On Democracy and Morality

From a 1997 TV appearance by Dr. Robert P. George, Princeton University Professor of Political Philosophy

Americans should remember that our finest moments as a people have not been the moments when we have laid moral questions aside in our politics, but it's rather the moments when we have stood for moral truth -- for Justice and for Right.

When at great costs -- the carnage of a civil war -- we freed the African-American slaves, when later in our history we protected women workers and children from exploitation in the work place, we made moral judgments.

We acted on these moral judgments when, more than a hundred years too late, we finally began seriously to extend the rights of citizenship to the descendants of the slaves. That was a moral judgment. That was a moment when Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement called upon us to be true to our best selves as Americans -- to be true to our moral principles.

He called on the idea -- he evoked the critical idea -- that we are all brothers and sisters under the fatherhood of God. He wasn't ashamed or afraid to invoke God's name in these discussions. Although, of course, he made his arguments in public terms... so that believers and unbelievers alike could see the rightness of the principle that blacks ought not to be discriminated against or segregated [and that] no one ought to be discriminated against on the basis of race.

Mother Teresa, a few years ago, filed a brief before the Supreme Court of the United States. I, together with my colleague, had the honor to represent Mother as council in that case. Mother asked the court to reverse the holding in Roe v. Wade and to declare the inalienable rights of the unborn child. And when she did that, she didn't appeal to Papal documents or the teaching of the Church. She went back to our own founding documents, to the Declaration of Independence, and she said to the Court, America! You are based on a promise, and that promise is the promise of equal rights for all -- the idea that we all share in the equality and dignity that is proper to us as human beings. And this is being denied to the unborn. So, it's your obligation, she said to the Court, to right the wrong that you did in Roe v. Wade, and, in the name of your best traditions, to declare the rights of the unborn child.

Late in his life, after the Civil War and after slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment, the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, was asked by a young black man, "What should I do with my life?" Of course, the situation was very bad for blacks. Even though slavery had been abolished, the regime of Jim Crow was upon them. They were victims of terrible discrimination. And Douglas answered him with three words: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate!

Now we agitate in Christian love; we agitate with strict respect for the rights of others. But we must AGITATE. We must ACT. These injustices cannot go unaddressed. We must PRAY and we must ACT.

The alternatives are not politics and prayer. It's not either / or. It's either and BOTH!

We must be activist citizens!

The preceding is a quote from Dr. Robert P. George, professor of political science at Princeton University, excerpted from an episode of the TV series Focus entitled "Democracy and Morality." Focus is produced by the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Transcribed by Tim Broderick and presented by People for Life with the permission of Franciscan University.

Dr. George is an author, most recently of Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (Oxford University Press, 1993). He is also a contributor to First Things magazine, and a member of the American Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. George holds a law degree and a master's degree in theology from Harvard and a Ph.D. in legal philosophy from Oxford.

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