Testing the National Covenant

Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics

William F. May
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Testing the National Covenant
    Book Description:

    Since the end of World War II, runaway fears of Soviet imperialism, global terrorism, and anarchy have tended to drive American foreign policy toward an imperial agenda. At the same time, uncurbed appetites have wasted the environment and driven the country's market economy into the ditch. How can we best sustain our identity as a people and resist the distortions of our current anxieties and appetites? Ethicist William F. May draws on America's religious and political history and examines two concepts at play in the founding of the country-contractual and covenantal. He contends that the biblical idea of a covenant offers a more promising way than the language of contract, grounded in self-interest alone, to contain our runaway anxieties and appetites. A covenantal sensibility affirms, "We the people (not simply, We the individuals, or We the interest groups) of the United States." It presupposes a history of mutual giving and receiving and of bearing with one another that undergirds all the traffic in buying and selling, arguing and negotiating, that obtain in the rough terrain of politics. May closes with an account of the covenantal agenda ahead, and concludes with the vexing issue of immigrants and undocumented workers that has singularly tested the covenant of this immigrant nation.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-792-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. 1-26)

    This cautionary tale recounts the religious apprehensions embedded in American politics, especially in our foreign policy after World War II, as the country dealt anxiously with the successive threats of global tyranny and anarchy. I am a Christian theologian, not a political theorist. Why would I venture into this topic since I am not a political leader, a consultant to leaders, or an op-ed critic of leaders? Niccolò Machiavelli gives encouragement here. In his letter dedicating The Prince to Lorenzo the Magnificent, Machiavelli asked why anyone would dare to give advice to princes who was not himself a prince working...

  6. 2 THE OVERREACH OF FREE MARKET IDEOLOGY Business and Government
    (pp. 27-48)

    The presidential election of 2004 troubled the nation more than most elections in living memory. The reaction went deeper than battles between Democrats and Republicans on particular issues. Policy differences reflected a far deeper struggle over identity—just who we are as a nation.

    Politically the right attempted to redefine America. President George W. Bush’s re-election, even though it was by a small majority of voters, tended to endorse this redefinition in the eyes of the world and to make it less reversible than his apparently accidental election by a five-to-four vote of the Supreme Court in 2000.

    In foreign...

  7. 3 FREE MARKET IDEOLOGY Bearing on Other Centers of Power
    (pp. 49-64)

    Critics of free market ideology concentrate chiefly on the contest in power between business and government. However, other centers of power have a public responsibility, independent of their relations to either the marketplace or the government. This chapter focuses primarily on the relations of the marketplace to these other institutions—the professions, unions, universities, the churches, and the media—as the market bears heavily on their operations.¹

    The professions of law and accounting provide the chief interface of business with the government and the public. The two professions purportedly guard the common good. Accountants belong to the only profession that...

    (pp. 65-80)

    In the course of Rome’s decline the wide-eyed Saint Augustine saw Carthage and the imperial city as a “cauldron of illicit loves.”¹ In his account of the waning middle ages, the historian Johan Huizinga reported on the carnival appetites that raged in continental Europe.² In response to the “snarl of the abyss” beneath the late 1930s, the poet W. H. Auden supplied a somewhat more proper English image for escape: His countrymen enjoyed a “jolly picnic on the heath / Of the agreeable.”³ Following 9/11, Auden’s characteristically modest British metaphor yielded to a more colorful fantasy on the American scene....

  9. 5 WE THE PEOPLE A Contract or a Covenant?
    (pp. 81-98)

    There are at least four ways to understand the question of the identity of a people that bear on the American scene: unnatural, natural, contractual, and covenantal. Only the last two figure centrally in this chapter.

    By unnatural I have in mind an identity imposed upon a people chiefly through violence. The dominating power governs unnaturally in the sense that it rules without the consent of the people and with little attention either to their prior identity or to their current wellbeing. One thinks inevitably of some myth like the rape of Europa or similar stories of conquest the world...

    (pp. 99-120)

    The previous chapter concentrated on the element of gift in national identity—“We the People.” This chapter attends to the task—forming “a more perfect Union.” That purpose heads the list of common aims in the preamble. The further aims of the people include establishing justice and insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the several “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The decision to start with the purpose of forming a more perfect union does not of itself establish a hierarchical ordering of aims. However, beginning with that purpose boldly...

    (pp. 121-138)

    Why close this book with a chapter on the covenant with immigrants and undocumented workers? The answer lies in a comment made in chapter 5. There, the word “covenant” in the biblical setting emphasized an identity deeper than a contractual one. However, a covenantal identity as understood today can be morally dangerous. Devices such as real estate covenants, glass ceilings in the workplace, and tacit church covenants conveniently let a group of people protect themselves from the violation of their space by strangers. Compared with such closed covenants, money can seem positively ecumenical; it opens doors. Inescapably, the arrival of...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 139-154)
    (pp. 155-164)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 165-174)