The Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis

The Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis

David R. Oakley

THE CLASH OF ORTHODOXIES: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis
by Robert P. George

(Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2001, 387pp, $49.95. Available from AD Books)

Here in Princeton, New Jersey, there are a lot of highly educated people, including especially university professors and graduate students. Sometimes they share their viewpoints with the rest of us by pasting bumper stickers to their cars. I saw one the other day: "I do my part to keep the religious right angry."

It conveys a widespread understanding among liberal elites that religious conservatives are not motivated by reason, at least not in their opinions about social issues, like abortion, euthanasia and gay rights, which, from time to time, are the subject of public debate. Rather, they work from "prejudices" unthinkingly imported from their traditional religious beliefs into the political arena.

Liberals believe that these conservatives would impose - not persuade or convince because their positions are not based in reason - their religious belief on the reasonable majority.

A new book by Princeton professor, Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies, challenges this understanding of religious conservatism. George, a Harvard and Oxford-educated philosopher, who holds the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence once occupied by Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson, sets out to make the case that the moral views of conservative Christians (often shared by observant Jews and other believers) are rationally defensible. Actually, he even goes farther, arguing throughout his book that "Judaeo-Christian moral teaching can be shown to be rationally superior to orthodox secular moral beliefs."

A remarkable thing about The Clash of Orthodoxies is its accessibility. George attained his high standing in the academy by writing books and articles addressed to scholars in highly specialised areas of law and philosophy. In this latest work, however, he addresses the wider public. The Clash of Orthodoxies is a pleasure to read. It is lively and engaging, and avoids academic jargon and unnecessary technical analysis. (When one senses that the details of an argument have been sacrificed for readability, one can go to his own and others' scholarly works which are cited in the numerous endnotes and which discuss a point in far greater depth.)

On the other hand, John Grisham has nothing to fear. This is not a beach reading. This is an analytical work; it takes up the thorny perennial questions of how we organise our lives together - issues of life and death, rights and freedoms. And the author does not take the easy way out by recourse to rhetoric or facile reasoning. Counter-arguments to traditional morality's answers are consistently engaged. Professor George's brand of conservatism owes little to the pundits, politicians and journalists on the right. The author is genuinely interested in a debate on the merits; he eschews partisanship and always argues in a spirit of goodwill.

The Clash of Orthodoxies will do much then to enhance the quality of public debate on controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, pornography, embryonic stem cell research, marriage and sexual morality, and the role of the courts in resolving such issues. It is greatly needed. The orthodoxy of secular liberalism is dominant in the élite sector of our culture.

Liberal secularism

The writings of political theorists and judges, such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Justice William Brennan, have made the case for the "liberal secularism," as Professor George calls it, and its understanding of man and government. So now many of us are at least a little wary of religious-minded conservatives. Even if not bomb-throwers, do they not constitute a standing threat to freedom? Are they not modern day puritans who, according to one definition, are people who live in the fear that some one, somewhere, is having a good time?

In my view, the hegemony of liberal secularism in the academy and elsewhere is not just because licence, especially sexual licence, is an easy sell. It is also explained by the absence of an opposing intellectual force. And this is why The Clash of Orthodoxies may be destined to play a critical part in making our democracy more deliberative - which, everyone should agree, would be a good thing. Professor George cannot be dismissed as unintelligent or uninformed. He is intellectually brilliant, highly credentialed, and understands academic liberalism as only someone who makes his living in the academy itself can understand it. And he advances impressive arguments that shake up, and could even topple, its prevailing assumptions.

His philosophical natural law theory sets forth a reason-based understanding of the inviolability of human life (from conception), for example, and an understanding of sex and marriage, which will flummox efforts to wave away conservative views as mere "religious intolerance." In The Clash of Orthodoxies, American social conservatives have a powerful voice; and liberals have an intellectual opponent with whom they will have to reckon.

David R. Oakley is an American Catholic writer. His review originally appeared in the 'Handbook of American Social Conservatism.'

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