Robert George makes the argument that conservatives ought to stay in American institutions to fight back. To do so will require, he says, the cardinal virtues, but why should conservatives shrink from those or the opportunity to exercise them and so strengthen them? He doesn’t believe we should necessarily start alternative institutions, rather we should fight in and for those that remain, which is why he is at Princeton. Which is not to condemn other efforts but to encourage that as a good option.
I begin to understand what he’s saying when I attend classes at Princeton Seminary. On the one hand, there is the religion of nonjudgmentalism that Reno illuminates in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. I went to the seminary chapel and had a warm, therapeutic bath in the stuff. Nonjudgmentalism is real and it is there. But on the other hand there is the ghost of judgment still haunting the classroom, at least the one I’m in. I have found it is more demanding than anything yet at Westminster because the teacher is so attentive—he doesn’t have the class load, perhaps. He stays on target, he has points to make, he wants to steer and influence at a personal level. The students there (we are five altogether) are prepared, keep engaged and are scrupulously respectful, and are not burdened with a sense—at least that I can detect—of needing to conform to a desired outcome. It is the scholarly habit of suspending judgment which, because no virtue can exist in isolation—transforms the nonjudgmental religion when the rigor of discipline attends. Suspending judgment till a proper evaluation can be made, you understand.
It takes a lot of energy to concentrate and pay attention, and I find those hours at Princeton extremely demanding. I work at it more, and do better too, just because there is a seriousness about it all. I admire the way my teacher conducts himself because he has a real interest in learning through his seminars. At Princeton they can do it because of the size of the endowment they have, what they are able to provide their students, how they are able to select those who enter, and what those selected provide in what is probably the ideal situation. There is a tangible benefit.
I don’t mean to say there aren’t tangible benefits to having to be resourceful about your time, about your money and sources for research, about learning even when your teacher is uninterested or lazy. There are benefits to that as well. But it is the same principle there too: there are things worth struggling for, and one of them is the kind of situation in which the best students have the best opportunities under the best teachers simply because learning is valued.
I’m not talking about orthodox Christianity infiltrating a place like Princeton Seminary. Nor am I talking about being eminent or prestigious—those are not places from which conservatism tends to emanate. I am observing, however, that there are American institutions which have something worth struggling for: the University, for example, if not the Seminary, just to keep certain ghosts available however hard the struggle.
Isn’t that after all the point of being a conservative? Perhaps Princeton will make one out of me yet. I am at least willing to cheer Robert George and his students on.