Review: Kaveny's 'Prophecy Without Contempt'

by Michael Sean Winters

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Cathleen Kaveny's new book, Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square, is a monumental achievement, and a much-needed addition to the academic and societal conversation about the role of religion in public life. In precise prose and with careful analysis, Kaveny challenges some of the leading theorists about public discourse and puts forward her own theories, all accompanied by a storyteller's gift for anecdote and a philosopher's talent for explication. Although the range of inquiry is both wide and deep, a well-read layperson could easily pick up this book and benefit from it.

Kaveny begins by engaging three prominent intellectuals who have diagnosed the problem posed by religious discourse in the public square, the increasingly bitter tone of debate in the public square, and the fact that such discourse so rarely yields political results, still less political agreement.

First up is Alasdair MacIntyre who blames the sad shape of public discourse on "the loss of a coherent tradition of moral reasoning once provided by Western Christianity." The Enlightenment has failed to deliver on what it promised, a worldview within which moral reasoning can be conducted, but one based on universally available, scientific premises rather than religious ones. "MacIntyre argues that a coherent and productive moral argument can take place only within the context of a well-functioning moral tradition," Kaveny writes. Without a common understanding of what we mean when we say "human person," public discourse is bound to fail and evidently likely to remain contentious, descending into what MacIntyre calls "emotivism."

Kaveny is respectful in her treatment of MacIntyre's argument, but she is not persuaded. She notes, "If MacIntyre is right, we ought to see more coherence -- and less fractiousness -- within subcommunities that do have available to them full-blown moral traditions, such as those bound together by a particular tradition of faith." And, while Kaveny shares some of MacIntyre's distress at the "shrill" quality of much public discourse, she correctly observes that such shrill discourse is not only the consequence of frustrated moral reasoning but harkens back to some of the earliest forms of American political and religious rhetoric. More on that later.

It is one of the special values of this book that Kaveny includes points not essential to the line of argument but which, nonetheless, shed insight on the topic. For example, in assessing MacIntyre she calls attention to a part of his argument with which she concurs. "Insightfully, MacIntyre goes on to observe that protesters generally address their remarks to those who already agree with them. ‘The effects of incommensurability ensure that protesters rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves,'" she writes, quoting MacIntyre. This assessment, which is spot-on, may or not be solely the result of the incommensurability of differing worldviews, but it is certainly reinforced in our public discourse by the necessity of fundraising for organized efforts to advance political arguments in the public square, whether those arguments are based in religious worldviews or not.

John Rawls, who does not despair of liberalism as MacIntrye does, argues that public discourse must be restricted to the demands of public reason. Kaveny explains, "Rawls finds hope for productive moral conversation in generating wide support for a broadly liberal account of justice and a corresponding account of ‘public reason' to guide our most important political conversations," and that a discourse governed by "public reason" will yield a more peaceful civic life. Rawls deals with the problem of competing worldviews by arguing that public discourse should not insist on truth, in any ultimate sense, but only on reasonableness, and what counts for reasonable is broad agreement with "a family of reasonable liberal conceptions of justice." So, an argument in the public square must cohere with a basic understanding of individual rights, give priority to those rights, and providing effective means for people to access and use their rights.

Rawls is dry as toast. Kaveny, more sympathetic than myself, notes that "[i]n later iterations of the theory, Rawls allowed that reasonable comprehensive ‘doctrines may be introduced in public reason at any time, provided that in due course public reasons, given by a reasonable political conception, are presented sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are introduced to support." On the other hand, he argues that "valid public reasons must not be ‘puppets manipulated from behind the scenes by comprehensive doctrines.'" Kaveny engages this argument more thoughtfully than me. I think Rawls is inviting us to stop asking "why" questions, which is an inhuman invitation, and one that truncates reason, it does not liberate it. And, in the process, whether it bothers Rawls or not, his approach reduces religion to ethics, which is always the first step towards secularization.

Kaveny's principal objections to Rawls are that his theory would not, in fact, achieve both the civil peace and the civil respect he seeks, that he fails to recognize how "religiously variegated" much public discourse is, and that is own statements prove the limits of his theory. She points to his "offhand remarks about the clear verdict of public reason for abortion and same-sex marriage [which] give plausibility to the fears of religious believers about the way public reason actually operates. They raise the suspicion that public reason is nothing more than a political tool designed to further legal policies that are consistent with a liberal comprehensive worldview rather than a set of sensible constraints on deliberation and argument appropriate for a pluralistic society encompassing religious believers as well as secular liberals." Kaveny argues that instead of restricting public discourse to "public reason," participants in public debate should  recognize that "the best way to foster mutual respect in the public square is by undertaking, and asking others to undertake, the hard work of explaining our viewpoints on matters of public discourse in the terms that we actually believe to justify those viewpoints, whether or not those terms conform to the strictures of public reason."    

Stephen Carter has the most basic solution to the problem of incivility in public discourse: We should all be more civil. "The norms of civility are meant to facilitate social interaction and cooperation among strangers, not merely friends or relatives; they are norms of obligation, not affection. As Carter stresses, ‘Our duty to follow those standards does not depend on whether or not we happen to agree with or even like each other,'" Kaveny writes. Carter believes there are two components to civility: "generosity and trust extended to others under less-than-ideal circumstances. ‘[S]acrificial civility has two components: generosity when there is cost, and trust when there is risk.'" Carter grounds his commitment to civility in the religious command to love one's neighbor as oneself and, in more secular terms, as the precondition for democratic dialogue.

Before offering her own critique of Carter, Kaveny brings in John Murray Cuddihy, who criticizes Carter for accepting an understanding of civil discourse that has hidden, a priori leanings to a particular understand in the role of religion in public discourse. Kaveny writes:

In my view, Cuddihy's work is important because it uncovers the normative presuppositions of American civility, which are not neutral, but which largely presuppose and instantiate the values of Protestant denominational pluralism. The hallmark compartmentalization of modern civility -- the separation of public from private, of church from state, of one's identity as a person from one's clan or religion -- stand in great tension with the integralist approaches of religions whose worldviews have premodern roots.

Again, the reduction of religion to the private and ethical sphere may result in a civil public discourse, but it is a dishonest one unless you are a certain kind of Calvinist. It is quite at odds with our Catholic understanding of the role faith can and should play in the entirety of our lives, not just behind closed chapel doors.

Kaveny then offers her critique of both Carter and Cuddihy. "To come to terms with incivility in the United States, therefore, particularly the relationship of religion and incivility, it is not enough to call for neighbor love, as Carter does," she writes. "It is not enough to identify incivility with the integralist presuppositions of new arrivals from the Old World, as does Cuddihy. We need to grapple with the integralist presuppositions of the Protestant founders of this nation and the form of political rhetoric those presuppositions generated." Then she points to the bridge to the next section of the book: "The rhetoric of prophetic denunciation is every bit as American as the cool. Detached, mutually respectful reason giving and orderly, emotionally detached consideration of arguments that is contemplated by MacIntyre, Rawls, and Carter." This leads to what is, for me, the most fascinating part of the book, and I shall pick up the review on this point tomorrow.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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