The well-known plot of Jane Austen’s Pride
and Prejudice revolves around a terrible mix-up by the heroine, Elizabeth
Bennet. The dashing Mr. Wickham convinces poor Lizzy that Mr. Darcy is a man of
malice, something she is already prejudiced to believe, in part due to his own
reserve. As such, she feels no remorse in refusing Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated (and
ungentlemanly) marriage proposal. Darcy, stinging from Miss Elizabeth’s
refusal, writes our heroine a letter to dispel Wickham’s lies. The rest of the
tale unfolds with Elizabeth discovering just how mistaken she had been.
What would have happened to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, one wonders, if Mr.
Darcy had decided to not write her that letter? What if, out of his own pride
and contempt for those “decidedly beneath him,” he had simply not bothered to
engage the truth?
In his latest offering, Conscience
and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, Robert
George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, pens
a new sort of letter from Mr. Darcy.
While it is difficult to collapse entire groups into the persona of a
19th-century gentleman, there are striking similarities that come to the
surface in George’s defense of those who believe in what James Madison called “the
sacred rights of conscience.” On the one hand, the “Wickhams” tend to use charm
and deception to convince their audiences of their moral certitude and high
ground, while the “Darcys” tend to say little until they get to the point where
they simply must say something (which is often too little too late).
“I have found that secular liberal views are so widespread as to go
largely unquestioned,” George explains in his book. “As a result, many in these
elite circles yield to the temptation to believe that anyone who disagrees with
them is a bigot or a religious fundamentalist. Reason and science, they
confidently believe, are on their side.”
Many Lizzys and Larrys of our daythe lo-fos (low-information voters)are
ensnared in the culture that idolizes celebrity, charm, glamour, and polish,
communicated in the short sound-bite or tweet. These habits don’t provide room
for longer or deeper explanations that get to the truth. Unfortunately, their
avoidance of substance leads them to the Wickhams of the world while the Darcys
remain silentor are persecuted into silence.
As George explains, through close scrutiny of the Wickham-types, we
learn “that it is their own views that are thinly supportedthat are, as they
might say dismissively, nothing but articles of faith.”
And yet while many liberal arguments rest on shallow footing, when it
comes to issues of conscience such as marriage, abortion, freedom of religionGeorge
makes it clear that conservatives are not the underdogs, that principled
positions have an intellectual pedigree worth defending that simply does not
match up to the emotive or baseless arguments its opponents make it out to be.
A primer on pressing issues
The book is divided into four sections. The first section, “Fundamentals,”
fills in many of the blanks some of us may have from forgotten civics lesson or
books we never read. Most of us simply just don’t know where to start when
facing the cultural Leviathan.
These first several chapters are solid bricks laying the groundwork to
understand how the elites silence conscience, especially through judicial
The second section, “Morality and the Public Square,” engages the issues
surrounding immigration, marriage, and freedom of religion. Here George
addresses the definition of conscience, which liberals and conservatives define
differently. On the one hand, the liberals use conscience as “a type of
permission slip” that justifies any behavior. They can do so because they
ultimately root it in an understanding of an individual’s unlimited autonomy.
This view is evidenced in the Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey concerning “the right to define one’s
own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of
human life.” On the other hand, conservatives generally think of conscience
along the lines of Cardinal John Henry Newman: as “a stern monitor.” In this
view, George explains, “it is one’s last best judgment specifying the bearing
of moral principles one grasps, yet in no way makes up for oneself, on concrete
proposals for action.” Conscience, therefore, “identifies one’s duties under the moral law. It speaks of
what one must do and what one must not do.”
The third section, “Life and Death,” runs the gamut of life issues from
the embryonic stage to the end of life. Like the rest of the book, it uses
strong rational argumentation and reveals many of the liberals’ double
The section also includes a chapter entitled “The Fallacies,” which
looks specifically at trite lines used by liberal politicians to justify their
actions. Mario Cuomo’s “while I’m personally opposed to abortion” line is in
there, as are some lesser-known illogical zingers.
The final section, “Good Guys and Not So Good Guys,” is a collection of
culture-war heroes (guys and gals). The late, great Father. Richard John
Neuhaus is a giant for the good. Among the anti-heroes we find Supreme Court
Justice Harry Blackmun. The Supreme appeared to be a classic (and quite boring)
conservative who was contemptuous of liberals, but his decision in Roe v. Wade elevated him to the status
of liberal icon.
Overall, the book serves as an important primer on the most pressing
issues of our time, and it provides keen insights about many of the ironies of
those on the opposite side of the issues. It is also a very timely book,
released in the same month as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage in Windsor v. The United States. In his
decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy employed the classic liberal tool (which
George exposes) of making bigots out of those who are opposed to gay marriage.
Wide but not always deep
Some might fault this book for failing to be something that it is not
intended to be. It is a primer and, therefore, a teaching tool. Those who want
to dig deeper into George’s thought on, say, the new natural law theory, will
not be particularly interested in this offering. (George does discuss the
theory, but not in any great depth.) On the other hand, George’s incomparable
expertise will give even the most seasoned reader new insights on these
Perhaps more serious is George’s limited discussion of the common good. He tends to avoid this
fundamental element of Catholic social thought, opting instead to speak about a
public good. George is far from alone
in avoiding the common good: communism has made it something of a hot potato
over the last 75 years. Nevertheless, a deeper understand of the common good
seems crucial to overcoming the radical individualism espoused by liberal
George does, however, use the public good argument to good end. By
recalibrating “civil unions” in light of the public good, he argues that they
ought to be forbidden. His position is far from that of many conservatives who
simplistically try to escape the thorny gay marriage problem by allowing for
civil unions. Given that this issue is unlikely to go away any time soon,
further insights here would be welcomed.
Casting a wide net
Perhaps unsatisfied with merely reaching “the choir,” George clearly
makes an effort to reach those who may not be naturally inclined to read his
book and to help balance the debate and inform the uninformed. Back-cover
blurbs from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as well as the New York Times Magazine certainly cross
partisan lines in a way not frequently seen.
Moreover, George calls upon other conservatives to enter into the debate
and not sit quietly on the side waiting for someone else speak up. Such is the
obligation of democratic citizenry. He explains:
Does this mean that participants in morally charged
debates should soft-pedal their arguments or keep quiet about their
convictions? Certainly not. Civility and mutual respect are not inconsistent
with candor or even bluntness.
Mr. Darcy would agree.
Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas
of Liberal Secularism
By Robert P.
Studies Institute (ISI), 2013