Prophecy and Politics

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.

The Uneasy Relationship of Libertarianism and Religion

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that maximizes individual liberty and minimizes government power. That’s a quick and dirty definition, and it misses all sorts of nuance that I cannot get into here. But it’s probably fair to say that even on this understanding, libertarianism’s tensions with organized religion, with the authority of received wisdom, with what binds a (political) community, and with the force of tradition generally, should be evident. Not that these cannot be negotiated, softened up, accommodated, and so on. But the tensions remain, and they go to the heart of the very different projects and perspectives of libertarianism and organized religion (disorganized, individuated religion, such as it is, may well be another matter).

Here is a very interesting new work (published last spring) on the history of libertarian thought. It’s interesting to observe, in respect of some of my comments above, that the authors describe libertarianism as a 19th century phenomenon that, of course, influenced political thought in the 20th century, too. Its history is quite recent and coincides roughly with the social decline of organized religion, at least in Western nations. The book is The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism (Princeton University Press), by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi.

Libertarianism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with an unwavering commitment to progressive causes, from women’s rights and the fight against slavery to anti-colonialism and Irish emancipation. Today, this movement founded on the principle of individual liberty finds itself divided by both progressive and reactionary elements vying to claim it as their own. The Individualists is the untold story of a political doctrine continually reshaped by fierce internal tensions, bold and eccentric personalities, and shifting political circumstances.

Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi trace the history of libertarianism from its origins as a radical progressive ideology in the 1850s to its crisis of identity today. They examine the doctrine’s evolution through six defining themes: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, individualism, spontaneous order, and individual liberty. They show how the movement took a turn toward conservativism during the Cold War, when the dangers of communism at home and abroad came to dominate libertarian thinking. Zwolinski and Tomasi reveal a history that is wider, more diverse, and more contentious than many of us realize.

A groundbreaking work of scholarship, The Individualists uncovers the neglected roots of a movement that has championed the poor and marginalized since its founding, but whose talk of equal liberty has often been bent to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

A Conference on Robert George’s “Making Men Moral” at 30

I’m delighted to announce a conference on Robert George’s groundbreaking book, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, on the 30th anniversary of its publication. The conference will be held November 30-December 1, and is being jointly organized by AEI, the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Pepperdine University, and the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Catholic University. You can see the terrific program at the link.

I’m particularly pleased to contribute something to this conference, as Robby’s book was a major influence on me as I thought about an academic career many years ago, shaping the way I thought about so-called “legal moralism” and many other questions in constitutional law and theory that came to occupy me in later years. And I continue to use the book to this day in my own classes as a model to introduce some of the foundational questions of governance that it discusses.

Law & Religion’s Next Phase

Over the summer, I worked on an article (about which more soon) called “The Death and New Life of Law and Religion.” It is in part a historiography of the field, but it also argues that many of the concerns that motivated the field to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s are now at an end, at least insofar as their scholarly interest is concerned. No doubt, scholars, judges, and others will continue to wrangle over them for a variety of reasons. But the field feels to me like it is in transition–moving from one set of questions and objects toward another, or perhaps toward others. As these changes arrive, they will radiate outward, affecting many things. Including the work of this Center.

So I was delighted to see a new book out this fall by Rafael Domingo that appears to sound some similar themes, though with perhaps a different diagnosis, focus, and endpoint. The book is Law and Religion in a Secular Age (CUA Press).

Law and Religion in a Secular Age seeks to restore the connection between spirituality and justice, religion and law, theology and jurisprudence, and natural law and positive law by building a new bridge suitable for pluralistic societies in the secular age. The author argues for a multidimensional view of reality that includes legal, political, moral, and spiritual dimensions of human nature and society. Each of these dimensions of life needs to recognize the existence, influence, and function of the others, which act as a filter or check on the excesses of each other. This multidimensionality of reality clarifies why no legal theory can fully account for law from the legal dimension alone, just as no moral theory makes perfect sense of morality from the moral dimension—and, for that matter, nothing in physics can fully interpret the physical dimension of reality. The premises of a legal system cannot be fully explained by the legal dimension alone because the fundamental conditions and qualities of justice, freedom, and dignity touch all the dimensions of reality in which the human person acts, including the moral and the spiritual, not just the legal. Building on this multidimensional theory of reality, the author explores the core differences and the essential interconnections between law, morality, religion, and spirituality and some of the legal implications of these connections.

Rafael Domingo reminds readers of the vital role of religion in shaping the conceptual framework of Western legal systems, underscores the spirit of Christianity that inspired legal institutions, principles, and values, and recalls the contributions of specific Christian jurists as central figures for the development of justice in society.

Law and Religion in a Secular Age aims to be a valuable antidote against the dominant legal positivism that has cornered public morality, the defiant secularism that has marginalized religion, and any other legal doctrine that diminishes the spiritual dimension of law and justice.

On a New Christian Humanism (in Education)

Last spring, I gave a talk called “Notes on a New Humanism in Legal Education,” organized by the Center for Law and the Human Person at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. In it, I argued that one possible model for the future of legal education might be take inspiration from the Christian humanist tradition of education pressed by various late medieval and early Renaissance thinkers (and ably described by Professor James Hankins, for example here and here).

So I was very interested to see this new book out in December, The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition (Notre Dame Press), by Graham James McAleer and Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul. The book presents an interesting intellectual reconstruction of the humanist tradition, offering up something the authors call “conservative humanism.” A book worth engaging.

In this book, Graham McAleer and Alexander Rosenthal-Pubul offer a renewed vision of conservatism for the twenty-first century. Taking their inspiration from the late Roger Scruton, the authors begin with a simple question: What, after all, is the meaning of conservatism? In reply, they make a case for a political orientation that they call “conservative humanism,” which threads a middle way between liberal universalism and its ideological alternatives. This vision of conservatism is rooted in the humanist tradition (that is, classical humanism, Christian humanism, and secular humanism), which the authors take to be the hallmark of Western civilizational identity. At its core, conservative humanism attempts to reconcile universal moral values (rooted in natural law) with local, particularist loyalties. In articulating this position, the authors show that the West—contra various contemporary critics—does, in fact, have a great deal of wisdom to offer.

The authors begin with an overview of the conservative thought world, situating their proposal relative to two major poles: liberalism and nationalism. They move on to show that conservatism must fundamentally take the form of a defense of humanism, the “master idea of our civilization.” The ensuing chapters articulate various aspects of conservative humanism, including its metaphysical, institutional, legal, philosophical, and economic dimensions. Largely rooted in the Anglo-Continental conservative tradition, the work offers fresh perspectives for North American conservatism.

Christianity as Knowledge Creator

Here is what looks like a fascinating new book on how societies come to generate knowledge. The argument appears to be that a Christian theological framework in the late Roman Empire influenced many other domains of knowledge production and acquisition, including literature, law, politics, science, and others. It is a book about the relationship of Christianity and the creation of knowledge and meaning in other areas of human life.

The book is The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity: Intellectual and Material Transformations (Cambridge University Press), by Mark Letteney.

The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity: Intellectual and Material Transformations traces the beginning of Late Antiquity from a new angle. Shifting the focus away from the Christianization of people or the transformation of institutions, Mark Letteney interrogates the creation of novel and durable structures of knowledge across the Roman scholarly landscape, and the embedding of those changes in manuscript witnesses. Letteney explores scholarly productions ranging from juristic writings and legal compendia to theological tractates, military handbooks, historical accounts, miscellanies, grammatical treatises, and the Palestinian Talmud. He demonstrates how imperial Christianity inflected the production of truth far beyond the domain of theology — and how intellectual tools forged in the fires of doctrinal controversy shed their theological baggage and came to undergird the great intellectual productions of the Theodosian Age, and their material expressions. Letteney’s volume offers new insights and a new approach to answering the perennial question: What does it mean for Rome to become Christian?

Gray on Liberalism

John Gray has been an insightful critic of various features of, or tendencies in, political liberalism for decades. Whether it be the problem of evil in the modern world, the extent to which law is merely an artifact of state power rather than “a free-standing institution towering majestically above the chaos of human conflict,” the stubborn hope of a “secular eschatology,” or the by now largely discarded “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin, Gray’s arguments have been consistently interesting and provocative (though rather bleak).

Here is a new book out this November by Gray targeting the heart of his work over the years, though one with evident (and, I think, rightful) praise for one of the major figures in liberalism, Thomas Hobbes: The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Macmillan). Sure to be greatly engaging and provocative.

Ever since its publication in 1651, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan has unsettled and challenged how we understand the world. Condemned and vilified by each new generation, his cold political vision continues to see through any number of human political and ethical vanities.

In his wonderfully stimulating book The New Leviathans, John Gray allows us to understand the world of the 2020s with all its contradictions, moral horrors, and disappointments. The collapse of the USSR ushered in an era of near apoplectic triumphalism in the West: a genuine belief that a rational, liberal, well-managed future now awaited humankind and that tyranny, nationalism, and unreason lay in the past. Since then, so many terrible events have occurred and so many poisonous ideas have flourished, and yet our liberal certainties treat them as aberrations that will somehow dissolve. Hobbes would not be so confident.

Filled with fascinating and challenging observations, The New Leviathans is a powerful meditation on historical and current folly. As a species we always seem to be struggling to face the reality of base and delusive human instincts. Might a more self-aware, realistic, and disabused ethics help us?

New New Natural Law

The “new natural law” (or NNL) is a school of natural law thought, arising in the mid-1960s in the work of Germain Grisez and thereafter, which aimed to revive and revise Thomistic thought for the contemporary period. Its greatest expositor is John Finnis, whose “Natural Law and Natural Rights” is one of the most important works in the philosophy of law of the 20th century, but it has many other major scholarly defenders as well as challengers (for example, Ralph McInerny and Russell Hittinger). It’s too difficult to get into much of the substance of new natural law theory in a post like this, but suffice it to say that one of the basic tenets of the new natural law theory concerns the question how we come to know what it is good to do and to act to achieve those ends. NNL theorists generally believe that a person’s practical reason (reason oriented toward action) “naturally” has access to or understands as self-evidently desirable a number of basic human goods. For NNL theorists, these goods include life, knowledge, friendship, and several others. Moral reflection and decision is needed, on the NNL account, because in any given situation, actions needed to achieve one of these goods may render the achievement of other goods difficult or even impossible. Note that the role of divine illumination for NNL is robustly debated from those within the natural law tradition.

As I say, there is a great deal more to NNL theory than just this, and interested readers should go to the main sources, especially Professor Finnis’ work. But here is a new book coming out this fall that is very likely to intervene in the arguments about NNL theory and perhaps amend or update them, and that looks well worth checking out: Natural Law and Modern Society (Oxford University Press) by Sean Coyle.

Modern society is riven by social divisions: between conservatives and progressives; liberals and socialists; the mainstream and the rise of far-right political groups etc. Instead of truth, there are ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’. In the wake of problems caused by untruthful politicians and world leaders, by Brexit and Covid, the need to repair or rebuild our communities has become paramount, but what kind of community should we build, and on what foundations? This book suggests that natural law is such a foundation.

Natural Law and Modern Society presents a new theory of natural law, grounded in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, aimed at answering questions relevant to the world of today: from the nature of morality and ethics to the theory of law, obligation and political authority; from the domestic realm to international community. It seeks to elicit from the natural law tradition timeless truths concerning the human condition, in particular the social and political dimensions to human existence. This mode of existence, it argues, is not a problem to be resolved through some permutation of political institutions, but a predicament to be managed. At the heart of the book is the identification of a ‘core morality’: a set of moral requirements that are foundational to every society at all places and times, as distinct from those standards that are particular to this or that society at some time.

“We Mean What We Do: The New Constitutional Traditionalism”

I’m pleased to report that my book project on traditionalism in constitutional law is now under contract with Cambridge University Press, with the tentative title “We Mean What We Do: The New Constitutional Traditionalism.” The book will bring together many of the themes and arguments from a number of papers that I’ve been working on over the last several years, as well as some new papers I’ll post soon. But most of it will be new material, and I hope to have a few posts at the Forum in the coming months trying out some ideas. More soon!

The Empyrean and the Celestial Rose

This spring, the Italian American Law Society at St. John’s Law School hosted a wonderful event led by some knowledgeable law students discussing Dante’s Divine Comedy, focusing in particular on Canto VI of Purgatorio and the politics of Florence and Italy at the time Dante wrote. The law and religion features of the Divine Comedy really might merit an entire course. Here is an interesting new book that features another important and sometimes neglected element of the masterwork: its theological framework and content. The book is Dante the Theologian (Cambridge University Press) by Denys Turner.

An understanding of Dante the theologian as distinct from Dante the poet has been neglected in an appreciation of Dante’s work as a whole. That is the starting-point of this vital new book. In giving theology fresh centrality, the author argues that theologians themselves should find, when they turn to Dante Alighieri, a compelling resource: whether they do so as historians of fourteenth-century Christian thought, or as interpreters of the religious issues of our own times. Expertly guiding his readers through the structure and content of the Commedia, Denys Turner reveals – in pacy and muscular prose – how Dante’s aim for his masterpiece is to effect what it signifies. It is this quasi-sacramental character that renders it above all a theological treatise: whose meaning is intelligible only through poetry. Turner’s Dante ‘knows that both poetry and theology are necessary to the essential task and that each without the other is deficient.