What Prof. Robby George Has Been Doing While Rod Dreher Has Been Blogging

In This Jan. 27, 2014, file photo, Dr. Robert P. George speaks at the 2013 Constitution Day address at Roanoke College.

By Maggie Gallagher Published on June 17, 2017

In a short aside, Rod Dreher chose to take on Princeton Prof. Robert George as an example of what the Benedict Op (trademark pending) is supposed to replace:

One of the problems I see with the stance taken by Prof. Robert George of Princeton … is that the to-the-culture-war-barricades stance he takes is radically insufficient. I agree with him that we have to fight as hard as we can! But what good will our freedoms do us if we have lost our own internal cultures? The Benedict Option is not an either-or, but a both-and — with greater emphasis on cultural formation, not legal and political combat. (Emphasis his.)

No-one is more aware than Prof. George that politics is not nearly enough to build Christian community or attain salvation. This is simply a straw man on Dreher’s part. I have my own disagreements with how many prominent religious conservatives think about politics. Mostly it is that they often mistake advocacy about politics for engaging in politics. That is the root of why we have so little political effect: We aren’t actually in politics.

But Dreher’s mischaracterization of George’s position is also an example of how we need to do a better job of telling our own stories. If the Benedict Option is about building Christian society while remaining publicly engaged, then Prof. George invented it long before Rod Dreher thought of it.

The Distinguished Career of Prof. Robby George

While Rod has been productively blogging and speaking, Prof. Robby George has been productively writing and speaking. He has also maintained a distinguished career as a scholar of the philosophy of natural law — a key part of sustaining a Christian culture. Then he founded at Princeton the James Madison Program for American Ideals and Institutions. It supports the intellectual life and work of scholars who understand that natural rights come from God, not government. This philosophy is the underpinning of American Constitutional democracy.

George has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The President’s Council on Bioethics, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He serves on the boards of multiple important organizations, including The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom.

He founded the Witherspoon Institute as an independent 501(c)3 on the Princeton campus to provide a host of intellectual and scholarly opportunities for thinkers and students outside the narrowing campus box. The group brings outstanding scholars who are also faithful believers to the Princeton campus. In addition to stimulating thought, these intellectual giants show Princeton students they do not have to abandon either their faith or their calling. Witherspoon funded the Regnerus study demonstrating that children with a parent in a same-sex relationship do about as well as other children of non-intact families. This was one of first studies to contest the “no difference” finding in the scholarly literature. Many other studies have since joined that list.

Early in his career Robby George helped forge the alliances between evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and now Muslims that make publishing a book like The Benedict Option possible.

But it doesn’t stop there. At Princeton he hosts a prolife student and faculty reception each year. When he began, only three other professors would show. Today there are 16 publicly prolife Princeton professors whom students can see.

His Princeton students have founded the Anscombe Society to promote “sexual integrity,” formerly known as chastity. They expanded into the Love and Fidelity network across multiple campuses, bringing together orthodox Jew, Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons and Muslims to work to combat the hookup culture on campus in their own lives, and to provide an on-campus witness. Other of Robby George’s “children” move into business or finance careers, to become the next generation of philanthropic donors to religious organizations.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher rightly lauds the Christian hospitality of Leah Libresco as something to emulate. The evening Robby George has spent with his fellow believers playing the banjo alone would qualify him for a Ben Op champion.

Let’s Do Politics Better

One of my complaints about The Benedict Option as a book is that it would have been more useful if Rod had spent more time researching and telling us about the many things people are doing to create communities that can resist liquid modernity. Maybe he would have run into Robby George’s extensive work doing Ben Op before Ben Op was cool.

If social conservatives are in politics at all, some people will imagine that politics is all social conservatives do and all they care about. This is the caricature we will have to live with. Rod Dreher’s dramatic mischaracterization of Prof. Robby George’s career and advice is a prime example of this truth. I’m sure he didn’t do it intentionally.

Is now the time to do more politics better and more Christian community better? Or is now the time to withdraw and retreat from politics, because it is “wasting our energy” to “challenge or change legislation” (a description of the Benedict Option Rod Dreher recently approved)?

Prof. Robert George is clearly in the former camp. Rod Dreher wants to be there too, he says. I take him at his word but what he writes is frequently confusing. It’s also frequently discouraging to those of the faithful who face the heat of real politics.

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  • steve5656546346

    True: and this helps explain the controversies about the book, even thought the Benedictine option–just like any other authentic Christian spirituality–is simply Christianity… albeit with relatively MINOR differences in emphasis and phraseology from other authentic spiritualities.

    Dreher, in the ocean of words he has spilled on the subject, has said some problematic things.

    Still, on the other side’s ocean of words in horror of…what, EXACTLY? Prayer? Sometimes having dinner with friends who are Christian? Becoming better formed? Passing the faith along better? His critics also are too vague and sweeping–except when they are building straw-men.

    Here we have a whole article written which makes it sound like Dreher wrote an article attacking Professor George: but when you click the link, you find that the article was not about George–there was only minor, tangential mention near the end–(fully quoted in this article) and with a bolded clarification.

    • Eamonn Gaines

      Maggie Gallagher opened this article with the words “In a short aside, Rod Dreher chose to take on Princeton Prof. Robert George…” which establishes more pithily the entire point of your last paragraph. You repeated exactly what she opened with, although why you did that escapes me completely.

    • Could we build a party like FIDESZ in Hungary? It was necessarily a coalition, but they put the Christian God back in their constitution and so could we. They are implementing economic policies that break up the too-big-to-fails, and they made abortion and homosexual adoption of children and (if I remember well) ‘ marriage’ illegal. We could build just such a coalition.

  • I don’t agree that the Benedict Option is “simply Christianity.” Christianity is Christendom. Christianity understands that culture is united, natural and supernatural, and “culture” without laws that reflect Christian morals and economics is empty and a sham. Vatican II encouraged us to give up the Restoration right when we need it! The Benedict Option is the Council–“say all religions are equal and go into your hidey hole.”

    • Patti Sheffield

      That would be a good point, except for the fact that Vatican II never taught that all religions are equal and we are to go hide our faith somewhere. That’s a gross misrepresentation of what the council actually and explicitly taught, if one just goes and reads the documents. The council called for Christians to engage the world and address its problems with the Gospel. One can certainly point to serious deficiencies in how that was implemented, and how the council’s authority was high-jacked by those with a modernist bent, but VCII plainly called for the opposite of latitudinarian indifferentism and hiding our faith under a bushel basket.

  • Devieg72

    One of my complaints about the “Ben Op” is that Dreher is pushing it as he did years ago with the “Crunchy Con” thing to sell books. The other, and main thing, is that he’s pushing a weak Amish idea at a time when we need a Soldiers of Christ idea. Christians cannot retreat from society hoping to be the meat of the nut. They have to face and engage society.

    • Howard

      Big time. Christians with longer cultural memories should be wary of gimmicky and self-serving approaches to spiritual and societal problems.

    • chrisinva

      Mr. Dreher is all excited about his new slogan, but as soon as he subsides into serious analysis, he drowns in self-induced confusion.

      It’s hard to be an instant Tocqueville. Much better to enter humbly into the majestic halls of truth.

  • The Dominican Option is the better alternative. 😉

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