Religion & Liberty Online

What Should Social Conservatives Do in 2023?

Princeton professor and public intellectual Robert George (Image credit:

Following the work of one of social conservatism’s most prominent defenders is a good start for the new year.

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In 2021, for the first time in two decades of Gallup polling, America’s social ideology shifted. For the first time in two decades of Gallup polling, social liberals outnumbered their socially conservative counterparts. Although a 4% dislocation may not seem that significant, it serves as evidence of a trend many on the political right have bemoaned for years: More and more Americans are rejecting a centuries-old philosophy of social conservatism and embracing liberal stances on a swath of social issues.

To redress this situation, social conservatives, particularly those of a religious bent, must retake lost ground. It’s a daunting task. How can social conservatism see rebirth in an America not only less religious than in previous decades, but increasingly accommodating of both libertarian-style personal/sexual ethics and progressive stances on the very positions its adherents believe to matter the most?

Few modern thinkers have worked harder to revive social conservatism than Princeton professor and public intellectual Robert George. Considered one of America’s leading modern conservative philosophers, George’s almost 40-year career has been one committed to not only advancing socially conservative policy positions but also developing the movement’s undergirding doctrines. Although Catholic, George’s philosophy is far from a mere restating of Catholic social teaching; he fuses such teaching with a Thomistic conception of natural law to develop intellectually grounded defenses of conservative stances on a variety of issues.

George’s explication of both social issues and foundational doctrines is the subject of Social Conservatism for the Common Good from Crossway, a collection of essays from prominent evangelical thinkers applying George’s philosophy to several key issues for modern social conservatives. Although the book’s subtitle is “A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George,” the book is neither a fundamentally Catholic vs. Protestant work nor a simple highlight reel of Dr. George’s insights. Social Conservatism is about introducing timeless concepts of natural law and Christian ethics to evangelicals who are seeking a serious foundation for their cultural witness.

The post-Dobbs world has changed the abortion debate in America from one ruled by overarching legal decisions to on-the-ground voter debates below the federal level. Evangelicals are now being forced to present watertight arguments to pro-choice Americans, who now will determine abortion policy at the state level. George’s work, as explained in Social Conservatism, offers such watertight arguments. “Pro-lifers in the 1990s had problems a whole lot worse than activist judges and biased pollsters,” writes pro-life advocate Scott Klusendorf in a chapter on George’s pro-life philosophy: “We had idea problems. The worldview assumptions that made abortion plausible to many of our fellow citizens were deeply entrenched in the culture. … A bigger March for Life was not going to fix that problem.” While affirming the centrality of the imago dei as the basis of any conception of human rights, as expounded in law professor Adeline Allen’s chapter on human dignity and natural rights, George’s pro-life argumentation is still empirical in nature: (1) Human beings have intrinsic rights by virtue of being human; (2) human beings are “human physical organisms”; and (3) human physical organisms come into being at conception, therefore conceived human beings have intrinsic value and rights.

This philosophy gave pro-lifers a serious argumentative strategy, counteracting the “mere religious fundamentalism” complaint often raised against them. From such arguments, George helped advance a natural law case for incorporating the tenets of the pro-life argument into American public policy, in the name of the “dignity and equality of every individual.” As Klusendorf explains, George’s highly logical arguments reset the terms under debate, allowing social conservatives to shift it from one primarily concerned about the rights of the mother to one prioritizing the rights of the unborn.

George’s work promotes human flourishing at all stages of life, including within the traditional family. Theology professor Jennifer Marshall Patterson describes George’s definition of marriage as “a comprehensive, permanent, monogamous relationship rooted in the biological complementarity of man and woman.” Tracking this definition through modern challenges, including the Supreme Court’s landmark affirmation of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges(2015), Patterson notes that a defense of traditional marriage requires an understanding of marriage as an institution reflecting deep principles of human interaction, not as a mere social contract: “Participating in the institution of marriage actualized its norms even if spouses could not articulate its theory.”

George freely admits that many conservatives have simply taken the path of kowtowing to cultural pressures surrounding marriage. Defending marriage, he writes, involves counteracting modern priorities of the desires of adults and affording greater care for the needs of children. “We seek to preserve marriage—the real thing—because of the profound respects in which a flourishing marriage culture serves and benefits all members of the community, beginning with children. We need courage, we need to muster the courage, to love as we should—self-sacrificially.”

Outside strictly family-centric issues, Robert George’s philosophy of human dignity expands to encompass a bold defense of religious liberty on domestic and international fronts. A former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, George views the defense of religious freedom as necessary for defending human rights. Opposed to viewing religious liberty as a strictly sectarian or ecclesiastical issue, despite heavy references to Augustinian thought, George sees religious liberty as a matter of freedom of conscience worth defending both in America and overseas, leading him to criticize actors ranging from Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia to militant secularists in America. “Religious freedom remains under serious attack across the globe,” writes George. “A very substantial proportion of the world’s population live in circumstances in which they are either victimized by their own governments … or terrorists who operate with impunity.” To George, religious liberty is more than merely defending the Christian baker or the website designer but a holistic philosophy of civil society that respects the rights of conscience for all.

Methodist layman and writer Mark Tooley examines George’s support for classical liberalism and democracy more generally, particularly against recent accusations that liberalism has led to rampant social degradation and unrest. Although George is unwilling to deem liberal democracy as the genesis of such social ills, he argues that a “neutral” public square cannot endure the assaults of a militant secularism. “Liberal secularism will tolerate other comprehensive views so long as they present no challenge or serious threat to its most cherished values,” insisted George at the Knippers Memorial Lecture. “But when they do, they must be smashed.” If, however, social conservatives prepare for the long war on issues like the traditional definition of marriage and the value of human life, then liberal democracy can succeed in George’s view. Although George has not always been optimistic about democracy, including in Clinton-era articles betraying heavy doubt regarding the sustainability of the “American regime,” his modern work seems more optimistic as far as the future of classical liberalism is concerned, as seen in a 2019 piece co-written with the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Ryan T. Anderson: While “classical liberalism … may not have hit a home run, it certainly hasn’t struck out.”

George’s social conservatism is rooted in his philosophy of new natural law. Building on the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, George’s new natural law affirms the existence of moral absolutes toward which norms are directed in a way that both affirms the innate moral behavior necessary for human flourishing and rejects more utilitarian systems of ethics. While George’s philosophy of natural law suggests a degree of moral social behavior, it nevertheless does not prescribe a comprehensive blueprint of all moral behavior through the law of civil society “[Civil] law and morality occupy distinct normative domains,” writes law professor Adam MacLeod on George’s jurisprudence. “Human law often requires or forbids actions that natural law and divine law leave undetermined.”

Evangelicals who see tension between social conservatism and a broader cultural tendency to reject coercive morality (at least as traditionally conceived) can make great use of George’s overall philosophy. Andrew Walker notes that, despite George’s heavy grounding in Catholic social teaching, the “new natural law theory” he espouses is accessible regardless of denominational affiliation: “Absent is virtually any antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism in George’s rendering.”

Referenced often throughout the book is George’s civility—not the kind of toothless niceness that so often draws criticism but rather the willingness to argue graciously without ceding ground to false premises. In Walker’s words, “What matters is being the right type of gadfly—the kind of person who is winsome and gracious but laser sharp in an argument, one who must be taken seriously by ideological counterparts.” Such ideological counterparts most notably include progressive intellectual Cornel West, whose friendship with George is the subject of the book’s concluding chapter. Such coalitional company, George himself admits, is only feasible when everyone involved is honestly pursuing truth: “Seek the truth and speak the truth, as God gives you to understand the truth.” Such ideological companionship has no room for bad faith, grifting, or selling out for artificial unity.

For social conservatives, the road ahead is long, hard, and may very well suffers defeats. Even still, the life and work of thinkers like Robert George exemplify the path the movement must take: Refuse to abandon the posts, be willing to fight in broad ideological company when necessary, and bring razor-sharp arguments and unassailable intellectual dignity to the battlefield of ideas. “Christians must meet the enemy on the field of battle,” Carl Trueman writes in his chapter on faith and reason. “Graciously, yes, but in a manner that cedes no ground without a fight.”

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.