Introducing Fidelity Month: An Interview with Robert P. George
Recently we had a conversation with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, about his idea to celebrate “Fidelity Month” in June. Professor George is the author or editor of 18 books, including What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Conscience and Its Enemies, and Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics. A collection of his writings can be found here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and Professor George has approved the edits.
Public Square Magazine (PSM): Recently, you wrote, “By the authority vested in me by absolutely no one, I have declared June to be ‘Fidelity Month’—a month dedicated to the importance of fidelity to God, spouses and families, our country, and our communities.” Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted you to issue this call and why you chose the month of June?
Robert P. George (RPG): I’ll be happy to do that, and thanks for inviting me to chat.
We’ve all seen the polling data, most recently from the Wall Street Journal. It shows a precipitous decline in the traditional beliefs that really gave our country hope—belief in God, belief in family, belief in the importance of community, and patriotism, all have declined. The importance of religion in people’s lives has declined. People are feeling alienated and isolated from each other, alienated from their country, alienated from “organized religion,” as they sometimes call it. This is coming at the same time as the mental health care crisis among young people. Anybody who teaches in a university, and especially anybody in a position of administrative responsibility in a university where the care of students is within that person’s charge, knows that we have a very serious mental health problem among our young people on college campuses and elsewhere. And it cannot be attributed mainly, much less entirely, to COVID-19 and that two-and-a-half or three years of experience that we had with lockdowns and masks, and so forth. The problem predates that.
And when I look at all the data, when I look at the facts on the ground, what strikes me is that at the heart of it is a lack of faith, a lack of fidelity. And that needs to be restored. We need to rebuild faith. First of all, and above all, faith in God. This nation was founded on a proposition. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We’re not a sectarian country. We don’t have an established church. I’m glad we don’t have an established church—I think that would be very inappropriate for our country, with our demographics and our sociology, and our traditions and our history, to be a sectarian country.
But we are a country founded on the principle of ethical monotheism, the idea that there is a more-than-merely-human source of meaning and value—a Creator, a God who cares about us, who endows us with rights, and to whom we are ultimately answerable for how we conduct ourselves. So it’s not a merely human source of rights and obligations. It’s a divine source. And since our basic rights did not come from presidents or kings or parliaments or congresses, or any merely human power, those rights can’t be taken away legitimately by any merely human power.
So faith in God plays a very important role in the American constitutional order, a very important role, historically, in our self-understanding as Americans. And when faith in God, trust in God, and fidelity to God begin to wane, there are real social and political consequences. Our sense of our responsibilities begins to weaken, including our responsibility to honor and protect and never violate the rights of others.
It’s the same with fidelity to spouses and families. Nobody needs me to tell them today about the damage being done by marital infidelity, or the weakening of the institution of marriage, often as a result of infidelity, the weakening of our understanding of the importance of fidelity to marriage and family, the weakening of the sense that family is the fundamental unit of society, that the marriage-based family is the fundamental cell of society. We can never be a healthy society at the political level if we are an ailing and diminished society when it comes to families and the other basic institutions of civil society.
And there, again, what we need is to restore people’s sense of the importance of fidelity, viewing fidelity not simply as “thou shalt not’s”—not simply in a negative light We need what the great Christian and existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 1920s and 1930s labeled “creative fidelity,” that is, fidelity with a purpose, fidelity for a good—the good of enjoying the blessings of marriage and family, the good of bringing up children in the loving bond of mother and father in a committed, faithful union.
We need that kind of creative fidelity—positive fidelity. Not just the “thou shalt not.” Now there is a “thou shalt not” aspect to it. Thou shalt not commit adultery. But why? Not because adultery is merely bad in the abstract, but because adultery damages the human good, it damages families, it damages marriages. It’s destructive in our lives.
So I want to rebuild fidelity. I want people to recommit themselves to marital fidelity, fidelity to spouse, and fidelity to children. It’s not a good situation where people don’t understand the importance of actually being there for their children. We shouldn’t rely on devices to supervise and form our children. We shouldn’t rely on their playing video games or being online all the time or on their phones. This is an abdication of parental responsibility, and it’s a breach of fidelity—in this case, fidelity to our children.
Same with our communities. Patriotism we usually think of as something on the national level. We’re patriotic Americans, or we want to be, or we should be. But we need fidelity to our local communities as well. That needs to be rebuilt. We have to put to ourselves the challenge that John F. Kennedy famously, in his 1961 inaugural address, put to the country, put to all Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” We need to say the same thing about our communities. Ask not, “What is my community doing for me?” Your community is going to do a lot of stuff for you. But it can only do that stuff if each of us challenges himself or herself to say, what can I do for my community?
So I envision Fidelity Month to be a month in which we rededicate ourselves to fidelity to God, to our spouses and families, to our country, and to our local communities.
I think June is a great month for that. June is right in the center of the year. Also, it gave me enough time since my conceiving the idea to promote the idea and get it out there for people since I first floated it about three months ago. We’ve had time to design a proper symbol and logo for Fidelity Month and to reach out to institutions as well as individual people through social media and by other means to get them on board for Fidelity Month. So it does give us enough time to do it. June is also the time when the school year comes to an end and the summer begins. We can lay aside all the concerns, especially for young people, students, and others, with our academic projects and so forth. We’re now looking to the summer, and maybe can focus now on fidelity. At least focus on something other than our academic requirements. So I think June is a great month. June is also a month when in much of the country, in any event, and in much of the world, the sun shines, and things begin to grow in a serious way. It’s a new birth. It’s refreshment, and so I want to refresh. Lincoln rightly called for a “new birth of freedom.” It’s now time for a new birth of fidelity. So everything works very well for the month of June.
PSM: Fidelity has perhaps never been easy for humans. Why is it so hard to be faithful? And are there any new and distinct challenges to fidelity in our time?
RPG: Well, we human beings, of course, are rational. That’s what makes us rather special from a religious point of view. That’s the manifestation fundamentally of our being made in the very image and likeness of God. Unlike the brute animals, but like God, we have reason and freedom. We can envisage states of affairs that do not exist. We can grasp, we can understand, the intelligible point, the purpose, and the value of bringing them into existence. And then we can act on the basis of our reason, exercising our free will, to bring that state of affairs into existence. We’re not operating as brute animals do, merely on instinct or impulse.
So far, so good, right? So far, great! God-like. Wow!
But, of course, we’re not merely rational. We also have feelings and emotions and sub-rational desires, and these, too, are capable of motivating us. Now I don’t embrace the Stoic view that our goal in life should be to take away or eliminate our emotions and feelings to the extent possible. Or the Buddhist view, although I have enormous respect for the Buddhist tradition, of trying to eliminate all passion, all emotion.
I take the view that I think is the orthodox view within the Christian and Jewish traditions. It was also the view of the great Greek and Roman pagan philosophers, at least many of them, that the proper relationship of reason and passion is for reason to be guiding passion—reason to be in control of feeling and emotion. We don’t eliminate passion, but we rather make sure that passion is guided so that we can passionately pursue what is good and not what is evil. But we also know that that passion can lead us astray. We can want things we should not want. Things can appear good to us. Things can be very desirable that, in fact, are not right, are not good, and in the end, do not conduce to human well-being, human fulfillment, or human flourishing but rather take us down a bad road. We can experience, in other words, temptation. And we can yield to temptation and sometimes then use our God-given gift of reason to rationalize bad behavior. So, Fidelity Month should be a month in which we get ourselves back in line with the teaching of that wonderful philosopher Plato, who taught that in the well-ordered soul, reason has the controlling hand and the appetitive part of the self, the passionate part of the self, is going to be under the guidance of reason.
I would add faith and reason because I see faith and reason not as in any way in conflict or in tension, but rather as, if I can quote the great Pope John Paul II, “the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of the truth.” So, drawing on the resources of both reason and faith, I think we need to make sure that our passions are directed to what is good, and that will mean fidelity to God, to spouses and families, to country, to the community, and away from certain things we might be tempted to do, like engage in infidelity, lay God aside to choose our own path, cheat on a spouse, neglect our children, turn them over to the machines and games and devices, or be somebody in the community who wants to be only a taker and never a giver. In our local communities, as I said before, we needed to be givers. Ask what we can do for the community. Don’t always be asking, what can the community do for me?
PSM: When some people think about fidelity, they might see it as a kind of constraint or a limitation. If I commit myself to one person or to one country, say, it will make me unfree. It might even restrict my ability to think freely. What would you say to someone who thinks that fidelity is a limitation or constraint?
Patriotism, in particular, might seem problematic to some people. Given the injustices that every country has been involved with, why should we promote fidelity to country?
RPG: That’s a very familiar view, and since the 1960s, it’s gained quite a lot of currency among our own people. This is true not only in the United States but in the West generally. A lot of people have fallen into a false “liberationist” ideology that supposes we need to be liberated from the old constraints of morality in the sexual domain and other domains as well. To be truly free, this ideology proposes, we need to not be committed to things.
Well, the opposite is true. If you want to order a donut, you’re bound to use syntax. If you say, “I don’t want to use syntax; I don’t want to be constrained by syntax; I want to be freed from syntax,” you’re not going to be able to order a donut. You’ll be less, not more, free.
It’s the same thing with true freedom more broadly. True freedom requires commitment, taking on obligations, or accepting obligations in many cases that are unchosen, such as our obligations to our own parents. We didn’t choose to be born, and yet we have unchosen obligations to our parents. For example, I’m right now helping to take care of my elderly parents. Well, I didn’t choose that obligation, but it’s an obligation I have. And then sometimes, of course, we do choose our obligations, but when we choose them, if we’re really to be free to flourish as human beings, we’re going to have to be faithful. We’re going to have to keep our commitments, keep our word, keep our pledges, maintain our vows. A commitment, a vow, has got to mean something.
Now, as far as patriotism is concerned, it’s a false view of patriotism to suggest that a patriot can never be critical of the policies of his government or aspects of the history of his country. Patriotism means love of country, and anybody who loves his country wants his country to be the best it can be. And to do that, we have to acknowledge where we have gone wrong.
For example, here in the United States, we have a legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. We need to celebrate the work and the efforts of the people who helped us to overcome, to a very, very considerable extent, that legacy. There is still more work to be done, of course, but we have made tremendous progress. It is not 1857. It is not 1957. 2023 is a much better place in America when it comes to racial justice. We still have issues. We still have debates. But we’re in a much better place, and that is the achievement of people, black and white, who stood up for civil rights—many of them, of course, religious people, such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. But there were secular people involved as well. And among the religious, there were Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Martin Luther King marched with Dorothy Day, the great Catholic laywoman, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar. So all of that is to be celebrated, and when we look at what they were laboring to overcome, we have to own that. We have to say, “Yeah, you know, that was part of our history, and we’re not proud of that, but we are proud of the work that was done by our forebears and that we should be continuing ourselves to overcome it.”
So, patriotism isn’t a blind approval of everything the government did or what we, as a people, did, or everything the government’s doing, or we as a people, are doing now. There are things that the government is doing now that I highly disapprove of. There are things we as a people have bought into, such as the taking of innocent, unborn human life, that I profoundly disapprove of. But because I love my country, I want the best for it. I love my country in part because it’s my country. But that’s not the only reason I love it. I also love its splendid ideals, that “we hold these truths going to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the greatest ideals, the best ideals. But I do love it in part because it’s mine. And because it’s mine, I want it to be the best it can be.
It’s like the way I love my family. I don’t love my family because it’s perfect. I love it because it’s mine, and I want my family to be the best it can be. I want my children to be the best they can be, and we all, as family members, have to contribute to making it the best it can be, just as we all, as citizens, need to contribute to making our country the best it can be. It’s the same with our religious institutions. They’re not perfect. I’m Catholic. The Catholic Church has a rather checkered history on some issues. But it’s also got a history of splendid achievements. We want to recognize and honor the achievements and own and maintain a critical perspective on the bad things that were done by the Church or by church officials or in the name of the Church, and that’s going to be true of all faiths. And that’s because we human beings are imperfect, and our institutions, therefore, are going to be imperfect. But we will make them more perfect to the extent that we are faithful to our commitments. It will be far, far less perfect, and we’re going to have more and more injustices and errors if we abandon fidelity and embrace a liberationist ethic, which at the end of the day boils down to “if it feels good, do it.” And man, the most vulnerable and marginalized people are always the victims of an ideology of “if it feels good, do it.”
PSM: A kind of fidelity many people would agree with today is the need to be “true to yourself.” Could you comment on this and talk about the difference between following your conscience and “if it feels good, do it”?
RPG: Yes, we need to be clear about what the self is. In the wake of the rise of liberationist and consumerist, and now identitarian ideology, people make the mistake of associating the self with wants, desires, feelings, and emotions—the sub-rational aspects of our humanity.
That’s not who, in essence, we are. It’s a mistake to think it is. You are not your feelings and desires, fundamentally. They are yours, but you are not them. You are not reducible to them. They must not be allowed to control you. We mustn’t become slaves to our passions, slaves to our desires. I quote so often the words of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume on this point. Hobbes said that “the thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies, to range abroad and find the way to the thing desired.” The thoughts, that is, the intellect, is to the desires, the feelings, the emotions, the sub-rational aspect of the self, “as scouts and spies to find the way to the thing desired.” Hobbes thought we were destined to be slaves to our desires, and that reason is the scout and spy to figure out how to get what we want, but it can’t tell us what to want. Our wants are given by brute desires, feelings, and passions. And Hume is explicit about this. Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them.” Hume thought, as did Hobbes that all we can ever be are slaves to our desires. And that is indeed a form of slavery. In fact, it’s the most abject form of slavery, much worse than another person controlling you.
You might be free, at least in your own head, even if you’re under someone else’s control, so far as what your physical movements can be. You can still think for yourself. You can still have integrity. But when you’re enslaved by your own desires, when you’re a slave of your own passions, that’s a terrible form of slavery.
It’s a gross form of unfreedom. To be truly free, we have to be self-transcending. We have to be masters of ourselves, not slaves. So true liberation, true authenticity, genuinely being true to yourself, if I can put it that way, means being liberated from that slavery to desire. It means reason being in control, it means acting on the basis of freedom and reason to construct a character that is noble and virtuous—one that you and your parents and your community can be proud of.
PSM: I’m enjoying a lot of what Mary Harrington is saying about “reactionary feminism,” a reaction to feminism. And as I listen to this explanation of Fidelity Month, I can’t help but think that there would be critics that might say it’s just reactionary to what many have come to think of June to be, which is a celebration of pride. Right? So how would you respond to somebody who thinks that this would minimize the celebration of that?
RPG: What’s pride?
PSM: The Pride Month celebration? I’m not sure why you’re asking me that because I have to believe you know what I mean. There will be many that will say that this is just a reaction to that.
RPG: Well, you know, I can’t control what other people say or think. I want to put out a positive idea. I think having Fidelity Month is a terrific idea. If other people want to have months dedicated to what they believe in, that’s fine with me, too. I may or may not share their beliefs, but it’s a free country, and people can dedicate days or weeks, or months to causes that they believe in. I want to celebrate the essential good of fidelity. And so that’s why I’m proposing the idea of Fidelity Month.
PSM: Could you expand on the opportunity costs that some would see when it comes to fidelity? For example, when it comes to a career, if I stay in government service, I may pass up a job in the private sector. Or if I’m really committed to this institution but another one pays more, I may miss out on that.
We also see this in the context of a family or spouse or relationships. Some people might say I’m foreclosing an opportunity by staying faithful or staying true to this particular individual. Why should one remain faithful in the face of those opportunity costs? One could argue that reason would dictate that one should pursue the opportunity that is most advantageous for that individual right now. So how would you respond to that?
RPG: There are some things—fidelity to God, fidelity to one’s own family, and, I would argue, fidelity to country—that are, in a certain sense, indefeasible. They are lifelong commitments, whether they are chosen or not, with lifelong implications. There are other things, some in the employment domain, although not every form of employment, that are not indefeasible in the same way so that one can legitimately, having performed the service for which one was hired and presumably compensated, one can decide, well, I want to move in a different direction, or I want to get a better-paying job support my family better, or I want to just change careers. I want to move out of engineering and on to the business side of things, maybe within the same company, maybe moving to a different company. Those kinds of decisions are perfectly legitimate. There’s no grave breach of fidelity in that. The employer knows when he hires you in these situations that he’s not getting a life commitment. It’s not like marriage. It’s not like “till death do we part.” We don’t have the same vow. Neither party is bound in the same way that you’re bound to a marriage, or, I think, bound in fidelity and allegiance to God or even to country.
Now there are some exceptions. There are some roles in life that are vocations. For example, the vocation to the priesthood, at least as understood in churches that are sacramental, like the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and, I believe, the Anglican Church. In these communities, that’s a lifelong commitment. If you become a religious sister, for example, you take a vow, and that’s for life. Now, even when it comes to religious vocations, there can be very rare circumstances in which it can be legitimate for, let’s say, a woman who has made vows to the consecrated life to legitimately request to be released from her vows. But those are very rare and special. The ordinary case is you made a vow, you keep it. By making the vow, you commit to a certain role and, in a sense, a certain job. Your role and “job” may be to be a priest. Your role or “job” may be to be to be a nun. There could be other commitments of that nature where, because of the type of work I’ve taken on and the requirements of that position to serve people over the long term, it would be wrong for me to step away from it, say, for a better job, or for an opportunity to make more money, or something like that. I owe certain obligations to people by virtue of having taken on this role. And now I’ve got to fulfill those obligations. So it won’t be the same for every “commitment” one makes. Some commitments are not forever. They are not “till death do us part.” They are not unconditional. Other commitments are.
PSM: I think that’s really interesting. Do you sense that the hyper-marketization that we encounter today, at least in the contemporary United States, influences our ability to make meaningful commitments? You go on Amazon, and you have seemingly limitless consumer options, any color, or preference for any product you want. Does swimming in the water of so much “market freedom,” at least if one has the capital, to make so many different choices and then amend those choices make it more difficult to make commitments? With music, for example, if I don’t like the song, I can just keep hitting this button until I encounter the song that just speaks to me at this moment. Does that saturation of choice and individual expression perhaps make it more difficult to then recognize or discern the difference between a choice that’s ephemeral, such as what song I’m listening to, and a choice that I really do need to be faithful to, such as marriage, or for religious vows, etc.?
RPG: Well, here, I think you’re really on to something. I spoke a moment ago about the destructive implications and consequences of liberation ideology. The same can be said of consumerism as an ideology, and the two are not unrelated! Liberationism and consumerism. My beloved friend and dear brother Cornel West speaks very passionately and illuminatingly about this. The marketization of everything tends to subtly encourage us to commodify everything and to treat other people and even our own selves as commodities. And that’s clearly bad. We need to keep firmly in view the crucial difference between persons and things. And institutions are made of persons. We need to respect persons and not treat them as commodities.
We can’t treat our friendships and the making of friendships, or breaking of friendships, in the way we treat the purchase of consumer goods. That’s a kind of instrumentalization of people that destroys the very concept of friendship. If two people in a relationship are simply using each other and value the relationship only for what they personally get out of it individually, whatever that is, it’s not a friendship. If you want to enjoy the actual benefits of the actual good of friendship, you can’t commodify it. You can’t marketize it. You can’t instrumentalize it.
You have a true friendship only when people are committed to the friendship and value it for the sake of each other. Each partner in the friendship values the relationship for the sake of the other. It’s friendship, it’s love, it’s willing the good of the other for the sake of the other. Once instrumentalization creeps in, and consumerism can encourage us to think even of friendships in instrumental terms, it undermines that good, and it’s no longer available. And friendship is a fundamental respect in which we flourish in view of our sociability and our nature as social creatures. So I lament, and I worry about, the marketization of everything. I worry about the ideology of consumerism in the same way and for much the same reason that I worry about the ideology of liberationism or the ideology of identitarianism, or any of the other ideologies that I think are so destructive of fidelity.
PSM: How do we help our young people discern between those different realms of what is essential for us to be faithful to?
RPG: By precept and example. And example is even more important than precept. Now precept is important. It’s important that we preach and that we teach. It’s important that we speak to our kids. It’s important that we say words, whether we’re parents or coaches or pastors or teachers, or anybody with influence over youngsters or young men and women. It’s very important that we talk. Often we don’t talk enough. We leave unsaid what really needs to be said. But even more important than talking, than teaching, than preaching, than precept is example—showing by example what’s important and what’s not.
Really, in the end, it comes down to a question of values. I say to my own children, and I say to the brilliant and wonderful young men and women that I’m so blessed to teach at Princeton, year in and year out—I say to them, you know, there are some things that matter. But at the end of the day, not all that much. And there are some things that really matter.
The things that matter, but not all that much, are the things that are good but only instrumentally good. They are things that are good because we can do good things with them. But they are not things that are good in themselves. These are things we can also do bad things with.
What do I have in mind? Wealth, power, influence, prestige, status. A lot of our young people, and a lot of adults, are very oriented to and focused on those things—wealth, power, status, prestige, influence—and they matter. There are good things you can do with wealth. You can build businesses, create jobs for people, you can engage in philanthropy, give your money to great causes. Same with influence. You can use your political influence or your cultural or social influence for the good. Same with status, same with prestige, same with power.
But you can also do bad things with those things, and those things are not good in themselves. They’re not what ultimately matters. So we need to shift the focus. And Fidelity Month is largely about this, shifting the focus from things that matter, but not all that much, to things that really matter. Faith, family, friendship, integrity, honor, dignity. The things that are worthwhile for their own sakes and not merely as means to other ends. And I can’t get very far with my children or my students if I preach that but don’t model it. So I want to say it to parents out there, teachers, church leaders, pastors, and coaches: your young people, the young people in your charge, they’re watching you. They’re listening to you. Yeah, it’s true they’ll hear your words. But they’re watching you. They want to know whether you walk the walk. Not just talk to talk. They want to know whether you’re living it.
They want to know whether you’re a hypocrite. We mustn’t be hypocrites. We can’t afford it. We’ll lose our young people. There’s already so much cynicism and skepticism among them. They’ve got to see the real thing, integrity in action. They need to see people who are faithful to God, to spouses and families, to the country, and to the community. And faithful witness, actual fidelity, means being willing to sacrifice, give up some things like wealth, power, influence, status, and prestige, for the sake of the things that really matter: faith and family and friendship and honor and integrity. That will do more than anything else to inspire our young people to live richer and deeper, and more fulfilled lives and to build the kind of society that I know I want for my grandchildren. I just became a grandfather. My son and daughter-in-law have given us our first grandchild, a little boy. I felt pretty invested in the future before this, but now I really feel invested in the future, and I want the world in which my grandson and I hope my future grandchildren live to be a world where we’ve straightened out the priority of values a little bit, that we put less emphasis on wealth and power and influence and money and status and prestige, and more on faith and family and friendship and honor and integrity and the things that really matter.