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Union University Department of Political Science
Department of Political Science

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Center for Politics & Religion Hosts Major Conference

Mar 2, 2009

Union's Center for Politics & Religion, affiliated with the Department of Political Science, hosted a conference February 25-27 entitled Making Men Moral: The Public Square and the Role of Moral Judgment. The following is an account of the conference.

In 1993 Oxford University Press published Robert P. George’s Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality. The book defends the proposition that the moral quality of certain behaviors or actions qualifies as a legitimate reason for public authorities to enact laws and policies that discourage or even prohibit such behaviors or actions. There are two aspects of this argument that were and remain particularly controversial. The first is that we can confidently identify moral norms that guide action, and the second is that political authorities are justified in relying on said norms, for moral reasons, to restrict human behavior.

As most of the book is dedicated to addressing the arguments of critics of these ideas, George concludes the book with a promissory note for future works that will articulate a positive delineation of what a full-blooded pluralistic perfectionist theory might look like. Fifteen years later we have seen that promissory note fulfilled in George’s books In Defense of Natural Law and A Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis. In these and other edited volumes, George has expanded on the theoretical framework suggested in the closing of Making Men Moral as well as applied his thinking to specific ethical issues as evidenced in his book co-authored with Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.

While these subsequent works have expanded upon the case made in Making Men Moral, it was for the purpose of honoring Robert George’s work and recognizing the original book’s foundational role that Union University’s Center for Politics & Religion and the Witherspoon Institute convened a conference in late February of 2009. This conference, Making Men Moral: The Public Square and the Role of Moral Judgment, took place February 25-27 on the Union University campus in Jackson, Tennessee. It was made possible by generous support from the Bradley Foundation. While the proceedings have concluded, the audio of the conference is available here.

The purpose of the conference was not to merely rehash the specific arguments made by George in the book. Rather, the goal was to build upon the themes of the book by asking several prominent thinkers to weigh in on the prospects for “making men moral” given the current culture and how it has changed since the early 1990s. To that end invitations to give plenary addresses were accepted by Jean Elshtain, David Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, James Stoner, Russell Moore, Christopher Tollefsen, and Gregory Thornbury.  

Father Neuhaus had been asked to address the conference at the closing luncheon that Friday. As readers of Public Discourse undoubtedly know, Father Neuhaus passed away on January 8, 2009. Beyond the powerful sense of loss that Father Neuhaus’s passing evoked from all who knew and admired his work, this also presented the organizers of the conference with the very practical problem of finding someone else to prepare the appropriate words with which to conclude the conference and send us back to our respective vocations.

While the circumstances precipitating the decision were difficult, prevailing upon Hadley Arkes, author of the book First Things and fellow co-conspirator with Father Neuhaus (and Elshtain, Novak, and George) in founding the journal First Things, was an easy choice. Though Professor Arkes had initially been unable to attend the conference due to scheduling constraints, he found a way to make it work. Once his participation was secured the conference slate was filled out with able discussants for each plenary session and an opening dinner address by Brigham Young’s Paul Kerry.  

Wednesday, February 25th

Paul Kerry was charged with a challenging task: cover the breadth and depth of Robert George’s intellectual career and interests in a brief after-dinner address. His address accomplished this and more. Kerry began with several audio clips from George’s college days where he honed his blue grass skills with his band. Kerry, an intellectual historian, then very skillfully introduced the accomplishments and various book projects of Professor George, focusing on the arguments of Making Men Moral.  He highlighted the effects of George’s works not only in the theoretical realm but in the lives of students impacted by the battle of ideas on college campuses and in the culture at large.

Russell Moore, Dean of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a dynamic address later that evening entitled, “Of Sacraments and Sawdust: Toward the Future of Evangelical-Catholic Public Engagement." Moore opened with an insider’s look at the creation of the journal Touchstone and a spirited conversation he and Robert George had discussing how a Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic with strong convictions might work together in a spirit of “mere Christianity.” Moore’s address was a strong call for evangelicals and Catholics to learn from each other what their own traditions are lacking in themselves.

Thursday, February 26th

Session one featured Louisiana State University’s James Stoner offering an address entitled “Politics and Moral Culture: Aristotle, Rawls, and George.” Stoner lamented the abandonment of the “Aristotelian principle” present in Rawls’s opus A Theory of Justice but missing in his later work, Political Liberalism. Stoner suggested Robert George’s own project could be supplemented by adopting a form of the Aristotelian principle. Jack Nowlin, professor of law at Ole Miss Law School, acted as a discussant.

In session two, renowned Jewish philosopher and University of Toronto professor David Novak discussed how he and Robert George can come to similar practical conclusions despite different theoretical foundations in his talk, “Robert George and Natural Law: Commonalities and Differences.” Patrick Lee, professor at the Franciscan University at Steubenville, offered helpful commentary as the discussant and Robert George himself contributed some clarifying remarks during the Q&A session.

Jean Elshtain headlined the session three with an address drawn from her recent book, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. Elshtain contrasted an unlimited push for autonomy that has characterized much of the worst moments of the last century with a call for a “chastened autonomy” that recognizes our status as creatures with limits beholden to something much greater than ourselves. Political scientist Seana Sugrue of Ave Maria University responded by linking Elsthain’s project with the themes present in Making Men Moral.

The fourth and final formal session on Thursday featured University of South Carolina’s Christopher Tollefsen. Tollefsen’s paper, “Disability and Social Justice,” argued that a natural law approach best grounds a common conviction that disabled individuals are fully valued members of the political community and can participate in human flourishing. Union University’s Justin Barnard responded by agreeing almost entirely with Tollefsen’s argument but raising the question of whether a commitment to Christian eschatology is needed to fully make sense of Tollefsen’s claim.

After four substantive sessions the after-dinner schedule offered a change of pace. First Robert George, Jean Elshtain, David Novak, and Union’s Hal Poe sat on a panel to discuss the legacy of Father Richard John Neuhaus and the prospects for evangelicals, Catholics, and others of good will to influence the culture for the sake of “first things”. The participants shared personal anecdotes about Father Neuhaus, discussed the “End of Democracy” controversy, and commented on the role Fr. Neuhaus played in the contest between the culture of life and the culture of death.

When this panel concluded, a few hardy attendees were treated to a “jam session” of bluegrass music and singing. With Robert George and Keith Pavlischek on the banjo, Hal Poe on the fiddle, and Greg Thornbury on the guitar, the room reverberated with several old-time hits and favorites. If Professor George’s earlier contributions during the day reflected his Oxford and Princeton persona, Thursday evening’s performance highlighted his West Virginia roots. Alas, there is no audio available for this session.

Friday, February 27th

Session five featured Union University’s Dean of Christian Studies, Gregory Thornbury. Thornbury’s address, “Mugged by the Enlightenment: The Prospects for Natural Law & Christian Witness in a ‘Show-Don’t-Tell’ World” offered a cautionary note regarding the efficacy of natural law in impacting and influencing the culture. Baylor University’s Francis Beckwith responded by agreeing with some of the diagnosis while still demurring with regard to Thornbury’s appraisal of natural law theory.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was Robert George’s address to Union University’s chapel service later Friday morning. Professor George explained his view of human action and the basic goods that we pursue in planning out our lives. While these basic goods are accessible to unaided human reason, what made George’s address unique was his interweaving his articulation of practical reasonableness with the specific role that religion and revelation plays for the Christian considering his or her future.

As mentioned, the concluding luncheon address was delivered by Hadley Arkes. Arkes, in his inimitable style, reminded the audience that while we may be geometricians by accident, we are moralists by necessity. By weaving together various strands of moral and logical argument, illustrated winsomely, Arkes pressed home the necessity of engaging in moral discourse and closed by quoting Father Neuhaus’s conviction that “we can still turn this thing around.”

It is fair to conclude that the participants in the conference contributed to a very high level of discourse. If Robert George’s Making Men Moral made the theoretical case for influencing the culture on behalf of morality, the discussions that took place in late February at Union University centered on how best to go about making that case given the countervailing currents in law and culture. These discussions, now available online, continue the work and legacy of Fr. Neuhaus, Professor George, and their fellow travelers and offer a model of how Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, and others of good will can, without compromise, engage the culture for the sake of good and for the sake of the common good.