Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain responds to a question from the Palmetto Freedom Forum’s panelists: from left, ­Professor Robert George, Rep. Steve King, and Sen. Jim DeMint.
Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain responds to a question from the Palmetto Freedom Forum’s panelists: from left, ­Professor Robert George, Rep. Steve King, and Sen. Jim DeMint.
Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State/MCT via Getty Images

It’s not unusual to find Professor Robert George engaged in a dialogue about constitutional issues. For the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, it’s a major focus of his classes. A Sept. 5 forum in South Carolina, however, found George pressing five Republican presidential aspirants to articulate their constitutional principles.

The event, titled the Palmetto Freedom Forum, cast a national spotlight on the American Principles Project (APP), a nonprofit group that George founded in 2009 to represent “21st-century conservatism.” The APP sponsored the gathering, and George was one of the three panelists who questioned the candidates. 

George, described as one of the country’s “most respected legal scholars” (in the words of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan ’81 in 2007) and a leading academic conservative, has stepped out of the classroom previously to engage in the political arena. He is chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group that helped underwrite a 2008 California ballot initiative prohibiting gay marriage. He also co-founded the Renewal Forum, a group that seeks to end sexual trafficking and, in 2009, drafted the Manhattan Declaration, a “Call of Christian Conscience” that advocates resistance, including civil disobedience if necessary, against legislation permitting abortion, same-sex marriage, or restrictions on religious freedom.

George said in an email that he founded the APP out of a belief “that the way forward for our nation, as we address the daunting and (in some cases) unprecedented challenges of the day, is not to look for new principles, but to rededicate ourselves to the principles of the American founding.” 

The forum was designed to give candidates the opportunity to show “the depth of their understanding of our foundational civilizational and constitutional principles, and the strength of their determination to govern in line with those principles,” George said. The candidates all were asked the same questions and given time to deliver detailed answers and to respond to follow-up questions, a format that he termed “a successful experiment.”

George said he expects that the APP will play an active role in the 2012 campaign and may produce “independent, issue-oriented ads.” The group promotes an agenda that advocates, among other things, a return to the gold standard, cutbacks in public-sector pensions, and an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood. An APP-sponsored “Innocence Project” seeks to curb governmental programs that members say denigrate the family or promote promiscuity.