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Book Preview – Understanding The Rhetorical Forms of the Culture Wars (Cathleen Kaveny)

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Cathleen Kaveeny.  Prophecy Without Contempt:  Religious Discourse in the Public Square.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.  Hardcover.  464 pp.  ISBN-10:0674495039.

The following is a book preview by the author.

In a nutshell, the thesis of my new book Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square is that we cannot understand American culture wars without giving due consideration to the rhetorical form of our disagreements, not merely to their moral and political substance.  More specifically, I argue that we need to pay attention to the evolving role of the jeremiad in American public life, an enduring form of religious-political discourse that has its roots in Puritan preaching.

As the name suggests, it is a form of discourse that is modeled on the fiery condemnations of the prophetic books of the Bible. Used judiciously, it can help uproot grave forms of social evil—such as slavery. Used injudiciously, it can exacerbate social divisions rather than uprooting injustices. Prophetic indictment, which inevitably condemns, must be used without contempt if it is ultimately to build up our increasingly pluralistic liberal democracy.

This thesis, however, did not spring fully formed to my mind in a trancelike moment of scholarly inspiration. Far from it. The book took shape gradually, as part of a project that extended throughout a dozen years of my life.

Some of its key questions first arose in my mind in the spring of 2004, when I was trying to make sense of the national battle over whether artificial nutrition and hydration could be withdrawn from Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old woman who was in a persistent vegetative state. Religion, rhetoric, and politics were intertwined in ways that no Rawlsian framework could untangle.

As I worked on the book, the questions did not resolve themselves, but rather continued to evolve along with our communal conflicts. Even as I held the bound book in my hands in the spring of 2016, I began trying to make sense of the deep social anger and anxiety that produced the nomination of Donald Trump; his candidacy for the presidency marks a new phase in the culture wars from the religiously infused conflicts over social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and even torture that marked the first decade of the 21st century.

What accounts for the deep acrimony that seems to characterize the debate among American Christians on controversial issues of political morality? Why does so much American political –moral discourse take the form of condemnations and accusations? While not easy to answer, the problems I began with seemed well within my wheelhouse as a social ethicist and lawyer.

As it turned out, however, the issues were far from straightforward. I found myself drawn in exciting new academic directions in order to get a handle on the problem. I began immersing myself in rhetorical analysis, American religious history, literary criticism, historical critical studies of Scripture, especially the prophetic books of the Bible, and Civil War history.

All of this was very different from my day job of teaching contracts to first year law students, or running graduate seminars on various topics in law and religious ethics! The work was both daunting and exhilarating. I had stumbled into a post-tenure project that allowed me to reconnect with the love of learning that had set me on this career path in the first place.

Prophecy without Contempt is organized under four parts. Part One, “The State of Public Discourse: Three Incomplete Explanations,” argues that three important efforts to account for fractious public discourse in American society are not actually able to fully explain the problem.

Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that the trouble stems from the fractured and incoherent state of our modes of moral reasoning, while John Rawls proffers an opposite diagnosis: he thinks that too many people rely on full-blown religiously based arguments rather than the more limited claims of public reason. Stephen Carter blames the failure to attend to the canons of civility in making our points in the public square.

I maintain that in different ways, each explanation suffers from the same problem: the failure to attend to the way in which rhetorical form shapes moral substance in many of the most biting public interventions for moral reform in American life, from the abolitionists, to peace activists, to the pro-life movement. I argue that many of these interventions do not take the form of deliberative rhetoric (the common focus of MacIntyre, Rawls, and Carter, despite their differences). Instead, they more closely resemble forensic rhetoric—they are blistering legal indictments for violations of key terms of the national covenant. In other words, they are jeremiads.

Part Two, “The Jeremiad and Its Evolution: A Historical Exploration,” closely examines the importance and the evolving function of the jeremiad in colonial New England and the new American nation. A key question that occupies me is the shifting role that the jeremiad played with respect to social cohesiveness. In Puritan times, the ritual of the jeremiad, usually taking place in the context of a day of fasting and penance, brought the community together. For example, Michael Wigglesworth’s The Day of Doom: or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment (1662) was so popular it was one of America’s first best-sellers.

In later times, however, many jeremiads were instruments of discord rather than unity. How did that shift come about? I suggest that as the idea of the social or political covenant became increasingly diffuse, the tight connection between jeremiad and covenant began to fray. Speakers began to use the powerful indictments of the jeremiad to advocate for social change, rather than to shore up an existing moral consensus. No one likes to be singled out as the target of an indictment. And people really don’t like to be indicted for violating a law—moral or otherwise—that they don’t believe actually exists.

Part Three, “The State of Public Discourse: A Rhetorical Analysis,” returns to the contemporary era, looking at the debate between and among Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the context of the 2004 American presidential election—the high point of the latest iteration of the culture wars.

Taking the issues of abortion and torture as my case studies, I show how the choice of rhetorical frame makes a difference to political participation. The decision to approach either issue in terms of the nuanced framework of practical deliberation, on the one hand, or the adamant demands of prophetic condemnation, on the other, can precipitate conflict with those who choose the alternative frame. Prophets and deliberators view each other with suspicion—each thinks the other misconstrues the true nature of the issue in question.

Finally, Part IV, “Toward an Ethic of Prophetic Rhetoric: Compassionate and Humble Truth-Telling,” tries to provide a normative frame for the use of prophetic rhetoric in a pluralistic society. In my view, the normal day-to-day rhetoric is that of practical deliberation. We address most issues in deliberative terms, most of the time.

In contrast, prophetic rhetoric is an emergency rhetoric, akin to moral chemotherapy. It targets practices and beliefs that are so corrupt they threaten the fundamental integrity of the body politic. Like actual chemotherapy, however, it must be carefully used—otherwise, it will do more harm than good. It’s one thing to use prophetic rhetoric to denounce racism—it’s another thing to use it to excoriate a tax hike–notwithstanding the fact that American Patriots used fiery rhetoric to denounce the tax on tea!

My own favorite chapter of the book is the ninth and last chapter, titled “Prophecy, Irony, and Humility: Lessons from Lincoln and Jonah.” If the rhetoric of prophetic indictment is going to have a place in an increasingly pluralistic society such as our own, I argue that its practitioners must develop some humility, particularly with respect to their knowledge of God’s will.

Humility, however, is not a characteristic usually associated with law-like indictments of any sort, religious or not. Yet there is precedent for such a development. I argue that Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address models humility about the will of God without falling into moral relativism. I also contend that such humility also has roots in the Bible itself. The book of Jonah, largely through its rich use of irony, encourages prophets to be modest about their knowledge of the divine plan, and reluctant to assume that God is uncritically on their side.

What next? I was so intrigued by my study of ironic discourse, that I think it would be interesting to explore its place, along with the place of satire, in American political culture. In Prophecy without Contempt, I argue that prophetic indictment controls practical deliberation that has gone off course because of a morally faulty basic premise. But what corrals out-of-control prophetic indictment? A counter-prophet just feeds the rhetorical fire.

In the conclusion to the book, I invoke examples like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report to suggest that irony and satire are effective in deflating prophetic indictment, by denying them the moral seriousness upon which they depend. Then, after the satirists have cleared the air of excessive prophetic pretention, the nation can get back to the difficult and complex work of practical deliberation about our nation’s problems.

And the political-rhetorical circle begins again.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology at Boston College. A past president of the Society of Christian Ethics, she is the author of Law’s Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society (Georgetown University Press, 2012).

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