Robert P. George and Cornel West Unite in D.C. to Call for More People to Follow MLK’s Example of Reaching Across Lines

Dean Thomas Hibbs, left, director of Baylor in Washington, introduces panelists Robert P. George and Cornel West for a discussion on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on May 29, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Dean Thomas Hibbs, left, director of Baylor in Washington, introduces panelists Robert P. George and Cornel West for a discussion on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on May 29, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

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.

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SOURCE: Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service