Professor Mark Wallace’s ‘Response’ to George is red herring

Editor’s Note: This is a guest editorial, submitted by Nick Zahorodny ’16 and Greg Brown ’16 

Since the Robert George/Cornel West Collection on February 10, a flurry of articles and opinion pieces have been published. A number of them, questioning whether Swarthmore should invite social conservatives such as George to speak on campus at all, have focused on issues of free speech. Several students and professors have argued that, given his views, George should not have been invited to speak about dialogue in a liberal arts community. While there is much to be said about such arguments, we now intend to focus on a different response to George.

Professor of Religion Mark Wallace’s Phoenix editorial, “Full inclusion now: a response to Robert George,” skirts the question of whether the College should host speakers like George, instead simply gesturing toward the apparent “irony” of doing so. Professor Wallace tables questions of free speech and attempts to provide a more academic response to George.

At first blush “Inclusion” is a more serious engagement with George’s position, but scrutiny reveals significant shortcomings. Wallace’s title indicates that he intends to offer a response. A “response” to any academic should, of course, consist in an engagement with that thinker’s most cogent arguments. Since Robert George is most famous—or infamous—for advocating “new natural law,” which constitutes the basis for all of his ethical claims, it stands to reason that a proper “response” to Robert George should call George’s interpretation of natural law, or the natural-law tradition itself, into question.

The phrase new natural law, however, does not appear once in Wallace’s editorial, nor is an awareness of the basis of George’s views present, even implicitly. How, then, does Wallace “respond” to a prominent thinker without acknowledging his best-known arguments?

Wallace focuses instead on George’s apparent invocation of scripture; he characterizes the Bible as the backbone of George’s views. For instance, Wallace says, “Citing the Bible, [George] says marriage equality and family well-being are mutually exclusive.” One issue is immediately apparent. This claim appears in a paragraph featuring three other direct quotes by George, none of which reference Biblical texts. If the context of those other quotes is in fact exegetical, then one would wonder why that context is not highlighted within Wallace’s piece, as it would provide crucial and otherwise absent support for Wallace’s argument. Despite the frequency with which Wallace repeats that the Bible is the basis for George’s right-wing crusade, he does not manage to produce a single direct citation of George referring to the Bible.

By critically examining the scriptural basis for the condemnation of homosexual acts, then, Wallace seeks to undermine George’s position, his thesis being that “unfortunately for Professor George and other conservative Christians the Bible says little, if anything, about the politically charged issues he and his ilk champion, and what it does say runs counter to their right-wing assumptions.”

Unfortunately for Professor Wallace and other liberal biblical scholars, though, Robert George’s corpus says little, if anything, about a scriptural basis for his moral positions. Not only do the above quotations seem to provide evidence that Wallace had difficulty finding a direct appeal to the Bible in any of George’s public comments, but the basis of Wallace’s argument is in fact contrary to a view which George explicitly articulates in The Clash of the Orthodoxies:

In defending the rational strength of Christian morality, I do not mean either to denigrate faith or to deny the importance—indeed, the centrality—of God’s revealed Word in the Bible, or of sacred Christian tradition. My aim is to offer a philosophical defense of Christian morality; and to put forward a challenge to the secularist worldview that has established itself as an orthodoxy in the academy and other elite sectors of Western culture.

Given the types of arguments that George makes, then, Wallace’s line of argument should strike one as odd. The upshot of George’s philosophical assertions is no doubt meant to be that, even if the Christian revelation were, per impossibile, demonstrated to be false, George would still maintain his ethical claims, just as those he cites as members of the natural-law tradition, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Jefferson, held their ethical claims irrespective of their belief in Christian revelation. It would be one thing to argue that George falls short of this stated intention, but Wallace’s article gives the impression that such arguments do not even exist.

Similar statements of purpose are peppered throughout George’s writings. Anyone who has read George’s work will be aware that George intends to develop a moral theory independent of revelation; his insistence on the point can become tedious even for those sympathetic to natural law. One wonders why, then, Wallace’s editorial fails to mention George’s frequently repeated commitment, instead misleadingly implying that George’s argument relies on scripture and as such fails in the absence of such support. Since George does not anchor the premises of any of his ethical arguments in divine revelation, the majority of Wallace’s article and the entirety of his Biblical approach is a red herring. It is a “response” to Robert George that neglects to engage his central philosophical arguments.

Now, George is sensitive—as the above quote shows—to the relationship between his philosophical conclusions and his faith. As it happens he is more self-conscious about giving his faith a short shrift than about using it as a crutch in the field of academic debate. This highlights another aspect of Robert George’s views that Wallace’s editorial wastes no time recognizing: George is Roman Catholic, and, as such, gives perhaps as much, if not more, credence to the Church’s Tradition as he does to the direct scriptural authorities from which it is derived. The historical situation of the Bible is part of the reason why, from a Catholic perspective, it cannot on its own speak unambiguously to specific issues at all times. For that reason, Catholic philosophers such as George employ other means to reach their conclusions. Professor Wallace is surely aware of the nature of Catholic truth claims, so it is strange that he ignores this fact in responding to George.

We do not claim to be qualified to assess properly Wallace’s biblical claims, and we do not intend to become mired in exegetical disputes. It has been sufficient to show that Wallace’s biblical argument is simply irrelevant to arguments leveled by a Catholic natural lawyer. That said, some of Wallace’s claims about the Bible—that it “assign[s] no preference to one model [of marriage] over another” and contains “actual celebrations of same-sex relations”—seem to move much too quickly. The latter conclusion seems to trade on an equivocation on the term relations. Wallace moves from commenting that the Bible does not denounce homosexuality except in “context-specific and historically bounded statements” to saying that the Bible “is consistently laudatory of” and “comes nowhere near denouncing homosocial relationships.” It is not clear what could be meant by “homosocial,” for if it just meant “same-sex friendship,” then the argument being made would have no force. It was George, after all, who began the Collection rather conspicuously by declaring the “fraternal love” he bore for Cornel West. Is Professor Wallace suggesting that the “homosocial” relationship between Robert George and Cornel West itself provides a “theological warrant” for homosexuality? It is difficult to tell.

Among several Swarthmorean meta-discussions attempting to rationalize ignoring George’s arguments altogether, Wallace’s response stands out as a somewhat relieving attempt to articulate the reasons why George is wrong. It is unfortunate, however, that Wallace’s editorial unilaterally ignores George’s philosophical positions in favor of falsely suggesting that George relies on the Bible and so falls desperately short of its purpose. Perhaps George’s statement that there is a “crisis in the liberal arts” has even more to it than he thought.

An earlier version of this editorial ran anonymously. The authors have since decided to sign their names. 

2 comments

  1. While I certainly do not know enough about George’s philosophy to draw a conclusion on the matter, this letter seems to make a convincing case. I would urge the authors, however, to come forward. Professor Wallace published his letter with his name, and so deserves a response with a name attached. The letter as is carries little weight, as I have no reason to read someone’s thoughts who is not so convinced by them as to admit to having them. As one who has written the most public defense of George’s right to speak, I can assure you that the “acrimony” is not so bad.

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