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Talking MLK, Robert George and Cornel West offer antidote to partisanship

Panelists Robert P. George, left, and Cornel West embrace after a discussion on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on May 29, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The right-leaning Robert P. George and the left-leaning Cornel West may not agree ideologically, but the two intellectuals came to the nation’s capital to urge others to get to know people who are not like them, just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did.

A Baylor University event marking the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination aimed to shed light on the minister and civil rights leader who is “so often evoked and so rarely studied in any detail,” said Dean Thomas Hibbs, director of Baylor in Washington, the school’s outpost in the capital.

Organizers said they arranged for the discussion of King’s legacy as a display of brotherhood from two people of widely different perspectives. “Their friendship is a counter to so much of what ails our public life,” Hibbs told the audience at the luncheon at a Capitol Hill hotel.

Indeed, George, whose Twitter page features a photo of him embracing West, and West, who calls George “my conservative brother,” traded compliments as they each highlighted King’s theology.

“We’re a couple of guys with some pretty strong opinions, but we recognize nobody has a monopoly on the truth,” said George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. “We have something to learn from each other, even across the lines of religious or theological or philosophical or political difference.”

George and West have worked together for 11 years, first jointly teaching a class at Princeton — with reading material ranging from Sophocles’ “Antigone” to King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — and later drafting a statement on “freedom of thought and expression” on college campuses that reflects the stance they’ve been discussing together in public sessions.

West said he’s had to answer critics who can’t understand how he travels around the country with George: “I say, ‘Have you met him? Have you sat down and talked with him?’”

They sat onstage, comfortably taking turns highlighting how King had crossed divides in search of his goal of a “beloved community.”

West and George agree that the emphasis on King should be on his role as a Christian minister, though his civil rights activism is also grounded in his being a product of the black community.

“The last thing we ever want to do with Brother Martin is view him as some isolated icon on a pedestal to be viewed in a museum,” said West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. “He’s a wave in an ocean, a tradition of a people for 400 years so deeply hated, but taught the world so much about love and how to love.”

King’s approach was influenced by the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the two scholars noted, but did not bring him broad appeal during his lifetime. King was criticized not only by racist segregationists but by black activists who didn’t agree with his commitment to nonviolence, George said.


RELATED: From the black church to India: The theology of Martin Luther King Jr.


“It wasn’t that everybody agreed we got a hero,” said George, who thinks King’s image has become “sanitized” over the years. “It was only after April 4 , 1968, when he was assassinated, when he was martyred, that we began to have now the heroic King.”

West added that King never received a majority vote in a popularity poll as he worked towards his beloved community — the idea that all people are inherently good and equally deserving of justice and peace — but he said more people need to have that “unbelievable courage.”

“We learn from everyone, as Brother Martin, heroic humility,” said West. “That means that we ought to be jazzlike. We ought to not just lift our voices but recognize you can’t lift your voice without bouncing your voice off that of others.”

In brief interviews after their talk, the scholars said they hope their example will help others learn to listen to — and not just hear — people outside their individual tribes and silos.

“Listening means that you’re taking on more of what the person is saying,” said George. “You’re trying to understand it. You’re considering whether there might be some truth in it.”

West added that what’s unusual about their approach is that it’s public.

“There are examples of deep friendships and sisterhoods and brotherhoods across ideological, political lines,” he said. “People want to protect their image vis a vis certain constituencies.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

25 Comments

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  • I’ve done quite a bit of listening to both these fellows and I’ve had my fill, thank you very much, for quite different reasons. Of the two, I’m more aligned politically with Cornel West. But listening to him on TV is an exercise in endurance for me. He comes across so overbearing and infused with a sense of his own importance that I have trouble paying attention to what it is he has to say.

    Robbie George is different matter entirely. As one who spent several years working tirelessly with Maggie Gallagher and the National Organization for [heterosexual] Marriage to prevent gay civil marriage from ever becoming the law of the land, Robbie George is a person for whom I have no use whatsoever. Other people’s gay marriages in no way affected his own marriage, yet he worked selfishly for years to prevent gay people from enjoying the same marital benefits that he does. That being the case, I have no use for anything he has to say about anything. I’ve already heard enough to last me a lifetime.

  • I didn’t know that George had worked with NOM. That’s a solid &
    worthwhile resume right there.

    West is too liberal, but recently he scored some good points (imo) by calling out that atheist writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (who sure needs a lotta calling out.)

  • As someone who would agree with your view of gay marriages I hate to hear that you would have no use for anything that someone who disagrees with you has to say.

  • ““Listening means that you’re taking on more of what the person is saying,” said George. “You’re trying to understand it. You’re considering whether there might be some truth in it.”
    Not the Robert George I know.

  • I understand what Elagabalus is saying.
    George worked for years with Gallagher and the others in the anti-ex-gay industry, proposing a series of justifications for his antigay position that could never hold up under any scrutiny unless you already agreed with him. Intellectual and moral dishonesty doesn’t even begin to cover it.
    I might listen to what he has to say on other topics, but with the proviso that he already has 9 strikes against him, and my patience has its limits.. As I note above, he claims to want to listen, but he never, ever bothered listening to us, already assured, as he was, of the invincibility of his social and religious positions.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite black writers. He speaks the truth with searing honesty. In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth!”

  • I hear him, I hear you and I understand I get it. Hear me when I say, don’t be that version of that guy.

  • There comes a time when there is no further reason to continue the conversation or listen to what a particular person has to say. As far as LGBTQ rights and freedoms, we’ve argued it for the past 50 years and no one against us has anything new to say. We don’t accept what they say, they don’t accept what we say, so there comes a point where it’s just a waste of time & energy. I believe that we are done with them and owe them nothing, especially listening to what they have to say.

  • Thanks, but I don’t think I would be that guy. I’m not referring to El, but I do know whom you mean. I would be willing to listen to George up to a point. But my experience of him so far is that that point is quickl y reached— usually his latest version of “According to my beliefs, these are the facts.” As if the two were synonymous.

  • Well, Cornel West has his own scholarly brand of searing honesty, and I was glad he used it on Coates.

    (I wonder what would happen if the lively black YouTube conservatives “Diamond & Silk” put forth a response on Ta-Nehisi Coates as well. But you probably wouldn’t like it, so I won’t push it.)

  • If, as brother Robert P. George said, “Listening means that you’re taking on more of what the person is saying [and that] you’re considering whether there might be some truth in it” – well, then, what does he think of these truths?

    The thing is, you see, “[Robert P. George’s] critics, including many of his fellow Catholic scholars, argue that he is turning the church into a tool of Republican Party. They say he is too focused on the mechanics of sex and morality, neglecting the other sides of the Christian message: the corruption of human reason through original sin, the need for forgiveness and charity and the chance for redemption. … [George himself admits that] if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history. It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. … ‘This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,’ George acknowledges.”

    Source: David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker”, New York Times, December 16, 2009.

  • “‘We learn from everyone’ … said [brother Cornel] West” – but don’t you wonder what, if anything, he has learned from them?

    For, you see, “[1] many scholars blasted [Cornel West] for blaming the victim in his critique of black nihilism. [They] protested that West sounded ‘like the classic example of a colonized elite, trapped in an existential condition of self-hatred and shame because he has come to view his own people as undignified, indecent, backward, and uncouth.’ [They] ripped West for coming perilously close to denying the humanity of poor blacks … West’s critique of Afro-nihilism was hard to distinguish from blame-the-victim conservatism. … West recycled the old ‘culture of poverty’ elitism that blamed ‘impoverished Black Folk for their own predicament and for being unable to rid themselves of it.’ … West’s account of black intellectualism rested on a method of ‘demonization and invocation’ … and did not bother even to mention the radical black humanist tradition of Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, and Vicki Garvin. … He merely patched together ‘various rhetorics of liberation for the purpose of building progressive coalitions.’ … [2] West stooped to … anti-feminism in [his] critique of American family life. … ‘Privileging marriage and genetic ties of parenting … is heterosexist and insulting to adoptive parents, and wrongfully supports continued stigmatization of single mothers.’ … [3] West relied too heavily on religion, which in his case rested on a thin crypto-fideism. Since West’s claims for religion were merely pragmatic and historicist, how could much of a religion come from that?”

    Source: Gary Dorrien, “Imagining Social Justice: Cornel West’s Prophetic Public Intellectualism”, Cross Currents, Spring 2008.

  • I can appreciate what you are saying. Here is why I think what I am saying to you guys is worth listening to.

    I’m disagreeing with you right now, my hope is that my disagreement is tactful, shows respect, and reflects character. I want to be around those kinds of people whether I agree with them or not. If you’re that kind of person I don’t ever want to put myself in a position where you never want to be in a conversation with me. Personally when you’re not that kind of person and I agree with you often, that’s the person I want to start separating myself from.

    Thank you David for challenging my comment with tact and respectfulness, it shows a lot of character.

  • I meant George if that didn’t come out sounding right.

    “According to my beliefs, these are the fact.”

    That’s not a conversation, that’s a talkin to. So George if you read this you need hear that.

  • Perhaps you are much younger than I am. I’m at the point where I don’t feel that I/we need to give them a platform upon which to continue the same arguments over & over.

    It’s like the fairness doctrine in the media, I don’t think that anti-evolutionists, creationists and climate change deniers should have their arguments elevated to the same level and significance as actual science. We’ve moved on from the childhood myth & fairytale world in which they are stuck.

    I’ve moved beyond that; Initial Beliefs + Recent Objective Data = New & Improved Beliefs
    – Bayes’ Theorem

  • Then it would seem most unfortunate for you,
    as Ken Ham has proven (on the creationist side),
    and as Janet Boynes has proven (on the ex-gay side),
    and as Trump has proven (on the global-warming scam),

    …that YOU folks have seriously lost the ability to lock us villains out of the huge public marketplace of ideas. We’re in the game now, going for the win.

    You won’t share your microphones with us? Okay. We got a box full of them already, and we fully know how to use them in today’s national media. And (gasp), we’re in your schools too, thanks to the ‘Net !!

  • David perhaps you’re not only older than me but smarter, wiser, and better looking also. If you wouldn’t mind too much I’d like to hang around…of course not on a platform, that might influence a anti-evolutionist, creationist, climate change denier, believing youngster. How about a private room somewhere with high back leather chairs where we can sip brandy, smoke cigars and influence the hell out of each other?

    I say that tongue in cheek but that is mental image I have of what you are saying. How are you going to do what you propose and have a successful result?

  • I have to agree with David on this, though I can also agree with you.

    I have been standing up to the antigays for nearly 47 years now. As with the ones who spew on these very pages, they are simply uninterested in actual facts, uninterested in our lives, and uninterested in the harm they have done and continue to do— real harm as opposed to the imaginary harm they impute to us.

    Their only interest as the self conflation with god. And as I am increasingly convinced, deflection.

  • Thanks for that. It’s not my intent to get you to disagree with David, it’s not my intent to get David to disagree with himself necessarily. I do want David to question how he disagrees, I want to question myself in this area.

  • And (gasp), we’re in your schools too, thanks to the ‘Net !!

    Yes, good luck with that. I don’t see any kids out there on the internet pushing creationism, gender & orientation change or anti-climate change. The only folks pushing those fairytales are old codgers.

  • Robert George is to LGBT people what Robert B. Patterson, founder of the white Citizens’ Councils was to Black people in the 1950-60’s…an educated, ‘well bred’ hate propagandist trying to deny civil rights to others.

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