Monthly Archives: February 2009

Making Men Moral: All Posts

moral25Below you’ll find a listing of all conference posts, including both session reports and extras.  I hope that this proves helpful to you, and would encourage you to listen to the audio–it’s all available.  Thanks for reading!

1. The Conference Begins
2. Who Is Robby George?
3. Paul Kerry’s Opening Remarks on Robby George and “Making Men Moral”
4. Russ Moore on Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mardi Gras
5. James Stoner on John Rawls and the “Aristotelian Principle”
6. Seen and Heard Around the Conference
7. David Novak on Law, Morality, and Universal Moral Arguments
8. What Is Union University?
9. Jean Belke Elshtain on True Freedom
10. Christopher Tollefsen on “Disability and Social Justice”
11. A Conversation with Robby George, David Novak, Jean Belke Elshtain, and Harry Poe
12. Greg Thornbury on the Enlightenment, Natural Law, and Christian Witness
13. Robby George’s Chapel Message, the Conference Keynote
14. The Book Itself
15. Hadley Arkes on the Indissoluble Connection Between Law and Morality
16. Who Is David Dockery?
17. Closing Thoughts and Conference Audio (updated with full conference audio)

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Making Men Moral: Closing Thoughts and Conference Audio

moral24Well, the dust cloud is settling.  The Making Men Moral conference is over.  It has been an incredible privilege to do this event.  I am hugely impressed with Union University, David Dockery, Micah Watson, Robby George and the other theorists who contributed to this exceptional conference.  My brain is so full of content right now that it’s hard to summarize it.  In short, let me just quickly say that I am leaving this conference with a renewed understanding of the connection between morality and law. 

If you come away with nothing else from these many summations, take home that point, and remind yourself that we have tremendous opportunity as Christians to influence the law and culture of this country for good.  Great things could happen, but they will not take place by accident.  Parents, teachers, churches, and social organizations of the Christian community need to invest themselves in the publishing of the gospel and the advancement of the kingdom.  But we must remember that while we need tons of them, many of our youth will not become pastors and missionaries. 

It is imperative, then, that we push them to engage society and culture from a deeply Christocentric viewpoint.  We should not allow our kids to coast by in school–we should push them from their earliest years to be leaders, thinkers, movers and shakers for the gospel.  We cannot cede this work to our Catholic and Jewish friends, as we did for many years.  We need to be deeply, deeply engaged in the culture, transforming it, renewing it, calling it to repentance and wholeness.

With that word, I conclude.  It has been an honor.  Blessings to all reading this out there, and many thanks for reading.

Here is the conference audio that is up so far: go to the conference website, and it’s all clickable from there. (updated 3/2/09)


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Making Men Moral: Who Is David Dockery?

moral23I mentioned previously that I had a challenge locating a Union University bio for Dr. Dockery.  That may well have been my own fault in web-searching.  I have been given a full biography which I want to share with you.  I will register once more my deep respect and appreciation for Dr. Dockery and will urge you to read his books, pray for his ministry, and emulate him as a leader of charity, conviction, grace, theological insight, and acuity.

The following is Dr. Dockery’s full biography.  (Also, congratulations to the Dockerys on the birth of their first grandchild, Abigail, daughter of Ben and Julie Dockery!)

David S. Dockery was elected the 15th president of Union University on December 8, 1995. Since that time the dockeryuniversity has seen an increase in student enrollment from 1975 in the Fall of 1996 to over 3,800 in 2008. The number of donors to the university has increased from around 2000 to nearly 8,000. The significant increase in giving to the university during this period has included sixteen of the largest gifts in Union’s long history. Dockery has provided leadership for three major five year strategic plans. Prior to coming to Union, Dockery served as Chief Academic Officer of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

During his tenure the university has seen a strong increase in commitment to excellence in teaching and scholarship. Union has been listed among the top tier institutions in the South each of the past eleven years by U.S. News and World Report. Union has also been recognized during this time by Peterson’s Competitive College Guide, the Time/Princeton Review, and Templeton’s Colleges that Encourage Character Development. Union has on three occasions received the President’s Higher Education Community Service Award. Union has been listed among America’s Colleges of Distinction and also as one of America’s Top 100 College Buys. This past year Union was listed among USNWR Up and Coming 70 universities in the country to watch. 

The university has added several new degree programs including undergraduate majors in digital media studies, engineering, physics, sports medicine, political science, and ethics, among others, and graduate programs in business, intercultural studies, Christian studies, nursing, social work, education, including the doctor of education program, and the doctor of pharmacy. Faculty development programs have been greatly enhanced and the breadth of student services has been visibly increased. A new campus master plan has seen the addition of several new residence halls, the Miller Tower, Jennings Hall, Hammons Hall, the Fesmire baseball/softball complex, Fesmire Athletic Fieldhouse, a soccer complex, White Hall, and the Grant Events Center. A branch campus was established in Germantown, TN in 1997, which offers programs in education, business, nursing, and Christian studies.  A similar program has been launched in Hendersonville, TN. 

Dockery is the author or editor of thirty books including Renewing Minds, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, and the Holman Bible Handbook. In addition he has contributed to over thirty other volumes. He is the author of numerous articles, chapters, and book reviews. A much sought after speaker on issues of higher education and cultural issues, Dockery has been invited to present lectures at numerous colleges, universities, and seminaries across the country. He has been quoted in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Christian Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Washington Times, The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis), The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Courier-Journal (Louisville), The Baltimore Sun, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Religion News Service,,,, and several denominational publications, among others. His articles have been published in Touchstone, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and a number of other publications. 

He has been interviewed on several national networks: CNN, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, FOX, and numerous local/regional television channels; along with national radio interviews on ABC, FOX, NPR, Moody, Salem, AFR, and others.  

In 2002 Dockery was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was named Jackson’s Man of the Year for 2008 by the Jackson Exchange Club.  He serves on the board of directors of several civic groups and local foundations. Dockery has served as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, as well as the Council for Global Education. He serves on the Board of Reference of Prison Fellowship and has served on the board of Christianity Today where he also serves as a consulting editor. 

Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1952, Dockery holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and masters degrees from Grace Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Texas Christian University. He holds the Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Texas system. Dockery and his wife, Lanese, have three sons: Jonathan (who is married to the former Sarah Phillips), Benjamin (who is married to the former Julie Holzer), and Timothy (who is married to the former Andrea Signaigo). 


Major Lectureships: 

    • Spell Lectures, Mississippi College
    • Page Lectures, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Day-Higginbotham Lectures, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Founders’ Day Lecture, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Convocation Address, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Keynote Address, Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
    • Keynote Address, The International Mission Board Communications Symposium
    • Hester Lectures, The Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools
    • Powell Lectures, Florida Baptist College
    • Dimension Lectures, Gardner-Webb University
    • Hobbs Lectures, Oklahoma Baptist University
    • Keynote Address, Consortium for Global Education
    • Theological Fellowship Lecture, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Torrey Lectures, Biola University  (prepared but unable to deliver in person)
    • Alabama Baptist Leadership Summit Keynote Address
    • TACL Conference Keynote Address
    • Convocation, Houston Baptist University
    • Convocation, Beeson Divinity School  

Major Conference/Special Event Speaker: 

    • Qingdao University, Qingdao, China
    • Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
    • Azusa Pacific University
    • Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary
    • Wheaton College
    • Baylor University
    • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
    • University of Mobile
    • American Academy of Ministry, Princeton University
    • Hannibal LaGrange College
    • Free Will Baptist College
    • Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture
    • Houston Baptist University
    • Dallas Theological Seminary
    • Council for Christian Colleges and Universities
    • Anderson College
    • Oklahoma Chrisitian University
    • Louisian College
    • Grace College and Seminary
    • The Southern Baptist Convention
    • Among others  

Visiting Professor: 

    • Anglican School of Theology/University of Dallas
    • Moscow Theological Institute
    • Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
    • Grace College and Seminary  

Unionite Articles 

    • Spring 2009:  Remembering Feb. 5
    • Fall 2008:  Annual Report:  A Special Year

Books (Authored) 

    • The Doctrine of the Bible (Nashville: Convention Press, 1991; reprint, Nashville: Seminary Extension, 1998).
    • La Doctrina de La Bibla, translated by Miguel A. Mesias (Nashville: Convention, 1992).
    • Biblical Interpretation Then and Now (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992, reprint 2000).
    • Seeking the Kingdom: The Sermon on the Mount Made Practical, co-authored with David E. Garland (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1992).
    • Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1995). Also translated into Romanian.
    • Ephesians: One Body in Christ (Nashville: Convention, 1996).
    • Efesios: Un Cuerpo en Cristo (Nashville: Convention, 1996).
    • Our Christian Hope: Bible Answers to Questions About the Future (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 1998)
    • Basic Christian Beliefs (Shepherd’s Notes Series; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1999).
    • Holman Guide to Interpreting the Bible with George Guthrie (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2004).
    • Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007; second edition 2008)
    • Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Proposal (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008)

Books (Edited) 

    • Baptist Theologians, co-editor and contributor with Timothy George (Nashville: Broadman, 1990) chapter on “Millard J. Erickson.”
    • Revell Bible Dictionary, consulting editor (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1990).
    • People of God: Essays on the Believers’ Church, co-editor with Paul Basden (Nashville: Broadman, 1991).
    • New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, co-editor and contributor with David Alan Black (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991) chapter on “The History of New Testament Interpretation.”
    • Beyond the Impasse?: Scripture, Interpretation, and Theology in Baptist Life, co-editor with Robison B. James (Nashville: Broadman, 1992) chapter on “A People of the Book: The Crisis of Biblical Authority Today.”
    • Holman Bible Handbook, general editor and contributor (Nashville: Holman, 1992) sections on “Pauline Letters,” “History of Biblical Interpretation,” “Christian Faith and the Christian Community,” and “The Lord’s Supper.”
    • The Concise Bible Dictionary, consulting editor (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1992).
    • Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps and Reconstructions, contributing editor (Nashville: Holman, 1993).
    • Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues, editor and contributor (Nashville: Broadman, 1993) chapters on “Introduction to Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals” and “Evangelical Responses to Southern Baptists.”
    • Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, co-editor and contributor with Robert B. Sloan and Kenneth A. Mathews (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994) chapter on “The Study and Interpretation of the Bible.”
    • The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, editor and contributor (Grand Rapids: Baker/BridgePoint, 1995, revised edition 2001) chapter on “The Challenge of Postmodernism.”
    • The Best of A. T. Robertson, compiler (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996).
    • New Dimensions in Evangelical Theology: Essays in Honor of Millard J. Erickson, editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998). Chapter on “Millard J. Erickson.”
    • Holman Concise Bible Commentary, general editor (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1998). Section on the “Pauline Epistles.” Translated into Spanish.
    • The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Basic Bibliography, editor and compiler (1998).
    • The Future of Christian Higher Education, co-editor with David P. Gushee (B&H Publishing, 1999). Chapters on “The Future of Christian Higher Education: An Introduction,” “The Great Commandment As a Paradigm for Christian Higher Education,” “The Role of Professional Education in Christian Higher Education,” and “The Grandeur of God and Real Education: A Strategy for Integrating Faith in a Post-Christian Culture.”
    • New Testament Interpretation, co-edited with David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2000). Chapter on the History of New Testament Interpretation.
    • Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, co-edited with Timothy George (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2001). Chapters on John A. Broadus, A.T. Robertson, and Hershel Hobbs.
    • John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, co-edited with Roger Duke (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008). Chapter on “Mighty in the Scriptures.”
    • Southern Baptist Identity:  An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009). Chapter on “Southern Baptists in the 21st Century.”


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Making Men Moral: Hadley Arkes on the Indissoluble Connection Between Law and Morality

moral22The biography of Hadley Arkes, the conference’s final speaker:

“Hadley Arkes has been a member of the Amherst College faculty since 1966. He was the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence, and was appointed, in 1987, as the Edward Ney Professor of American Institutions. He has written five books with Princeton University press: Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest (1972), The Philoarkes-150sopher in the City (1981), First Things (1986), Beyond the Constitution (1990), and The Return of George Sutherland (1994). His most recent book, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, was published by Cambridge University Press in the fall of 2002. Professor Arkes has been the founder, at Amherst, of the Committee for the American Founding, a group of alumni and students seeking to preserve, at Amherst, the doctrines of “natural rights” taught by the American Founders and Lincoln.”

The following is my summation of Arkes’s closing remarks.

I am breathing the fresh air of a red state!  This is quite the joy, coming from Massachusetts, the people’s republic.  They wouldn’t take my currency down here, with it’s picture of Dukakis on it. 

Quoting Samuel Johnson: “geometricians by accident, but moralists by necessity.”  The very mark of the polis was the law.  This binds our private preference in favor of a public concern.  To come to moral judgment is to speak in the voice of command, which forbids the torture of children or the killing of a baby.

Yet the most curious thing is that many elites have denied this fundamental principle.  Robby’s book stands as a notable marker to restore the classic connection between morality and law.  It’s impossible to have law without morality.  It’s like asking for coffee without syntax.  We now see legislators who work extremely hard to avoid any notion of morality in their legal language.  This is ridiculous.  When David Souter, for examples, encounters the issue of topless dancing, he moves to the secondary issue of how an establishment featuring this activity will draw pickpockets.  This is bankrupt.

Laws Are Not Invitations
When we make laws, we do not invite people to obey, we say that we are displacing their personal choice.  The rule of action will shape all subsequent conduct in this realm.  Every great political philosopher has considered this question.  We must explain the principle of “rightness” so that we can make laws that are “right” and “valid” for others.  If something is wrong, it’s wrong for everyone.  In the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Douglas professed to have no moral judgment.  Lincoln retorted rightly that this was a moral judgment. 

A part of what I want to bring out today is that the logic of morals is anchored in the logic of reason.  From the left, with the homosexual lobby, first the left denied the presence of morality in laws, then brought morality back in to silence those who oppose gay marriage.  First, we heard that one could not legislate “taste” on sexuality any more than one could legislate taste for frozen yogurt.  So there was no grounds for casting judgments–but wait!  There was a wrong: casting judgments!  So those who barred gay couples from adopting needed to have judgments cast against them.  It also becomes fine for people to be prosecuted when they dare to preach about the homosexual lifestyle, which is “judging.” 

The Purpose of the State
With these steps, we move closer to Aristotle’s understanding of the state: to inculcate moral sense and good judgment in the people.  The law teaches that we will move from the domain of private preference to a matter of moral consquence.  In Massachusetts in November 2003, the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional rules on marriage.  The judgment of the Court produced “natural recoil of shock.”  However, several years later, the people had changed their mind.  Where once most opposed same-sex marriage, now there seemed to be a slight majority for it.  This was what Machiavelli called “a new regime” with new laws.  Schoolchildren were now taught from as early as the first-grade what sexual acts between men look like.  School budgets would now pay for gay and lesbian-friendly programs.  Money came into play; legislators were bought off. 

As we can see, all people do indeed make moral judgments.  The preceding shows that there is a moral dimension built into the very fabric of politics.  It is in the very heart of it.  One cannot avoid it.  Arkes pointed to a law that argued that the discrimination against blacks was hurting the inter-state commerce in meat.  He pointed out satirically that the abortion industry, with 1.3 million babies killed, hurt the sale of bassinets.  There is something wrong with this rationale that the federal government is using to legislate morality.

Being Clear About Right and Wrong
We need to be clearer about the wrong.  In the past, state governments and local governments took responsibly for moral matters.  The federal government was thought to have a far more limited scope of concerns.  John Marshall once mused on what would happen if a state desired to dissolve marriage without the consent of the couple.  Here he showed that something could arise that could bring marriage within the reach of the federal constitution.  So Dred Scott would have to come back to Missouri, because it didn’t recognize marriage between slaves.  This has happened more recently as well.

It requires one Kantian insight to make sense of this matter.  There is nothing that we can name, no activity, so prosaic that it cannot be part of a means-end chain that cannot inflict harm.  An ambulance can either help save lives or kill a street-crossing pedestrian.  As we have seen, even the most local of subjects could handle issues that bear on matters of the Constitution.  My argument is that there is no way that one can make law without moral arguments.  The effort to finesse moral questions on secondary grounds fails.  Laws must be made through the substance of moral thinking itself.  The notion of a national government of limited powers falls into a fallacy if we think that we can write a list of subjects that the federal government cannot reach.  The example of Roe v. Wade, among other laws, show us that the national government will readily reach into all areas.

In closing, then, the notion of a limited government makes eminent sense.  I would suggest that a limited government does not require a Constitution.  Restraint may be found, I think, in the very idea of the self, the human person.  Limits come upon human autonomy; there are certain wrongful things that people must forgo in living in the state.  To put it differently, they are thus encouraged to concentrate their full range of powers on good things. 

Plato: the person with the well-ordered soul, governed by reason, had a constitutional ruler within himself.  A government under constitutional restraint takes its model from the person who controls himself and rules his appetites by the power of reason.  The person with self-control is not the weaker person, but the stronger.  So it is with government.

Again: geometricians by accident, but moralists by necessity.  We must face moral questions either well or badly.  We cannot escape them.  It is time to reconcile ourselves to the notion that this is the life we lead, and the life we must learn to do well. 

Remarks on Neuhaus
His persistent line: we can still turn this around.  He always saw the capacity of human beings to reach outside themselves and do something extraordinary.  We buy up our friends, and ply others with compensation, saying, whenever you are as certain about something as I am, go forward; when you are uncertain, hesitate; if ever you go wrong, come back.  In this way, we will make our way to the One of whom it is said: Seek His face.  Seek His face always.

My Take
This was a splendid lecture.  Arkes has a golden pen.  He also speaks very clearly and peppers his speaking with all sorts of fun stories and practical illustrations.  His central contention, that none of us can help but be moralists, immediately convinced me of its aptness.  This is surely, incontrovertibly right.  If you sit back and think about it for a moment, and let it sink in, you’ll be convinced.  We can’t avoid moral questions.  We all face them.  Our society cannot help but confront them.

Arkes left the logic of the left exposed like the emperor marching in his parade.  He showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the left plays an ideological shell game to advance its ideas.  First, it says that we shouldn’t legislate morality; then, it creates a case for its positions; then, it invokes the language of morality to ground its positions, claiming unassailable moral territory; finally, it brings the hammer, enacting its laws and excoriating and judging all who go against its views. 

This process, furthermore, has the effect of creating cultural impressions.  People’s minds change as this process develops, such that in the beginning they disagree and by the end they end up thinking, “Yeah, this issue (gay marriage, abortion as choice, etc.) really isn’t my business.  It really is a matter of choice, and I don’t want anybody impinging on my right to choose.”  But Arkes shows us that this thinking is off-course from the start.  We have to legislate choices.  Unless we desire a law-less state in which anyone can do anything that they want, we must realize that we already desire a state driven by law, which is of course driven by morality (the basic moral questions, remember, must make their way into our legal code).  In addition, all who affirm a doctrine of sin (and even those who don’t!) must remeber per Arkes that it is not wrong to mark actions as wrong, but right.  We Christians must not buy the left’s logic on morality, both because it is disingenuous and also because we must restrain sin and evil.

Arkes’s taxonomy of liberal activism was itself worth the time of the lecture.  But his talk was much richer than that.  He is a deeply profound thinker.  I commend his thinking and writing to all.


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Making Men Moral: The Book Itself

moral21As the conference concludes, I want to give you a brief sense of the book upon which this event is based.  Robby George’s Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality was published fifteen years ago by Oxford University Press.  It made quite a splash in its day, and it is a book worth considering and thinking hard about. 

Here is some more information about the text from the official Oxford website:

“Contemporary liberal thinkers commonly suppose that there is something in principle unjust about the legal prohibition of putatively victimless crimes. Here Robert P. George defends the traditional justification of morals legislation against criticisms advanced by leading liberal theorists. He argues that such legislation can play a legitimate role in maintaining a moral environment conducive to virtue and inhospitable to at least some forms of bookshot1vice. Among the liberal critics of morals legislation whose views George considers are Ronald Dworkin, Jeremy Waldron, David A.J. Richards, and Joseph Raz. He also considers the influential modern justification for morals legislation offered by Patrick Devlin as an alternative to the traditional approach. George closes with a sketch of a “pluralistic perfectionist” theory of civil liberties and public morality, showing that it is fully compatible with a defense of morals legislation. Making Men Moral will interest legal scholars and political theorists as well as theologians and philosophers focusing on questions of social justice and political morality.”

“George is an accomplished controversialist; his arguments are always clear, sophisticated, and highly interesting. Making Men Moral deserves the attention of moral, political, and legal theorists.”–Choice

Making Men Moral is a strong defense of morals laws against arguments critical of traditional jurisprudence by contemporary liberal legal scholars.”–Modern Age

“…contains much erudition and wisdom worthy of study and reflection.”–Modern Age

“There is much to praise in George’s book.”–Ethics

“This book is clear, incisive, and well argued. I highly recommend it.”The Review of Metaphysics

An excerpt from a review of the text by a Harvard PhD student in First Things:

“George’s perfectionist theory of civil liberties merits scholarly attention, especially from liberals who too easily dismiss natural law thinking as an outdated approach to politics and ethics. Making Men Moral shows unequivocally that natural law thinking can support and improve our liberal political regime.”

I commend the text to you; it has spawned a discussion that has now sprawled over fifteen years and continues into the current day.

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Making Men Moral: Robby George’s Chapel Message, the Conference Keynote

moral20The biography of the conference’s keynote speaker, Robby George, who spoke in Union’s chapel service:

Professor George is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and formerly served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He was Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award.

He is the author of In Defense of Natural Law, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, and The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, robbiegeorge6Religion and Morality in Crisis. He has published numerous scholarly articles and book reviews. Professor George is a recipient of many honors and awards, including a 2005 Bradley Prize for Intellectual and Civic Achievement and the Stanley Kelley, Jr. Teaching Award from Princeton’s Department of Politics. He holds honorary doctorates of law, ethics, letters, science and humane letters and is the Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

The following is an edited summary of George’s chapel message.

George began with a discussion of goods: we have a friend, we are a friend, we pursue knowledge as ends unto themselves.  No one would be much of a friend if one only did so to get something out of it.  No, friendship is intrinsically valuable.  It is also distinct from other goods.  Human good is variegated.  What distinguishes morality from other goods?

We should will what is good for persons in its fullness and completeness.  Our obligation is to love and respect persons.  Many of our choices are not between moral and immoral choices, but between two or more moral choices.  They are between good and good.  We are finite creatures.

Norms of morality require us to live lives with coherence.  This can take many forms.  One can be an insurance worker, watch football, and coach Little League.  One can be a pastor, not watch television, and teach church history at the local seminary.  These are both morally acceptable but mutually exclusive opportunities.

Persons face these questions whether or not they are men or women of faith.  Some people think that utiltarianism will lead them to the right option; they try to quantify what can’t be quantified.  There is no such ultimate measurement, however.  This makes moral judgment a matter of math, of quantification.

A Christian, however, will not regard himself as on his own in matters of moral reflection.  A Christian presupposes that God has a plan for him.  Catholics call this a vocation and believe that everyone has one.  Some think that only religious workers serve God, but this is not right.  Everyone’s work has secular dimensions.  Our challenge is how to serve God with our gifts.  Faith is at the center of figuring out what we should do.  How can we maximize our talents for God instead of merely making money, or getting “satisfaction,” or some other end.  God attaches responsibilities to our gifts.  Our lives will hang together if we live out this sort of life.

God gives us reason so that we can honor the Lord.  This is the natural law, the law “written on our hearts” (Romans 1).  The Christian believer in natural law also believes that biblical moral norms also clearly apply.  Faith allows us to see the cosmic consequences of our actions.  This is a kind of participation in Christ’s own work, the work of building God’s kingdom.  We look forward to the fullness of this kingdom, which is not yet completed, though already inaugurated.

There is also the biblical call to perfection, involving the call of the Christian to follow Christ in self-sacrificial love.  In response to the rich young ruler’s question on what he should do in following the Lord, Christ first told him that he should keep the Ten Commandments.  The young man must have been elated to hear this–he had kept these!  Then, however, Christ told him that he needed to sell all that he had.  This is the vocation of every Christian.  This demand is, humanly speaking, impossible.  The Christian call, though, is to walk with Christ wherever we may be used.  This might mean that we stand against abortion and become culturally marginalized.  This might mean that we have to put our prospects for career advancement at risk.

Each of us, if we will be faithful to the gospel, must pray for divine assistance, the grace, to meet his divine call.  Being a Christian, a man or a woman of faith, means believing that we are not on our own.  The love of Christ empowers and emboldens us to say yes, Lord, in your grace and your awesome power, I will do it.

My Take
Robby George is one of the clearest communicators I’ve ever heard.  This is especially noteworthy because he’s often breaking down dense content for his audiences.  In this short but moving address, he challenged the Union University student body to do something great for God in a manner consonant with their gifting.  He briefly defended natural law theory but spent the bulk of his time drawing the attention of his audience to what one might call a God-centered life.  With precise, brisk, finely chosen prose, he exhorted those in attendance to pursue not fame, but faithfulness, not riches, but service to Christ. 

I have this said before, but I will say it again.  Robby George’s life, from my perspective, authenticates his message.  His leadership of the religious conservatives from the elite American academy has, it is true, brought him a certain fame and opportunity.  It has also, though, branded him, and has likely cost him dearly in ways one cannot easily quantify.  As one who went to a “little Ivy” in Maine, I can say that I know of almost no one like him in the secular Northeast.  He is a hero.  I don’t mean this in a fawning way.  I mean it in the most honest sense.  He is courageous, and dogged, and nothing short of heroic.  His championing of the pro-life position is a model for young scholars.  One can only hope that others will follow in his footsteps who do not shy away from advocating for the helpless, the defenseless, the marginalized, the killed

From here, we’ll move to our last program, a lunch featuring closing remarks by Hadley Arkes.

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Making Men Moral: Greg Thornbury on the Enlightenment, Natural Law, and Christian Witness

moral19The biography of the conference’s last session speaker, Greg Thornbury:

“Gregory Alan Thornbury, PhD is the founding Dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union University, where he teaches philosophy and theology. Since 2002, He has served as Senior Fellow for The Kairos Journal (New York), an online research tool designed to help pastors and church leaders engage public square issues. The editor of two volumes and the author of numerous essays, his work has appeared in The American Spectator, Breakpoint Magazine, and other publications. In addition to his work at Union University, he has become a popular campus lecturer and conference speaker on the intersection between theology and culture.”

The following are the remarks of Greg Thornbury from his talk “Mugged by the Enlightenment: The Prospects for gregthornbury-1501Natural Law & Christian Witness in a ‘Show-Don’t-Tell’ World.”

Irving Kristol memorably said, a neoconservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”  According to Thornbury, a young evangelical today is one who has been mugged by the ugly idea that their beliefs make them a social leper.

Are fewer and fewer people listening to evangelicals today, we wonder?  If, as I will argue, people are irrepressibly religious beings, why is secularism advancing so rapidly in Europe and now America?  I will attempt to trace this out.  If some of this sounds like a mea culpa, then that is certainly intentional.  If the Christian community is indeed interested in a future for “making men moral.” then perhaps it is appropriate to begin not with an apologetic, but with the words “I’m sorry.”

Having noted the foibles and subsequent decline of Western institutional religion, I move on to discuss the persistence of transcendence and the reality that secularism fails to offer a better solution for cultural flourishing.  Finally, I want to look at two key ideas: reason and revelation, and ask if there is hope for rapprochement between natural law and theologies of revelation when it comes to the project of re-introducing the Christian witness to the Western world?

In 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche inscribed in his notebook that “God is much too extreme hypothesis.”  Depsite earnest attempts to do away with it in modern times, however, it seems clear that religion cannot and will not go away.  Faith shapes culture.  It is simply a matter of which belief system a society chooses and how effective that faith is at nourishing the animating impulses of a people.  Which religious expression/identity will capture the minds of this generation?  Goethe put it well: “The destiny of any nation at any given time depends on the opinions of its young men under twenty-five.”

Wars of Religion: Public Damage to Christian Credibility
Secularism becomes plausible in light of certain events in 17th and 18th-century Europe.  The first event is Savanarola’s attempt to purify the church in 15th-century Florence.  Despite his best efforts, he was condemned by Rome and eventually burned at the stake.  Niccolo Machiavelli took note of this and concluded that what mattered for the supposedly religious prince was not religious zeal but the power to enforce one’s will on others.  Those who have followed Machiavelli have concluded one of two things about the Church: it is either corrupt or moralistic.

The 16th and 17th centuries did little to help this situation.  The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), with such awful events as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, still live on in infamy.  It seemed clear in this age that religion was inextricably connected with violence, a claim that is hard to shake.  Martin Luther also did not help the situation much.  With his “two kingdoms” model, Luther sowed the seeds for the demise of religion’s role as a source of cultural authority.  Certainly Luther could not have imagined a Germany in which the princes would no longer take stock of their religious heritage.  On the heels of the Reformation, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) further besmirched the reputation of religion’s involvement in matters of the state.

The Plausibility of Secularism
The wars of religion had a deep influence on leading European thinkers.  Voltaire cried, “Crush religious superstition!”  And when Kant declare, “Sapere aude,” or, have courage to use your own reason (the Enlightenment’s motto), we can see the impetus behind this declaration of cultural independence from the dictates of the clergy and the theologians.

In the English-speaking world, no philosopher levied a more trenchant critique of theology’s role in forming government than Thomas Hobbes.  The author of Leviathan sought to remove political questions from the arena of theological debates, and turned them into a science of common sense and natural justice.  The 20th-century did not realize the inflated dreams of the Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Voltaire.  The First and Second World Wars, Mao’s Revolution, Stalin’s slaughter of innocents, and the killing fields of Cambodia wrought horrors of proportions never previously seen.  In the place of a literal hell to punish those who did evil in this life when they die, George Steiner observed in 1970, modern ideologies had instead relocated hell above ground.  The problem, then, seemed not to be religious ideas about man, but man himself.

Certitude, resultingly, is in short supply today.  As a result of these disillusioning events, many people today buy fully into the postmodern project to subvert, resist and undermine ideologies that oppress groups who live on the boundaries of culture.  And yet nihilism seems scarce today.  Thornbury heard an NPR interview with David Bowie some time ago in which Bowie confessed that his music had become more hopeful and transcendent with the birth and growth of his child.  Despite this kind of thinking, prevalent today, a more substantive response is necessary to best handle the renewed cultural interest in transcendence.

Hope for Rapprochement Between Natural Law and Theologies of Revelation
I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to the persuasive power of natural law in matters related to public square issues.  I was profoundly influenced by theologian Carl F. H. Henry, who had little truck with natural law theory.  He mentored me and exercised a profound influence on my thinking, for he had a staunchly revelation-centric epistemology.  Others in recent days have also questioned the efficacy of natural law in questions of morality that don’t get into theology and revelation.  Straussians, for example, doubt the potential of the natural law approach to solving matters like the marriage debate.  The consense on natural law seems to have weakened some.

Sometimes, Jedi mind tricks work, as in Episode Four with the storm troopers.  Sometimes, however, you run into Jabba the Hut.  Stephen Pinker is Jabba the Hut (showed a picture of Pinker, much laughter).  Quoted Pinker at length, noting that his assessment was neither right or insightful, but proceeds from a strong sense of gamesmanship.  Try as you might to persuade an audience that your position on human dignity is derived purely from natural law, Pinker claims, as long as bear the stigmata of being a Christian, you might as well go ahead and cite Scripture passages in support of your position.  We’re going to fall prey to guilt by association one way or the other.

Also, people often embrace truth through their passions, their pre-theoretical faith commitments, not always through the exercise of reason.  Michael Polanyi has pointed this out.

Despite these concerns, all hands are needed on deck.  These concerns about natural law are being addressed.  Example: John Wilson-Michael Novak exchange in Books and Culture over Novak’s No One Sees God. On the one hand, Wilson notes, Novak forcefully counters the New Atheism by use of the rational proofs for God’s existence.  On the other hand, Wilson notes that both the atheist and the believer must live in darkness.  At first, Thornbury thought Wilson had Novak in a bind.  However, Novak countered in National Review that in the world of the heart, there is a “dark knowledge of “the cloud of unknowing.”  The heart has its reasons that reason cannot comprehend.

Thornbury also read J. Budziszewski published his essay “Natural Law Revealed” in Firs Things, where the professor spoke eloquently of the ways in which the book of revelation affirms and narrates the mirror of nature.  This resonated.  Nothing could restore the fortunes of historic Christianity more in postmodern times than a unified thesis of public reasons for traditional morality complemented by an authentic recognition that there is an existential dimension for why people disagree with our views on marriage, abortion, and other related life issues.

Hope for the Church After the Crisis of Faith in Institutional Religion
The church’s failure to resist the Nazis weakened its cultural position, and understandably so.  It was not the Protestants but the Catholic German territories that protested against the Nazis, while many German Christians of other groups welcomed the Fuhrer with open arms.  Quoted Bonhoeffer at length to make the point that he believed that the church from this point forward would need not to seek great things for itself, but rather needed to seek the welfare of the actual communities in which churches find themselves.  Therefore, everyone should see that the church is there, for them and for their children.  We need this kind of Bonhoeffer-like witness.  It is not quietism–Bonhoeffer protested all the way to the gallows.  He called on fellow Christians to be prophetic.  But he realized that the church’s structures of power had failed in the Second World War.  The prophetic tradition must be strong, as it had been in protesting slavery, and the excesses of Roman culture, and in many other eras.  This must be manifested in a life–it was Christians who stayed behind in times of plagues in centuries past, while the elites and bluebloods fled.  This had a powerful effect on the culture.

We pray now that young evangelicals would not be so concerned that the culture does not like us, but that would seek to be “in the city, for the city,” being the moral conscience of the culture.

My Take
Following the talk, Francis Beckwith of Baylor University responded to the talk.  Here’s where things started to heat up, as Beckwith responded to Thornbury’s critique of natural law.  There wasn’t time for heated debate, but it was clear that much could be said.

I’m not going to get into the natural law-theology of revelation debate here.  I don’t have the time or energy right now to do so.  I would commend the audio to you for further inquiry into this subject.  I will say that I very much appreciated Thornbury’s call for the church to retain its prophetic witness in the culture.  I liked very much that he called for young evangelicals especially to not bury their heads in their hands over their loss of cultural influence, but to work very hard to be salt and light in the broader culture.  This is surely the right approach to the loss of Christian influence in our society, and in all societies.

Thornbury is a fun speaker with a lively mind, an eloquent pen, and a clear heart for the church.  I like very much that he doesn’t join the chorus of commentators who slam Carl Henry, but instead recognizes that he was a tremendously gifted Christian leader who is far less intellectually spotty or unaware than is sometimes claimed.   Carl Henry had his faults, as we all do, but he does not deserve to be swept under the rug.  He is the most significant evangelical theologian of the 20th-century, and he deserves to be remembered as such and appreciated for it.

We are now heading off to chapel, where Robby George is speaking.  Following that, I’ll be blogging the final event of the conference, a lunch at which Hadley Arkes of Amherst College will speak.  The conference, just for the record, continues to be intellectually stimulating and very well-executed.

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Making Men Moral: A Conversation with Robby George, David Novak, Jeal Belke Elshtain, and Harry Poe


In the evening panel session, a number of the conference’s speaker held a conversation about the topics covered in the conference.

The conversation began with stories about Richard John Neuhaus. who was to have spoken at the conference and only very recently passed away.  Father Neuhaus helmed the influential magazine First Things and led the ecumenical conservative movement.  He was a giant, and his passing cast a shadow in our country, and even to a small extent over this conference.  His presence is clearly missed.

Novak: They would get together from time to time, and Novak would bring the food, and Neuhaus the alcohol and opinions.

Elshtain: Recalls a time when she spent time with Neuhaus and she drank a bit too much and started babbling.  jeanbethkeelshtain-1504Neuhaus, on the other hand, “could hold his liquor.”  Also had many fun conversations with Neuhaus that Elshtain thought were more profound than those she had with her faculty colleagues.  Once, when Neuhaus visited Oberlin, he talked with Elshtain’s son and mentioned to him that she was one of his favorite people.  He then remarked to Elshtain’s son that he hoped that the same was true for him (this remark drew laughter from the audience).

Poe: Once hung out with Neuhaus and his sister, Joanna.  She was outgoing and dramatic and remarked that nobody knew of her because she was forever in her brother’s shadow.  So Poe once went over to Neuhaus and told him that he was very excited to meet Joanna’s brother, which Joanna later said was the only time she ever saw her loquacious brother speechless.

George: Noted that Neuhas’s conversion to Catholicism from Lutheranism was a momentous event for him.  The robbiegeorge5hardest thing about it, according to Neuhaus, was to tell his Canadian mother.  She was “the most self-absorbed person he knew,” according to him.  He sat her down and said to her, “Mother, I’ve become a Catholic.”  She responded, “No, I couldn’t marry Vince,” a boyfriend from many years past.  Her main concern in hearing that her son had converted was that she had been constrained by denominational bounds and didn’t think it right that Neuhaus would now get to have his cake and eat it, too!

George turned more serious when discussing how Roe v. Wade altered Neuhaus’s outlook on his role in life.  He could no longer swim with the liberal tide.  This remained true even after the literati turned their back on the unborn child, and one’s position on abortion became a litmus test.  As a result, Neuhaus gave up honorary degrees to Harvard and Yale, his commentary with the New York Times, and much more.  He became the leading conservative public intellectual, which garnered him few honorary degrees but allowed him to stand for life.  He was the one who brought Catholics and Jews together, and evangelicals and Catholics together, reaching across lines of division.  Yet, he was never satisfied with cobelligerency.  He wanted the “full communion” such that he and men like Chuck Colson could truly walk arm in arm. 

Elshtain: A number of her University of Chicago colleagues said that his book The Naked Public Square was a truly important book and that Neuhaus was a figure who deserved mention in the same breath with H. Reinhold Niebuhr.  This was quite a commendation given those from whom it came.

Watson: On “The End of Democracy and the Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” a First Things symposium.  What was it like being on the front-lines of this matter some thirteen years ago?

George: I had the privilege of contributing to this issue.  Judges were acting to make laws that should have been left to legislators.  Abortion and same-sex marriage fall in this category.  Father Neuhaus and others raised the question, Does their come a point at which judicial usurpation creates a climate so out of line with the Constitution that the people are loosed from obligation to the state?  If we are being ruled by judges, is that rule illegitimate?  This issue caused no small consternation for Neuhaus, though it did also sell a ton of magazines.  The editorial Neuhaus might not have been as carefully written as it could have been.  But this was an important contribution nonetheless.

Novak: Sought to introduce Neuhaus to a number of younger Jewish intellectuals who wanted to be involved in important political disputes and questions of moral ecology.  Wanted to be a part of raising to the fore Jewish scholars who did not think that the government was the highest power, the role reserved only for God. 

Elshtain: Did not like the language of “usurpation” and “deligitimation.”  This kind of language, in the political theory tradition, comes only at the end of a very long line of offenses on the part of the government.  Also, in a democratic society, one wants to work to build strong majorities that cross lines.  There was real debate behind the scenes about how the issue was formed.

Poe: Not a part of the First Things board, but does have a perspective on how his arguments were received in the South.  They were considered “mealy-mouthed!”  There is a long history in the South of rebelling against judicial usurpation.  Roe v. Wade galvanized the South to more fully realize the evils of judicial activism.

Question: CS Lewis is essentially the evangelical saint.  After his disastrous debate with Anscombe, he never again pursued a reason-based approach.  He thought of Narnia as an apologetic that would slip past the cultural censor.  What role do the arts, the imagination, and culture play in cultural renewal?  How much should Christians focus on this manner of cultural engagement?

Poe: I’m not concerned with rallying the troops, but recruiting for the movement.  What is most wrong with our halpoe-1501world cannot be solved by political means.  My ultimate concerns cannot be solved with political means.  One cannot win elections unless one has a majority of the vote.  This is the only strategy that wins.  The pulpit is where you rally the troops, but you don’t win them there.  You don’t win them by attacking them, but by showing the reasonableness of your position.  The arts play an important part here today.  Movies don’t do well with lectures.  Evangelicals haven’t figured out what to do with the arts.  Mel Gibson, a Catholic, knows how to make a powerful movie.  The pulpit now is the arts: literature, movies, plays.  If we’re not there, we’ve retreated from the battle.

Elshtain: Remembers a conversation with the late historian Christopher Lasch.  He remarked that they were winning the war but losing the culture.  Also, remembered talking with Cardinal George of Chicago, who regularly visited the Vatican, where the Pope always asked him, “Are we winning the culture?”  We are not doing a good job thinking about how to be a constitutive part of the culture, such that we produce books that are terrific, films that are terrific, and more that all testifies to true hope.  Catholic students she knows don’t know Catholic doctrine.  She’s not talking about increased condemnation, but about interpretation.

Novak: When at UVA, met some evangelical students who found their way to his office.  They would talk about being davidnovak-1504marginalized and ridiculed.  After about half an hour, he would tell them that they sounded like Jews, and they would realize that they did.  Christians in America are going through a painful process in which you are discovering that you are not the majority.  You thought you were, but you were not.  Now your main task is to learn to survive as the Jews have.  This has altogether changed the nature of the Jewish-Christian conversation.

George: Retreating to the monastery is nothing less than a fantasy.  We cannot insulate our children from the culture; it seeps in and bears on all of us.  Culture shapes conduct, and law shapes conduct.  We have seen Christians retreat time and again from cultural battles–“Well, we’ll just regroup after this later, and teach our people.”  What happens?  1.5 million babies a year are killed.  These are pre-political questions. 

Now we find ourselves in a situation where we have no choice about fighting cultural battles.  They will be coming with anti-discrimination laws that will force Jews, Christians, and others to fall into line.  Recently on the President’s Council on Bioethics, George and others heard from a leader with a national obstetrics association that it was her group’s intention to make it a crime to fail to refer for abortions or perform abortions.  People like this are not sitting back–they are seeking to drive Christians and Jews out of the medical profession!  The weapons of anti-discrimination law will be used to drive us out of business.  So young people in particular need to be on the offensive on matters of culture and ethics.

Question about the ethos of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  How does the two-party system mentality so prevalent today affect this conversation? 


Elshtain: Not sure that there is a connection.  But we make a mistake if we bifurcate the questions that Robby was talking about from social justice questions, so that we have abortion advocates on one hand and health-care advocates on the other, and never the twain shall meet.  The social justice conversation immediately puts evangelicals into conversation with Catholics due to the long-standing social justice tradition in the Church.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concrete measures behind movement like Jim Wallis’s Sojourners group.  There’s a kind of groupthink out there that slams anyone who doesn’t immediately approve of a major public works program, or some such thing.  Fundamental question: do we rely on a major government model to do this sort of thing, or on a civil society sort of model in which individuals and groups furnish the culture with its help and assistance.

George: Yesterday, Russ Moore warned young evangelicals about lusting for applause.  A chill went up my spine when he said this.  This happened because I know what happened when young people in my Catholic community had the opportunity to walk out into the larger world and go to elite schools and get elite jobs.  They were offered respectability, but it came at a price–the muting of dissent.  Now these young people have names like Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy. Shun applause.  Shun respectability.  It is the devil’s bargain.  When I read some scholars from the evangelical world, I can’t help but wonder if it’s approval from the secular world that they want.  “Yes, we still care about abortion, but we’re focusing on global warming.”  If you do what Neuhaus refused to do, you can get recognition. 

On another note, there is a sure antidote for poverty, a surefire poverty-busting program.  It’s called marriage.  You get marriage going, you get a healthy culture.  Bill Cosby is telling the truth.  He’s getting flak for it, but he’s telling the truth.  This is why the inner city is crumbling: there are no fathers.  If you’re for social justice, then champion the marriage culture–there is no better manner.

Elshtain: One of the major emphases of the Clinton Administration in its early days was on strengthening the two-parent family.  The data is overwhelming on this point.

Novak: One must leave the notion that in order to influence the culture, one must occupy the dominant cultural position.  A “guerilla” mentality is necessary.  This could easily happen in the United States.  What if the Southern Baptists took all of their people off of the marriage registers? 

George: (wryly) We are in heated agreement.

Poe: Things ebb and flow.  But we must deal not simply with the rationality of the issue, but the emotionality behind it.  There are major considerations here that many of us do not think about.  We need to realize where the public lives now, and reach them there: popular media, Internet, etc.  Remember: God has not retired.

Micah Watson (panel leader): God has not retired, but we will now.

My Take

This was an exceptional panel.  Wow.  Robby George is living dynamite on a panel, especially when he gets going about cultural engagement, not pandering to elites, and standing up for life.  Hal Poe did not say a great deal, but his perspective on evangelical engagement with culture was solid gold.  He’s dead-right on the dearth of meaningful evangelical involvement with the arts and other media that engage people at an emotional level.  This is not to say that we pit head against heart–by no means.  We come up with rigorous apologetics for faith, and we produce works of art that draw people’s attention to the beauty and wonder and pathos of Christian faith. 

Pardon me just a second while I get both feet on this soapbox.  The evangelical art scene is a swamp.  We have turned out so very, very little that is truly exemplary as art.  Yes, what we do often has a good heart.  That’s important.  But we have put out precious little that would actually engage people on its own terms, as art, as a work of beauty, as something with the whiff of the transcendent in it.  What’s the last great Christian work of fiction?  Narnia, right?  Give me a break!  That was 50 years ago!  What is wrong with us?  Why have we turned out so few artists, so few directors, so few playwrights?  Has anyone thought about this stuff?  Have Christian college presidents, and high school headmasters, and parents, and more?  Or do we think that the only possible avenue of cultural influence and witness is the pulpit?  If so, that’s so wrong as to almost qualify for blasphemy. 

We desperately need those who work with youth to develop a vision for training Christians to engage the arts.  It is as if there was a massive game scheduled, one with cosmic implications, and all the secularists and confused nonChristians showed up with all their talent and ability, and we evangelicals sent out one or two poor folks–CS Lewis, bless his heart, and perhaps a few friends–to the battle.  We need legions of writers and directors and thinkers to drink from the massive wells of Christian worldview thinking and to then go to New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and many other places to make beautiful art with a redemptive focus. 

Alright, for your sake and mine, I’m going to quit here.  But you cannot say that you have not heard (my) message.

The rest of the panel was engaging and enjoyable, by the by.  Elshtain and Novak are both highly compelling speakers who contributed numerous insights, most preserved above.



And this ends day two.  As I speak, Robby George, Greg Thornbury, Hal Poe, and others are (I’m not making this up, I swear) playing bluegrass for a crowd of about twenty folks.  This is, to say the least, really fun.  I’m hoping for the sake of cultural artifacts that somehow, in some way, by some miracle, this ends up on Youtube.  It’s definitely worth it.  They’re actually pretty good.  They just played “I Saw the Light” and it was worthy.

And no, this is not the product of live-blogging-addled brain.  This is reality.  The Making Men Moral conference, ladies and gentleman–Aristotelianism, excarnation, and deep-South fiddling to your hearts’ content.  On that merry note, good night!


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Making Men Moral: Christopher Tollefsen on “Disability and Social Justice”

moral17The biography of Christopher Tollefsen, the conference’s sixth speaker:


“Chris Tollefsen is an associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, the director of the graduate program in philosophy. He received his doctorate from Emory University in 1995 and has taught at Princeton University, the Spiritan Institute of Philosophy in Ghana, and since 1997 the University of South Carolina. He is the author of several articles and reviews as well as two books, Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry published by Routledge, and with co-author Robert P. George, Embryo: A Secular Defense of Life, published by Doubleday.


Chris Tollefsen is an associate professor in the department of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, the christollefsen-150director of the graduate program in philosophy. He received his doctorate from Emory University in 1995 and has taught at Princeton University, the Spiritan Institute of Philosophy in Ghana, and since 1997 the University of South Carolina. He is the author of several articles and reviews as well as two books, Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry published by Routledge, and with co-author Robert P. George, Embryo: A Secular Defense of Life, published by Doubleday.”


Here’s my edited summary of Tollefsen’s talk, entitled “Disability and Social Justice.”  Mistakes are Strachan’s; profundity is Tollefsen’s. 



The core of liberalism, as a political philosophy, involves the recognition that human persons are free and equal, and that the state and its activities should respect these two correlative features of persons. The way in which these features are to be respected varies, of course, sometimes radically: think of the difference between what it means for Locke, and what it means for Rousseau, for a state to respect the freedom and equality of persons (see Locke, 1986; Rousseau, 1997). But this core recognition is at the basis of both Locke and Rousseau’s thought; it is similarly at the basis of Kant’s political thought (Kant, 1970); and it continues to play an essential—even the essential—role in the liberal political thought of the twentieth century, especially in the work of that century’s preeminent political theorist, John Rawls (Rawls, 1971, 1996).


The gains of liberalism are in many respects obvious, important, and indisputable. Yet in the past ten or so years, a form of criticism has been articulated that charges liberalism, both in its origins, and in its developed forms, with an inability to deal with a significant aspect of social life, namely, the facts of disability and dependence. So, for example, have thinkers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre, Eva Kittay, Hans Reinders, and, most recently, Martha Nussbaum, all argued (see MacIntyre, 1999; Kittay, 1998; Reinders, 2000; Nussbaum, 2006).


The source of their disquiet is in the interpretation that has been placed on the phrase “free and equal,” particularly as that interpretation has been seen through the lens of a third trait frequently lauded by liberalism, independence. Especially insofar as devices such as the social contract, or the original position, have been used to model the relations of free and equal persons, it has seemed that what liberalism means by the phrase is: individuals with the active abilities and dispositions to assert moral claims, and to engage reciprocally with those others who also assert moral claims to their mutual advantage. So, for Locke, free and equal individuals are precisely those capable of entering into the social contract; for Rousseau, those individuals capable of entering into and being guided by the general will; and for Rawls, those individuals capable of being “fully cooperating members of society over the course of a complete life” (Rawls, 1980, p. 546).


On any such interpretation, however, the radically disabled—those whose lives as a whole, or for some significant part, are characterized by continued and extreme dependency—will be outside the social contract.  


Moreover, as Kittay especially has argued, insofar as the model person for liberalism is one who pursues his or her ends as a “self-originator” of moral claims, and enters into relations with others as a matter of the reciprocity due those others as free, equal, and ultimately independent, the inevitable concern that some have for the radically disabled will be left out of consideration in deliberations about justice. For while care for the disabled can be and often is a source of fulfillment for the caregiver, the claims which the caregiver must attend to in the first instance are precisely the claims of the dependent (Kittay, 1998, pp. 94-96).


There are various ways of responding to these difficulties. In this talk, I am primarily concerned with political responses; yet I note first a seemingly metaphysical response with political implications. This response involves a rejection of one ontological characterization of disability as, essentially, a medical problem, in favor of a characterization of disability as exclusively, or nearly so, an issue of social discrimination.  By seeing the problem of disability as akin to the problem of race, the social model of disability seems to make that problem more tractable to liberalism (Silvers, 1998).


But other responses move more to the assumed framework of liberal political theory. One such approach to these difficulties is to reframe the nature of the liberal state, typically by moving beyond the contractarian features that seem primarily responsible for the narrow interpretation of “free and equal.” A second approach is to concede to liberalism at the political level many of the negative consequences for the disabled, and attempt to build a social ethic capable of addressing the needs of the dependent and disabled more satisfactorily than liberalism, but at something other than a political level. Finally, more radical criticism is possible, criticism that holds that liberalism is in some fatal way intrinsically flawed.


In this paper, I ask what the purposes of the state are, and argue that the state exists to serve a set of human needs, needs understood by way of a particular account of human flourishing.  I then address the question of freedom and equality, the question from which liberal political theory takes its starting point. The natural law approach, I argue, can offer a twofold interpretation of freedom and equality, one metaphysical, one political. On the natural law view, the disabled are not an afterthought, nor is concern for the disabled extra to justice. The natural law view need not hold, however, that citizenship is a fundamental need of the disabled.


The Problem of Self-Sufficiency

Human deliberation, choice, and action all have as their point human flourishing and well-being. And practical reflection on the well-being possible through action to deliberating agents terminates in a finite number of basic goods, aspects of human well-being recognizable to human practical intelligence as desirable in themselves, and thus as underwriting the desirability of possible states of affairs which could be brought about through action. Such goods include life and health, knowledge, aesthetic experience, work and play, friendship, marriage, harmony with God, and the variety of forms of harmony possible within one’s own complex person: harmony of choice and action; judgment and choice; judgment, choice, action, and emotion.


In pursuing these goods, human beings need guidance, since there is a multiplicity of goods, incommensurable each with each. Maximization is not an option, but an attitude of openness to the goods is, and is prompted by practical reason. Most generally, such a normatively required attitude is expressed in the most general principle of morality: act always with a will compatible with integral human fulfillment. This general principle in turn can be specified further, as practical reason identifies ways of willing not so compatible, e.g., directly willing (intending) damage or destruction to one of the goods.


This summary of the first principles of a natural law ethics is extremely brief, but is intended primarily to establish the boundaries at which political questions arise. My proposal is that they arise at a particular juncture where the lack of self-sufficiency of human persons for flourishing is apparent.


Individuals just on their own are insufficient for their own flourishing: they require friends, marriage requires a spouse, and even substantive goods such as knowledge and aesthetic experience will suffer in the absence of cooperation and the generation through time of social forms and practices aimed at pursuit of these goods. So a flourishing human life is necessarily communal in various respects.


Consider, though, a pre-political society, or, more realistically, an overlapping set of such societies: multiple families, social institutions, churches, forms of work, businesses, and so on. Considering them as pre-political is, of course, an abstraction, and no state of nature argument is intended. The point, rather, is to show that although, as regards what goods are being pursued, persons in such an overlapping set of societies are self-sufficient, they are nevertheless not self-sufficient in a number of more instrumental ways.


In the move from consideration of individual pursuit of goods to social pursuit of goods, there were two kinds of inadequacy, two ways in which individuals were not self-sufficient. First, they were not self-sufficient as regards the range of goods they could pursue—social goods cannot be pursued except socially. Second, they were not self-sufficient as regards their effectiveness at pursuit of various goods that could only be pursued well socially.


Yet this set of overlapping social realities is manifestly inadequate for human flourishing in the following ways. First, they are subject to external attack from those outsiders who wish to take their resources or otherwise wrong them. Second, individuals are subject to wrongs internally by free-riders, and violators of distributive and commutative justice. Third, the various groups together suffer from a huge number of coordination problems, a lack of a common and accepted way of doing things together and separately as regards, e.g., transactions of goods, transportation and travel, resolution of disputes, and so on. And finally, and, in the context of this paper importantly, there is a further kind of lack of self-sufficiency.


Everyone begins life, most end life, and many spend additional periods of their life, in conditions of extreme dependency. Within the overlapping web of pre-political social realities envisaged here, many of those in such conditions of dependency are cared for by those with natural obligations to provide such care. In particular, families owe care to children, to the aged, and to the disabled; neighbors have some obligations as well. Moreover, some of the further social groups, such as churches, also take on such obligations, as part of their self-understood mission.


But the overlapping set of social realities is inadequate to all the problems of dependency and disability for at least the following reasons. First, not all individuals whose lives are so characterized do already, or continue to, live within small social structures in which the obligation to care is recognized and met. There is a threat, though, that the dependents’ needs will not be met.


Second, some who do have specified obligations to the dependent renege on those obligations, or otherwise abuse their charges. Again, the needs of the dependent are threatened.


Finally, some (and probably many) who make good faith efforts to meet the needs of those to whom they have obligations are incapable of fully meeting those needs. Both the well-being of the dependent, and of those who care for them are thus jeopardized.


Political Authority

We see clearly through the preceding that there is a need, in other words, for political authority.  Now, this authority may come to exist simply because some person or group has taken upon themselves the responsibilities of authority and are in fact followed; there is no myth of consent undergirding the picture. But there are clearly forms of authority more and less adequate to the initial needs, and to the condition of the persons with those needs.


We are here quite close to the ideals of liberal democratic politics. But those ideals, insofar as they are liberal and democratic, enter into the picture later than the need for political authority just as such. The needs that govern the creation of political authority are the needs of all human beings within the set of overlapping communities, including those proximate, but for whatever contingent reason not currently cared for by some particular community; call these needs human needs, or needs of flourishing. The ideals of liberal democracy, and of democratic citizenship, are not foundational needs for political authority, but a constraint on how that authority most reasonably should be constituted. There is a need for such constraints, and for a democratic mode of politics; but it is a need of citizenship.


The Needs of the Disabled and the Dependency Worker

The very lives of the profoundly disabled are jeopardized by inadequate care; similarly, the flourishing of the dependency worker was threatened by the expenditure of time and resources that good care for their charges required.  The ways in which the dependent and disabled are unable to pursue these goods adequately, or as adequately as they might be able to, are continuous with the ways in which all human beings, at various times, are unable to pursue these goods; and they are the very same goods. So the needs of the dependent and disabled stand at the foundation of political society just as much as any other set of needs for assistance in the pursuit of human flourishing.


This is true too of the needs of the dependency worker, with, I think, one important additional feature. For my purposes here, I will assume that the paradigm case of a dependency worker is that of a family member, with obligations to care for a relative—whether child, spouse, or parent, in some condition of extreme dependence; whether temporary or permanent. The resources of such agents are often greatly taxed by such work: the time, money, labor, and emotional investment necessary are considerable, and can leave such persons without the energy or material resources to do much else besides care and rest.


Moreover—and here there is a crucial difference, in many cases, between the needs of the dependent and the needs of the caregiver—there is, in the obligations which unexpected dependency create, a threat to the moral well-being of the caregiver. Consider the number of parents who have aborted disabled children, or refused them medical attention at birth, or “put away” disabled children in homes, or neglected elderly parents, or abandoned disabled spouses. Such behavior is to be expected: the agents must shoulder a moral burden for which they are often unprepared, and which they see does not fall on the shoulders of all those around them.


It is a commonplace that the burdens necessary to achieve the common good of a political society should be shared as fairly as possible.  Political society does not make the right choices for such potential caregivers, but it can create to some extent a world in which those choices are shielded from adverse consequences; or, more accurately, it can assist others in meeting their responsibility to create such a world.


This leads to the second pair of concerns discussed earlier in this essay: those concerned with the moral, and other social, attitudes towards both the disabled and their caretakers. On the part of the disabled, hostility, discrimination, and indifference result in an environment which is more antagonistic to their flourishing than it need be, or than is reasonable. On the part of the dependency worker, indifference and lack of respect result in a sense that their work is unappreciated, and that they would be better off doing something more socially valued and financially remunerative. How can we see these concerns as aspects of the lack of self-sufficiency on the part of the disabled and their caregivers, such that they are proper concerns of the state?


Moral Ecology

I hope to suggest the beginnings of an answer here. Robert P. George, in Making Men Moral, introduced the notion of a moral ecology as part of the common good that a political society exists to serve (George, 1993). The notion fits in with the idea of self-sufficiency and its lack that I have discussed: the ability of an individual to make upright choices is greatly enhanced to the extent that that individual lives in a morally upright environment, and diminished if the situation is otherwise.


This type of legitimate concern of the state with the moral ecology of its citizens seems to me to exist at the border of issues of internal commutative injustice—the wrongs perpetrated by one citizen against another—for those who publicize pornography, for example, even if only to sell to other consenting adults, nevertheless show an unjust indifference to the goods of children and families.


The idea of the importance of a moral ecology as a part of the common good makes clear that, insofar as it acts with that good in mind, a state is not only permitted, but sometimes obliged to regulate otherwise private vices for public ends.  The state can make things worse as well, such as when special inducements exist for parents to get rid of their disabled children; as when genetic testing is used to help parents abort Down syndrome children; or as when laws permit abortion of the disabled up to a later date than laws permitting “elective” abortion.


The state, then, can change structural features of the environment that are a result of those attitudes (like non-ramped buildings) but also by eliminating some avenues of expression of those attitudes, such as Prenatal Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) for the purposes of abortion, more permissive conditions for the abortion of the disabled, wrongful birth suits, and the de facto immunity of medical practitioners from prosecution for failing to treat “defectives.”


On the part of the dependency worker, too, the idea of a moral ecology can play an important role. If we take, again, as our paradigm of the dependency worker a family member who already has obligations to his or her charge, it is clearly unjust for society to permit an environment in which such workers are considered socially unproductive, drains on the economy or, in the case especially of parents who have not aborted disabled children, responsible for their own situation.


The Disabled and Citizenship

I have distinguished in this paper between needs of flourishing and needs of citizenship. Societies, and even the pre-political society of overlapping societies that has a need for political authority, all manifest, in each and every individual human being, the needs of flourishing. But the needs of citizenship are needs that arise in the context of the exercise of political authority; they are constraints necessary for government that is congruent with the status of persons.


Yet these claims cannot be unequivocally sustained at the political level. The sense in which adult human beings capable of governing as well as being governed are free and equal is not the sense in which those same human beings are the equals of children, for example, who are not yet ready to be politically governed, or to govern politically. Children do not yet manifest the needs of citizens, only the needs of flourishing.


The liberal democratic state in which citizens share in ruling and being ruled is thus a constraint on the political solution to the needs of flourishing; it is an answer to the needs of citizenship.  But those with these needs are a subset of those with the needs of flourishing, for whom the political solution exists. The empowerments, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship are desirable for many, but they are not themselves among the primary needs for which political authority is needed in the first place.


In my view, while human beings are from the first social— sociality is intrinsic to their well-being—they are political in a secondary way, contra some like Martha Nussbaum who emphasize the opposite.  This way can be described as “natural,” certainly, for the need for the political is inevitable to creatures who are social, and the political life, as serving important human needs, can be deeply fulfilling; but it is dependent on that prior sociality, and not on all fours with it. Similarly, it is dependent upon a prior set of basic goods, constitutive of human flourishing, for pursuit of which the political is instrumental.


This means, to reiterate, that on the natural law view described here, the moderately disabled, the temporarily dependent, the “normal” human person, the profoundly retarded, the brain damaged, and even those in a persistent vegetative state, are all alike as regards the fundamental reason that justifies political authority: all are inadequate in some respect or other for their own flourishing.


The natural law standpoint further enables resolution of a tension seemingly intrinsic to the attempt to embrace both the needs of the disabled and the demands of liberalism, for the natural law standpoint urges the protection of the lives of all dependent human beings, both born and unborn.  The unborn are just like all of us (and all of us were once unborn) in their inevitable and radical dependence during at least some part of the lives; yet the state exists to meet those needs that we are inadequate to meet on our own. The state should protect the unborn for exactly the same reasons that it should protect disabled newborns, children, adults, and the elderly.


An adequate political approach to the needs of the disabled cannot abstract from the problem of abortion; but neither can it solve it only selectively, by addressing only the issue of abortion of the disabled. For this would be to reestablish again the same form of unfairness that those aborted, neglected, mistreated or abandoned because of disability suffer; that is, it would single out a class, in this case the non-disabled unborn, and allow action against them in virtue of their profound dependence.


Some Concluding Thoughts

Much more would need to be said to address all the issues and difficulties my account thus far has raised. But two related points here should be made about the implications of the approach taken, points that I cannot adequately address here.


On this approach, as mentioned (and here again, see MacIntyre, 1999), the disabled and dependent are not, as MacIntyre puts it, a “special” interest, for their interests are the very ones that, shared by all members of the society of overlapping societies, generate the need for political authority. This commonality is one that naturally, however, should direct our attention also to difference: the needs, the lacks, the inadequacies, the various ways in which human persons in society, and, indeed, many societies themselves, are non-self-sufficient—all of these are unique, though they display, of course, many common features as well.


This is seen clearly enough in the range of “normal” cases: the life best suited to one agent might not be best suited to another, and even an individual agent will have to reflect upon and discern which of various good options for the shaping of his or her life might be most suitable. But this is true also for the disabled: the particular way of life within which the gifts and capacities of one Down syndrome child will be best pursued and instantiated are not the same for all Down syndrome children.


This need for locality in considerations of individual flourishing should indicate both (1) the importance, where possible, of autonomy and freedom for the disabled, but also (2) the fact that, insofar as either the disabled are not, or are not yet, autonomous, and insofar as they have needs with respect to which they are not self-sufficient, their primary caregivers will be family members, friends, and local societies (such as churches)—all of whom are better situated epistemically, emotionally, and volitionally than is the political authority.



The state, it should be clear from this essay, exists as a subsidium, as a help or aid, to those pursuing their own human flourishing, one part of which includes carrying out of local and personal responsibilities. A second general point is that the needs that govern the justification for political authority are multiple: defense against outsiders, for example, and against internal criminality, as well as coordination of ways of life, partly by provision of infrastructural necessities such as roads and currency.


Moreover, in determining what will be done, what money spent, and what resources consumed by and for whom, the state must be fair as regards all its possible beneficiaries. The correlative to not viewing the disabled as a special interest group, but as on equal foundation with all as regards the justification for political authority, is, it seems, that their needs must be balanced against the needs of others which, while perhaps not as extensive, are nevertheless among the needs for which that authority exists. Consider this in the context of education: it is incumbent upon the state to provide resources by which those with special needs may be aided, but the needs of non-disabled children (and also exceptionally gifted children) must also be met.


Social justice for the disabled is thus a rigorous requirement for political authority, though it is not the only, or an inevitably overriding commitment. But it is a commitment, I have argued here, whose grounding and nature can best be understood from a natural law, and not a classically liberal, perspective.

My Take

Justin Barnard, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Union University and Director of the  Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship, responded to Tollefsen’s talk.  The discussion also featured Robby George giving his take on Tollefsen’s talk.

Tollefsen nicely connects social justice with governmental activity.  In particular, he showed how it is imperative that the government care for the disabled.  Some will disagree over whether this concern should proceed from a natural law or a classically liberal perspective.  I also appreciated how Tollefsen brought out the way that government restrains evil and creates conditions that expedite personal flourishing.  It does not, one might say, reach out and grab citizens by the throat, but rather at its best impedes social ills and enables one to strive for freedom and happiness. 

I also enjoyed Tollefsen’s careful delineation of the various groups that are affected by anti-life thinking.  It is not only the disabled who stand to be harmed from the culture of death, but those who care for them.  In addition, Tollefsen brought out how those who willingly engage in acts of evil like abortion cause pain not simply to themselves, but to their peers, even those who barely know them.  His words remind us that we are not isolated, atomized selves, but persons knit into a social fabric that stands or falls away depending on the choices and actions of millions of people just like us.




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Making Men Moral: Jean Belke Elshtain on True Freedom

moral16The biography of Jean Belke Elshtain, the conference’s fifth speaker:

“Jean Elshtain is a political philosopher whose task has been to show the connections between our political and ethical convictions. She is the author of several books and scores of articles as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Council on Civil Society. She has served on the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and is currently on the Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Center and on the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy. She has been a Phi Beta Kappa lecturer, is the recipient of nine honorary degrees, and received the 2002 Frank J. Goodnow Award, the American Political Science Association’s highest award for distinguished service to the profession.

In 2003, Professor Elshtain was the second holder of the Maguire Chair in Ethics at the Library of Congress. In 2006, jeanbethkeelshtain-1502she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, joining such previous Gifford Lecturers as William James, Hannah Arendt, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The lectures are forthcoming under the title Sovereignties: God, State, and Self (2008).”

The following is a summation of Elshtain’s incisive, often poetic remarks (errors mine, gems hers) from “Why Selves Cannot Be Sovereign.”



How do we make human beings moral agents?

On this question, Elshtain commended her book on sovereignty, the state, and the self.  She wondered out loud how we can maintain the sovereign self, on the one hand, and chasten and tame this notion of self-sovereignty on the other.

Notion of self-sovereignty has been deeded to us by our history.  Pridefulness and self-loss are opposite extremes.  We don’t want to be trampled on, so we choose self-sovereignty.

We face a certain attitude today that sees only ignorance and error in the past.  But this approach assumes that we can create a new world de novo.  We seek a self, then, that is neither triumphalist nor abject, relying on that which has gone before.

Toward a “Chastened Autonomy”
So what does a “chastened autonomy” look like?  What does freedom of limits offer, and what might those limits be?  It is helpful to bring into the conversation the writer Albert Camus.  In “The Rebel,” he believes that the person who claims absolute freedom ends up rejecting any limit and in “blind indignation” ends up believing that killing is a matter of indifference.  This accords with twentieth-century thought in some corners, that argued that some people, some groups, deserve death.  This totalitarian way of thought argues that it can kill whom it wants.


A state is called to treat its citizens responsibly.  This marks states as mature members of the international community.  This translates to the individual as considered today.  Initially, some claim, people are not initially responsible and mature, and thus do not need to be treated as such.  The self cannot be a point of reference complete unto itself, as Augustine made clear.  If you consider present-day versions of the self, you see homo economicus, man as a willful invention, man as a genetic ball of clay, man as nothing more than DNA.  None of these molds are antagonistic to strong self-sovereignty but are themselves liable to its weaknesses.


Elshtain’s emphasis is on becoming persons of self-control.  If we refuse to acknowledge limits, we become destroyers.  Camus: we need to be become men among others, not merely men for ourselves.  Above all, we are created to love and to be loved, said Augustine. 


Living Double-Mindedly: Helping the Disabled While Ridding the Earth of Them
There are people today who certain societies do not deem as worthy of life.  This goes against “liberal” views.  We live double-mindedly today: we talk about giving the disabled access even as we work to genetically phase them out.  It is no surprise that 80% of Down’s Syndrome pregnancies end in abortion (or the elimination of non-sovereign selves).


How, then, do we fight these totalizing tendencies?


We can’t forestall calamities, unseen dangers, and the like.  We complete our natures by assisting them with growth and development that comes from engagement with society.  Brave New World once seemed fantastic, but now looms ominously as possible.  There is a strange abstractness today in the cultural air that keeps us ungrounded.  This is common today.  Without embodied history, political philosophy is all words, no action, all spirit, no flesh.


Reasoning Birthed the Death Camps

Primo Levy points out that the death camps proceeded from a process of reasoning.  If indeed there are some who are unworthy of life, then it naturally follows that those who are worthy of life should remove them from this earth.  In the camps, the Germans attempted to reduce the Jews to phantoms.  It is not enough to kill; the evil must first rob you of dignity.  And yet, try as hard as the Germans did to make life purposeless, purpose exists in every fiber of man’s beings.  Levy learned through his experience that even the death camps could not rob his fellow sufferers of their inherent humanity.  This reflects, for Elshtain, on our hope for the fight for dignity.


The 20th century dealt out death to a flattened type of person; the 21st century has done the same.  Elshtain noted that some of the cannibals of Cambodia had trained at the Sorbonne (Paris) and were simply implementing what they had learned.  The flattened, desiccated view of the self championed by totalitarians has grave consequences.  Elshtain cited authors Milos Forman and Marilynne Robinson to prove her points. 


How The Body and Life Relate
Several theologians have taught us to be careful in how we handle human nature.  It is interesting to note that the Nazis moved away from face-to-face killing.  The distance placed between people helped the Nazis to kill.  The ecology of human relationship doesn’t deal with human beings in separate categories.  The dignity of humans is irreducible. 


Bonhoeffer taught us that the body and human life belong inseparably together.  Even the most wretched lives are worth living, and many who seem utterly downcast nonetheless enjoy much happiness and significance.  Freedom is a relationship between persons, being free for the other.  In relationship with the other, I am free.  No individualistic concept of the same can produce freedom.  Freedom only flourishes in community. 


Back to Camus.  The culture of self-criticism pervades the West.  We do something, and then stand back and critique it.  Exploring a relativistic, nihilistic world, Camus indicts those who squelch freedom and enact death camps in its name.  When a person rebels, he identifies himself with others, eschewing anti-humanity.  In rebellion, he finds not isolation, but solidarity.  The loss of this right means the murder of all.  The totalitarian enjoys unbridled freedom not to create life, but to take it.


Camus disavowed atheism but claimed unbeliever status.  He believed that one had to learn to live without grace.  We must reassert a view of the self that fights those who would destroy it.  Selves who affirm true freedom find pleasures in the sweet, small things of life.  Without them, we are empty husks, willful, abstract spirits drifting into the abyss.


Elshtain told a personal story of a trip to Rome that illustrated that there is a need for definitions of life that do not relate to productivity or a certain mode of being.  The handicapped are fully human.  One of the dangers in our world is wanting to do big things, huge things, but we are called to do little things lovingly.  One does not need full pockets to be a citizen of this ecology.


My Take

Following the talk, Seana Sugrue of Ave Maria University responded, as did a number of other audience members, including David Novak.  It was not long before Robby George took the mic.  The man is simply calibrated for this kind of give-and-take environment, and he waited patiently to give his two cents.  He is, it seems, the honorary respondent, something like an all-time quarterback of this conference.  This is not a problem, however, because a) he’s brilliant and b) the conference is dedicated to him.  These notes aside, discussion centered around notions of sin, “excarnation,” and how Christians may make men moral. 


Elshtain’s talk exposed the totalizing tendencies of those who promote the “culture of death,” revealing that abortion, euthanasia and genocide proceed from a deeper worldview that marginalizes personal freedom and shrinks the self.  It is essential that Christians realize that the battle for human life focuses not simply on when an embryo becomes human, but on what it means to be human in the first place.  Elshtain located her definition in a restricted, communalist selfhood that, though undoubtedly complex and requiring much further discussion, seems consonant with notions of personal identity common to the American founders.


On a level apart from the session’s topic itself, Elshtain’s notion of a “chastened autonomy” bears thinking out by all Christians.  How is it that this idea, as defined above, relates to the Christian worldview?  How may we be both “chastened” and “autonomous” (if we accept this term)?  Have not many of us imbibed a culturally conditioned view of the self that eschews self-control and communal obligation?  On this point, Elshtain’s talk was deeply profitable.  I commend the audio to you and urge you to think about this concept, if nothing else.


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