Statement from Robert P. George

January 11, 2019

To the Undergraduate Fellows of the James Madison Program

From Robert P. George

As you are no doubt aware, a white supremacist group is coming to Princeton tomorrow to conduct some sort of rally or demonstration. We in the James Madison Program don’t police students’ opinions or tell them what to think, but I suspect that, like me, you judge racist beliefs to be reprehensible and disgusting. The fact that you are Undergraduate Fellows of an academic program devoted to enhancing our understanding and deepening our appreciation of American ideals and institutions suggests that you believe, as I do, that “all men are created equal,” that every member of the human family—irrespective of race, ethnicity, or anything else—is the bearer of profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

How shall those of us who share these convictions respond to the white supremacists? Here, too, we will not presume to instruct you as to what to do. You are adults. You are aware that there is evil in the world and that people who have embraced bigotry or other moral evils exist and sometimes show up in our communities. We know that you have the intelligence, strength of character, and firmness of will to deal with it—and deal with it in a responsible manner.

No doubt there will be counter rallies and demonstrations, and some of you will participate in them. That’s fine. Others will note that the white supremacists are here in Princeton for two reasons, namely, to get attention for themselves and their vile beliefs and to freak us out. To block the achievement of these goals, some of you will participate in prayer vigils or other events held out of view of the demonstrations, or simply ignore the white supremacists. That’s fine, too. Short of violence, which cannot be condoned, or interfering with other people’s free speech rights, however much we may rightly revile the opinions they are expressing, there are a variety of legitimate ways to respond.

At the same time, let us not forget that we are an intellectual community, and for an intellectual community even the intrusion into our midst of bigoted and hate-filled people provides an occasion for serious reflection and the raising of important questions, questions that perhaps we do not think about often enough. If we are repulsed and revolted, as I believe we should be, by the ideology of white supremacy, what is the basis of our revulsion? Is it aesthetic? Merely a matter of taste? Do we dislike prejudice because it is akin to a nasty odor? Or is there a more substantial basis for our revulsion? Is it because prejudice of the sort represented by white supremacy violates a belief we have in human dignity—equal human dignity? If so, what is the basis of—the reason or reasons for—thatbelief? If we human beings—all human beings—have inherent and equal worth, how is that the case? What is its source? Why, ultimately, is it wrong to abuse other human beings, treat them with contempt, discriminate invidiously against them, deny their equal dignity?

Our nation’s Declaration of Independence answers these questions by proposing that God—“their Creator”—made human beings equal, endowing them with certain unalienable rights. The broader tradition in which the generation of the American founding was formed taught that God fashioned human beings—all human beings---in his own image and likeness. Of course, some people who believed these things in theory contradicted them in practice, most notably by supporting slavery and even (as in the case of Jefferson himself who drafted the Declaration) owning other human beings as slaves. But moral failure and even hypocrisy don’t falsify a principle. So perhaps we should take the occasion of the white supremacists’ intrusion into our community to ask ourselves whether, in fact, the principle is true.

Each of us must wrestle with this question and resolve it for himself or herself. You certainly needn’t believe what I believe, but, for what it’s worth, I myself believe it is indeed true. I believe we are “created equal” and “endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights.” I believe in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. This is why I oppose white supremacy and am revolted by the thought of white supremacists coming to Princeton to broadcast their prejudice and hate.

Of course, I recognize that there are good people here at Princeton and across the country who, like me, condemn racism and other forms of bigotry but do not believe in God (or at least the God of classical theism). They, too, affirm the inherent and equal dignity of human beings (and therefore oppose racist ideologies) but have, I can only suppose, a different account of its source or foundation. It would be good to know what it is, and to consider it in an open and fair-minded way. Let there be conversations—deep, serious conversations—across this campus and across the country on this great question. Let us share our thinking with each other, challenge each other, and allow ourselves to be challenged. Even as we resolutely oppose the purveyors of bigotry and hatred, let us seize this occasion to think more deeply about why they are wrong, why we believe in the inherent dignity of human beings and the equal dignity of all.