life. Not bad for a “hillbilly,” as George describes himself, a grandson of coal miners who was born and brought up in the hills of West Virginia.

Let’s hear from the editor of this study, Andrew Walker.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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