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Announcing “Political Theology” 15.3

The editors of Political Theology are pleased to announce that the latest issue is now available on the web. Issue 15.3 (May 2014) features a discussion of William F. May’s Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics. Below is a full listing of the issue contents as well as a selection from Andrew Murphy’s editorial, “Complicating Covenantalism.”

The editors of Political Theology are pleased to announce that the latest issue is now available on the web. Issue 15.3 (May 2014) features a discussion of William F. May’s Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics. Elizabeth Bounds considers May’s insights within the context of the American criminal justice system and incarceration. Michael Cartwright appreciates May’s social analysis and his moral jeremiad against individualism, but worries that a renewal of covenant might prove to be a hegemonic moral image, which would be detrimental for both a multicultural society like America and for the Christian churches that attempt to live out the gospel within it. Laurie Zoloth provides Jewish theological and philosophical resources for thinking about covenant as a moral image in the contemporary world.

Below is a full listing of the issue contents as well as a selection from Andrew Murphy’s editorial, “Complicating Covenantalism.”

Guest Editorial: Complicating Covenantalism, Andrew R. Murphy


Christianity and Political Engagement in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Raymond Simangaliso Kumalo

Strategic Essentialism and Vatican Policy, Christine Gudorf

Book Discussion: William F. May, Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics

Introduction, Tim Beach-Verhey and David True

Some Thoughts in Response, Elizabeth M. Bounds

Vexing Questions and Lingering Doubts, Michael G. Cartwright

We All Stumble Over One Another, Laurie Zoloth

Responses to Professors Elizabeth Bounds, Michael G. Cartwright and Laurie Zoloth, William F. May

Review Essay, Michael Fagenblat

Agamben, Georgio. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government

Kahn, Paul W. Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Ohana, David. Political Theologies in the Holy Land: Israeli Messianism and its Critics

Peterson, Erik. Theological Tractates

Book Reviews

Lloyd, Vincent, Race and Political Theology, Reviewed by James S. Logan

Hodgson, Geoffrey, From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo Economicus, Reviewed by Simon Ravenscroft

Doerksen, Paul G. and Karl Koop, eds, The Church Made Strange for the Nations: Essays in Ecclesiology and Political Theology, Reviewed by Mary Doak

Snarr, C. Melissa, All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement, Reviewed by Conor Kelly


Complicating Covenantalism, Andrew R. Murphy

The attention to questions of covenantalism and American politics epitomized in William F. May’s Testing the National Covenant:  Fears and Appetites in American Politics, as well as in the responses to it included in this issue, represent the continuation of a welcome trend in scholarship at the borders of religious studies, political theory and theology, and American history.  Of course academic interest in covenantal language and imagery is nothing new:  such important works as Wilson Carey McWilliams’s The Idea of Fraternity in America and Daniel Eleazar’s four-volume The Covenant Tradition in Politics remain vital for considering the many ways in which thinkers across time and place have taken issue with dominant individualistic accounts of political community.  In its bridging of the theological and the political, its use of the Hebrew scriptures to shed light on issues of contemporary concern, covenantalism can yield fruitful interdisciplinary insights:  note Eric Nelson’s recent work on Hebraism in the American Revolutionary Era (“Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776: A Contemporary Account of the Debate over Common Sense, William and Mary Quarterly, October 2013), the Spring 2009 special edition of the journal Hebraic Political Studies; and my own Prodigal Nation:  Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (2008), to name just a few examples of a vibrant and growing field of study.

Thinking covenantally can also illuminate a number of related terms, like “jeremiad,” “chosen people,” and “prophet,” that frequently find their way into our common vocabulary.  As a form of rhetoric, the jeremiad comes about when some figure – the prophet, a “Jeremiah” – arises to castigate or chastise a community for failing to live up to its covenantal obligations (in the Hebrew example, to care for widows and orphans, welcome the stranger, or maintain the true religion), and threatens dire consequences if collective repentance is not forthcoming.  This is what prophets do in the Jewish tradition: they remind the community of its origins, of the fundamental character of the covenant that gave it life and that should continue to sustain it as it moves through time.  Prophets recall to their contemporaries the forgotten, or repressed, or neglected, aspects of the community’s history and identity, and call for change to recapture what has been lost.  Prophets thus operate at the boundaries of collective memory and protest politics, calling communities back (often in conflictual and unwelcome ways) to the values and virtues that lay at their core.

As Robert Bellah argued in The Broken Covenant (1975), the idea of national chosenness – so closely intertwined with the particularly American strand of covenantalism, has been responsible for “much of the best in America as well as the worst.”  Given fortuitous circumstances, May argues, the notion of a national covenant might once again contribute toward calling Americans to the “better angels of our nature.”  It is a hope that animates Testing the National Covenant, and a hope that I wholeheartedly endorse.

That said, let me offer several cautionary observations. The first is historical.  Attention to American covenantalism has often been animated by an almost single-minded emphasis on New England Puritanism as typical, if not definitive, of the American experience.  Sacvan Bercovitch’s The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) is a case in point:  notice the singular article describing a singular “American self.”  There is much to endorse in such an analysis – no one would discount the importance of New England to American history – and it has a distinguished pedigree reaching at least back to Tocqueville.  But it can easily slide into a monolithic conceptualization of a singular “American” identity rooted in one geographic area, and prevent us from appreciating the importance of regions and influences outside of New England.  Much of the “action” in early America, of course, involved individuals and groups who neither populated New England nor endorsed Calvinist Christianity:  the Catholic missions across the Southwest; the French Canadians who settled much of what became the American heartland, from Detroit to Baton Rouge; the Middle Colonies, with their commercial and pluralistic societies seasoned with a heady dose of Dutch and Quaker influence (recently chronicled in Evan Haefeli’s masterful New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty); and of course the Southern territories, with their “peculiar institution.”

In other words, how do these disparate strands of the American story – most of whom did not think of themselves, or the settlements that they were erecting, in covenantal terms –figure into the covenantal reading offered by New Englanders and later by Bellah and May?  Are they somehow “less American” if they conceived of their affiliational ties in more instrumental ways, or derived them from rather different religious heritages?  Any clear assessment of covenantalism in the American past must reckon with the fact that it describes only a small proportion of the American people’s thinking about the nature of their own communities.  (Indeed, May’s attempt to dismiss historians who argue that “We the People” was a fiction, and that the Articles of Confederation had “obviously” failed, are the weakest parts of Testing the National Covenant.)

The full editorial may be found here.


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