The strict separationist model of religion and politics that long has held sway in this country (or, at any rate, that was said to hold sway) often obscured the highly political qualities of religious belief and practice. Among these is certainly the power of prophetic witness, a mode of political engagement that is often uncompromising, idealistic, critical, and even apocalyptic. Professor Cathy Kaveny once called this style of politics “moral chemotherapy.” Indeed, it is an open question whether this mode of politics or its alternative (moderate, realistic, whiggish, pragmatic) is the more effective in implementing its respective vision. And this is one more area of overlap or interaction between law and religion that has been suppressed from view and study in the American liberal dispensation.

Here is a fascinating looking new book that helps to remedy this problem: The Third Sword: On the Political Role of Prophets (Cambridge University Press), by James Bernard Murphy (Dartmouth).

Prophets are wild cards in the game of politics, James Bernard Murphy writes in this startling new book. They risk their lives by calling out the abuses of political and religious leaders, forcing us to confront evils we would prefer to ignore. By setting moral limits on political leaders, prophets chasten our political pretensions and remind us there are values that transcend politics. They wield a third sword—distinct from the familiar swords of state and church power—their sword is the word of God. The Third Sword offers a new take on political history, illustrating a theory of prophetic politics through tales of political crises, interspersed with direct dialogue between the prophets and their persecutors. With chapters on Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King, Murphy brings these prophets to life with storytelling that blends biography, history, and political theory.

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