Fighting Pride and Prejudice, Protecting the Right of Conscience | Carrie Gress | CWR
Robert George’s Conscience and Its Enemies is a primer in civics and a guide to addressing the cultural Leviathan.
The well-known plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice revolves around a terrible mix-up by the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. The dashing Mr. Wickham convinces poor Lizzy that Mr. Darcy is a man of malice, something she is already prejudiced to believe, in part due to his own reserve. As such, she feels no remorse in refusing Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated (and ungentlemanly) marriage proposal. Darcy, stinging from Miss Elizabeth’s refusal, writes our heroine a letter to dispel Wickham’s lies. The rest of the tale unfolds with Elizabeth discovering just how mistaken she had been.
What would have happened to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, one wonders, if Mr. Darcy had decided to not write her that letter? What if, out of his own pride and contempt for those “decidedly beneath him,” he had simply not bothered to engage the truth?
In his latest offering, Conscience and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, pens a new sort of letter from Mr. Darcy.
While it is difficult to collapse entire groups into the persona of a 19th-century gentleman, there are striking similarities that come to the surface in George’s defense of those who believe in what James Madison called “the sacred rights of conscience.” On the one hand, the “Wickhams” tend to use charm and deception to convince their audiences of their moral certitude and high ground, while the “Darcys” tend to say little until they get to the point where they simply must say something (which is often too little too late).
“I have found that secular liberal views are so widespread as to go largely unquestioned,” George explains in his book. “As a result, many in these elite circles yield to the temptation to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot or a religious fundamentalist. Reason and science, they confidently believe, are on their side.”
Many Lizzys and Larrys of our day—the lo-fos (low-information voters)—are ensnared in the culture that idolizes celebrity, charm, glamour, and polish, communicated in the short sound-bite or tweet. These habits don’t provide room for longer or deeper explanations that get to the truth. Unfortunately, their avoidance of substance leads them to the Wickhams of the world while the Darcys remain silent—or are persecuted into silence.
As George explains, through close scrutiny of the Wickham-types, we learn “that it is their own views that are thinly supported—that are, as they might say dismissively, nothing but articles of faith.”
And yet while many liberal arguments rest on shallow footing, when it comes to issues of conscience— such as marriage, abortion, freedom of religion—George makes it clear that conservatives are not the underdogs, that principled positions have an intellectual pedigree worth defending that simply does not match up to the emotive or baseless arguments its opponents make it out to be.
A primer on pressing issues
The book is divided into four sections.