As part of America Media’s “Civility in America” speaker series, Cornel West and Robert P. George sat down with America’s editor in chief Matt Malone, S.J., for a conversation about free speech on campus and the place of Christian witness in the public square. Since 2007, Professor West, a public intellectual and self-described “revolutionary Christian,” and Professor George, a leading conservative legal scholar and Roman Catholic, have jointly taught an undergraduate humanities seminar at Princeton University.
Father Malone began the discussion by posing a question recently raised by another prominent conservative thinker, Arthur Brooks, who delivered America’s John Courtney Murray, S.J., lecture in October 2018: When it comes to improving the public discourse in the United States, is bringing back “civility” enough? Should we instead speak of restoring love to our political debates? — Ashley McKinless
Cornel West: The great Hannah Arendt was very suspicious of any talk of love in the public square precisely because of the variety and heterogeneity of viewpoints. As Christians, we can enter in with our love baggage on the love train, but we have got some magnificent secular, agnostic and atheistic brothers and sisters, and they do not want to hear that love talk.
So we say: “O.K., if justice is what love looks like in public, let’s talk about justice.” They say: “Yeah, let’s talk about justice.” But from a Christian point of view, we are connecting it to the cross—the witness of a Palestinian Jew named Jesus. For them, they are connecting it to a discourse of benevolence or a whole host of other [kinds of discourse]. The important thing for Christians is not to talk about love but to exemplify it.
The important thing for Christians is not to talk about love but to exemplify it.
Robert P. George: We do believe that, eventually, the conversation does have to come around to love. You have to bear witness to truth in love, and we do not think you can permanently lay aside the question of the ultimate source and ground of our humanity and of the possibility of love. We are willing to engage our secular brothers and sisters on fair terms in a spirit of brotherhood, in a spirit of love.
We are not of the school that says keep religion in the closet, keep God in the closet, don’t talk about that stuff. We are not of the mind that says, “Keep faith out of the public square, keep faith out of the public dialogue, only talk in a language that is common ground.” The trouble there is that you are reduced to the point where you are not talking to each other at all. The common language is not capable of reaching the fundamental issues that have to be addressed—the deep existential issues of meaning and value.
Because at the end of the day people want to know: Why should I love somebody else, especially if I disagree with him and I find his views or something about them disgusting or appalling? And so we have to be willing to engage that and take it on, and it is hard. The temptation is to run away from it, to just [keep the] peace and not engage. But I think the Christian faith is the ground of the possibility of mustering the courage to have somewhat uncomfortable conversations about deep issues that people do not always want to talk about.
We are not of the mind that says, “Keep faith out of the public square, only talk in a language that is common ground.”
West: I think we do have to draw the distinction between religion and politics. There is no religion that does not have political consequences and effects. But you can have a nation-state that treats fellow citizens equally. So the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists and the latitudinarians and whatever other categories we have in place—they can still enter the public square and have exactly the same status.
But as Christians, we want to say that when we enter [the public square], we have our own assumptions and presuppositions that we are bringing. We have a lens through which we look at the world. And we look at the world through the lens of the cross. It is a very different way of looking at the world than through the lens of the stock market, through the lens of the laboratory or scientific authority. All of these might have a place, but the primary lens is through that cross that signifies that truth and unconditional love across the board and the willingness to live [and] die in light of the witness of a Palestinian Jew who was crushed by the Roman Empire but somehow bounced back with some love drops at the bottom of that cross, that precious fountain.
George: Cornel is right when he says we have to exemplify our Christian faith more than preach it. I think we have to practice this kind of dialogical engagement more than we have to preach it.
I think on the Princeton campus, to the extent that [Cornel and I] have been able to benefit the institution, it has just been in the doing, not in talking about what we are doing. It has shown that it is possible and it has benefits. And I cannot stress enough that this is not just about being polite to each other despite disagreeing. We can do so much better than that. We can engage with each other; we can try to learn from each other. We can acknowledge our own fallibility and the possibility that we might be wrong, whatever our view is about religion, about politics, about morality, and be open to learning from engagement with the other person.
This is not just about being polite to each other despite disagreeing. We can do so much better than that.
If we do this, we will not only advance the cause of learning; we will advance the cause of democracy. You cannot run a democratic republic if people are not willing to engage each other and learn from each other and treat each other respectfully—not just out of politeness but out of a desire to advance the common good. James Madison in the 10th Federalist Paper warns that what has brought down republics historically has been faction. And you have to find a way to deal with faction. And he has a proposal for it in Federalist 10; and the Constitution is meant, in part, to come up with a way of dealing with that.
But it is not just formal structures of government, constitutional structures that are needed to do the work. You need a certain kind of citizen with a certain kind of virtue. Citizens who, despite disagreement, are willing to recognize each other as fellow citizens, as reasonable people of good will. To engage with each other, be willing to learn from each other, be willing, occasionally, believe it or not, to change your mind and not just be dogmatic.
West: The great W. E. B. DuBois says in The Souls of Black Folk that honest criticism is the soul of democracy. And what he means by that is what the Greeks call paideia, which is a formation of attention, that cultivation of the critical self and the maturation of a loving soul willing to raise one’s voice. And that is the anthem of black people: Just like a jazz orchestra, you have got to lift every voice. Not an echo but a voice that is distinctly, uniquely your own—conclusions you reach through your own wrestling with what is going on inside and outside of you.
In his great text The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey says if, in fact, there is no longer a civic virtue that facilitates critical reflection, the maturation of a self, things public will be degraded and trashed—public conversation, public education, public health care, all the things that sit at the center of a democratic project—and you lose your democracy.
The love that Jesus exemplifies is too rich and too deep to be contained by any human construction having to do with ideology and politics.
Now one of the things about brother Robby and me at the university that helps us go against the grain is that neither one of us is liberals, and forms of liberalism are hegemonic in the university. He is a conservative Christian; I am a revolutionary Christian. When we look at liberalism, we say: “Oh, there are some wonderful elements there. We’re against monarchy, too. We’re for rights, too. We’re for liberties, too. We’re for certain kind of regulations, too.” But it seems to be so spiritually empty, it can be colonized by Marxism and hedonism and narcissism and greed in the name of liberalism. A moral rot begins to set in, and you do not have any counter-voices that have religious and nonreligious sources left.
When brother Robby and I come together at the university, we really are going against the grain—and we are Socratic in that sense, refusing to conform to the hegemony of the day. We are atopos—unclassifiable, un-subsumable. That is what they used to call Socrates: He is atopos; he does not fit. Now Jesus, who weeps—Socrates never cried—he is also atopos; he does not fit under one particular school of thought, one ideology, one politics, because the love that he exemplifies is too rich and too deep to be contained by any human construction having to do with ideology and politics.
But he tilts toward the weak. This is the great revolution in the species: the Hebrew Scripture that says to be human is to spread steadfast love and loving kindness to the stranger, the motherless, the fatherless, the weak, the persecuted, the oppressed, the exploited. And Jesus comes directly out of that prophetic Judaic tradition. That is a very different way of looking at the world when it comes to not just America but every nation. That is why every flag is under the cross, including the American flag, and you can get in trouble saying that.
George: Richard John Neuhaus always made the point that to be a nation under God is to be a nation under judgment. We should aspire to be, as our motto says, a nation under God: “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But that should trigger in all of us the recognition that we are a nation under judgment. We answer to a higher power.
This is the great central point of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” King is at pains to point out that no one is firmer than he in his belief in law. Without law, the weak, the vulnerable, the despised would be defenseless against the powerful. We need law. Human law is good, but human law can go bad. And that means we have to recognize that there is a higher law, a natural law, a law of God that is the reference point, the standard by which we judge the justice or injustice of the human law.
So while our ordinary obligation is to obey the human law, where the human law is not in sync with the higher law, we are not only not under an obligation, necessarily, to obey it. Often we would be under an obligation to break it. But that is only true if there is, in fact, a higher law.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.