Prophecy without Contempt

Religious Discourse in the Public Square

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Cathleen Kaveny
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , March
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cathleen Kaveny’s job title includes both law and theology, a rare combination these days, and in Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square, she also includes hefty doses of American religious history, rhetorical theory, and biblical studies. Her main focus is the American jeremiad, which she traces from colonial times to the present, and her main message is a call for today’s Jeremiahs to engage in their critiques without “contempt”: that is, without utter condemnation of those they disagree with in the public square. How can one speak out forcefully regarding what one perceives as grave social evils, without engaging in ad hominem attacks on those in the opposing camp? In Prophecy Without Contempt, Kaveny attempts to answer that question.

The first part of the book provides an overview of three prominent authors who have addressed the issues Kaveny is concerned with: Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rawls, and Stephen Carter. After providing a very thorough discussion of the authors (more than one hundred pages), she concludes that the three approaches “are insufficient, both with respect to the problems they identify and with respect to the solutions they propose.” Their error, Kaveny claims, is to assume that “all significant moral claims in the public square are to be analyzed as moral argument,” and that “each supposes that the substance of the moral claim can be separated from its form” and thus “reframed in a civil or respectful manner” (125). She proposes that these errors stem from a lack of attention to the jeremiad as a rhetorical form in American history, which has been employed in the context of slavery, liquor, social justice, war, and civil rights. She then expands this list to include an extensive discussion of the abortion debate and the use of torture by American soldiers and CIA agents in the post 9/11 era in her book.

The second part of the book presents an overview of American history from colonial times to the present, tracing the role of the jeremiad as the central thread of the narrative. Her treatment is sufficiently detailed and informed by primary and secondary sources enabling the assigning of this book as supplemental reading in any American religious history course. Kaveny concludes that from roughly 1600 to 1900, the jeremiad was a call to repentance and reform issued from within a predominantly Christian culture. The body politic was being called back to allegiance to the originating covenant with God that had been damaged by sin. The effect of modern secularization and cultural fragmentation, however, has fundamentally changed the situation, so that in our age the rhetorical form of the jeremiad has become a club with which to bash one’s opponents in a culture that lacks any coherent sense of “we the people.” Kaveny does not advocate abandoning the jeremiad but rather, employing it with a high degree of caution and self-awareness. She calls prophetic indictment a form of “moral chemotherapy” that can kill the patient just as powerfully as cancer, if it is used improperly (420).

The third part of the book includes a very careful taxonomy of the various features of prophetic indictment versus practical deliberation, and provides guidelines for the proper time and place for each. In the fourth part, Kaveny points to the book of Jonah as a key text for our time, in its call to humility and its questioning of the motives of the prophet. She also draws on Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. as exemplars of the jeremiad pronounced without contempt. Her overall message is that practical deliberation is the normal and predominant mode of discourse in a modern democracy, but that there will always be a need for prophetic indictment when “practical deliberation goes off the rails” (422); when the founding ideals of society are being betrayed and forgotten. According to Kaveny, such betrayals can be at work in the thinking and acting of those on both the cultural left and right.

Which brings me to my main critique of the book: its “form is more important than content” approach. For example, the issue of abortion is featured prominently in the book, but in an oddly superficial way, given the stakes. Kaveny wants the combatants in this particular culture war to abide by the framework of civil discourse that she is proposing, but she seems to have very little interest in exploring the ethical truth of the matter. She is aware, for example, that pro-lifers sometimes engage in prophetic indictment by saying that unborn children are being dehumanized just as the black slaves were in the past. She does not mention, however, that the “we are the heirs of the abolitionists” claim was made by pro-choice advocates in the 1960s and 1970s, with significant rhetorical effect, and continues to be made to the present day. The pro-life (anti-choice) position is denounced as enslaving women to their bodies and denying freedom and autonomy. Both sides cannot be right in this battle over the interpretation of the moral lessons history teaches. One or the other must be in grave error—or perhaps both are in varying ways—but Kaveny seems to have scant interest in probing such questions. “My primary objective is not to engage the substantive arguments about torture or abortion themselves. Instead, I want to explore the form—prophetic or deliberative—in which those arguments were cast around the time of the 2004 election” (242). That is an odd stance for an author to take: to write passionlessly about issues that engage our deepest moral passions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cathleen Kaveny is Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology at Boston College.



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