Prophetic Rhetoric in the Public Square

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M. Cathleen Kaveny
Boston College

Date: October 1, 2014

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BC theologian Cathleen Kaveny will speak about prophetic rhetoric in the public square at this Boisi Center lunch event. The topic is part of her larger book project, Prophecy without Contempt: An Ethics of Religious Discourse in the Public Square. She will aim to shed light on the culture wars by analyzing its characteristic rhetoric, both in terms of historical roots and logical structure. Many scholars have discussed the appropriate structure of deliberative rhetoric in the public square. Kaveny argues that we need to pay equal attention to the language of prophetic indictment, which has been used by social reformers of all types and political programs.

Speaker Bio

M. Cathleen Kaveny

M. Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Boston College, a position that includes appointments in the department of theology and the law school. She previously served as the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Theology at Notre Dame Law School. Kaveny is the author of Law’s Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society. She has published over forty articles and essays in journals and books specializing in law, ethics, and medical ethics. She has served on several editorial boards, including the American Journal of Jurisprudence, the Journal of Religious Ethics, the Journal of Law and Religion, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. On March 1, 2012, Kaveny was the guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where she discussed the legal and theological issues surrounding the Catholic Church's position on contraception. She is a blogger and columnist for Commonweal magazine, an independent journal of religion, politics and culture edited by lay Catholics. She earned a B.A. from Princeton University and a J.D. and Ph.D. from Yale University.

Event Photos

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BC professor Cathleen Kaveny speaking at a Boisi Center lunch in October 2014.

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Photos by MTS photography

Event Recap

Boston College theologian and legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny spoke at the Boisi Center on October 1 about her upcoming book, Prophecy without Contempt: An Ethics of Religious Rhetoric in the Public Square.

She began by describing the 2004 presidential election cycle as the height of recent culture wars. Embedded within vicious arguments over issues like abortion, Kaveny noted, was an increasingly frequent use of what she terms the “rhetoric of prophetic indictment,” which accuses listeners of deviating sharply from the founding or covenantal principles that once rooted the community. Kaveny cited the jeremiad as the quintessentially American form of prophetic indictment. In colonial times, jeremiads were delivered in sermons that lamented the community’s wide chasm between its ideals (e.g., America as the new Israel) and its sinful reality; these sermons served as a sort of legal indictment for breach of the covenant.

Prophetic indictments stand in stark contrast with the more measured, reasonable tradition of “deliberative rhetoric,” which was in short supply, Kaveny argued, during the 2004 election season. She noticed a curious trend during that campaign: those who used prophetic rhetoric about abortion rarely did so about torture, and vice versa. Kaveny argued that prophetic rhetoric continues to be a dominant tradition in American culture, but that it has become divisive because it presupposes a common moral framework that may not exist in our modern, pluralistic society.

She concluded her talk by suggesting some “best practices” of prophetic indictment, arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr., represents the gold standard of such discourse in the modern age. Prophetic rhetoric aims to target cancers in the body politic; like chemotherapy, it can do as much harm as good. As such, it needs to be calibrated appropriately to particular contexts. The ultimate key to successful prophetic rhetoric lies in standing with the community one condemns, rather than as a judgmental outsider.

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Further Reading

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1962).

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

Charles T. Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

David Howard-Pitney, The African-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (Temple University Press, 2005).

David L. Petersen, The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

James D. Conley, “Fulfilling Our Prophetic Mission,” First Things (October 2013).

James Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America (NYU Press, 1999).

John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993).

M. Cathleen Kaveny, “Prophetic Rhetoric and Moral Disagreement,” in Lawrence S. Cunningham, ed., Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 131–66.

M. Cathleen Kaveny, “Prophetic Discourse in the Public Square,” The 2008 Santa Clara Lecture (The University of Santa Clara, 2009).

Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Belknap Press, 1953).

Sacvan Bercovitch, The Amerian Jeremiad (University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

In the News

A coalition of faith leaders recently took to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, using religious rhetoric to advocate for action on climate change.