Testing the National Covenant: A Covenantal Political Ethic for Lutherans?

Testing the National Convenant 



[1] “The self and the social are the two great idols,” as Simone Weil’s memorable aphorism about our time puts it.1 In his compelling argument in Testing the National Covenant, William F. May explores how our current fears and appetites feed our collective idolatry of both the individual self and the economy in American public life. His prescribed antidote to these idolatries is to adopt a covenantal working model of our national life that is rooted in both the American political and Reformed Christian traditions. After evaluating May’s argument this essay will consider what his covenantal prescription may mean for Lutheran political ethics, which traditionally has not appealed to covenantal notions or language. I will argue that Lutheran ethicist Stewart Herman’s conviction that a covenantal model is more compatible with a Lutheran political ethic than many have supposed is accurate.


[2] William F. May has done more to argue for a covenantal approach to social ethics than any other contemporary figure in American Christian ethics. His previous books, The Physician’s Covenant: Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics (1983, 2000), Testing the Medical Covenant: Active Euthanasia and Health Care Reform (1996), and Beleaguered Rulers: The Public Obligation of the Professional (2001) have consistently and persuasively argued the case for a covenantal approach to professional and institutional ethics. In Testing the National Covenant, May turns his wide and penetrating vision and the rhetorical power of his elegant prose in what were originally public lectures to examine American political life. His critique of American public life and his argument for addressing its ills in this book are substantial and important.

[3] Writing more in the tone of the prophets Isaiah and Hosea than of Jeremiah, May’s critique of American political life and call for national repentance come at an auspicious time. We are now experiencing the culmination, in some ways, of some long-term historical and intellectual trends in liberal2 theory and practice, with which social contract theory is often associated. Both classic economic liberalism and classic political liberalism arose in the latter part of the eighteenth century as the social consequence of the Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas. Both shared the Enlightenment’s focus on the individual and sought to explain how, both morally and practically, individual action was compatible with social harmony. Liberal economists such as Adam Smith argued that a natural harmony of individual economic interests tended to emerge from the interactions of buyers and sellers in free markets; liberal political theorists such as Jeremy Bentham argued that an artificial harmony of interests would result from individuals pursuing their interests through the coordination of public law made in the democratic political process.3 By the mid-twentieth century, this artificial harmony of interests in the U.S. was seen to result from the interaction of interest groups rather than individuals in the democratic political marketplace.4

[4] The massive social change and the effects of capitalist development on both individuals and society, however, gave rise both to strong intellectual criticism5 and to strong collectivist protest movements on both the right and the left. Each protest movement in its own way rejected liberal idolatry of the self for some other form of idolatry of the social. Some social conservatives deplored liberalism’s disintegrating effects on traditional social structures and cultures, and formed movements less to restore an imagined socially integrated past than to impose a new kind of organic social harmony through modern authoritarian political means. By the end of World War II, the fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi regime in Germany were in ruins; similar corporatist regimes in Spain and parts of Latin America were dissolved before the end of the twentieth century. On the left, Communist regimes with state-controlled economies and totalitarian societies arose through revolutions in Russia and China and were also imposed on Eastern Europe, North Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia after World War II. A Communist regime was also declared in Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. But in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and Communist rule was swept away in Europe, while China abandoned its socialist economic system for a more market-oriented one–though it keeps its authoritarian rule.6 This leaves liberal economic and political societies ascendant in the modern world.

[5] Meanwhile, in countries once liberated from Western colonial rule, authoritarian or one-party civilian or military rule–sometimes supported by former colonial powers for strategic or economic reasons–is under increasing pressure for liberalizing political, economic, and social change. Such regimes have fallen in the Philippines, Panama, Mexico, Liberia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Indonesia, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Similar regimes are now under more or less intense domestic pressure in Myanmar, Pakistan, Iran, Bahrain, and Syria. Some of the rest are pondering how to be pro-active in the face of protest they know will eventually come. Everybody, it seems, wants to be a free individual in a democratic country; everyone, that is, wants his or her own chance at living some version of the liberal dream.

[6] But, harmonies of economic interest in the marketplace and in the political process are rarer and more difficult to achieve than liberal economic and political theories assume. The aggregate wealth of people in the world has increased significantly over the past two centuries,7 especially in liberal market economies which have tended to outperform command economies significantly. And while some think capitalist economies may tend in the long term to produce natural harmonies of economic interest, not only may significant groups of impoverished people be excluded from participating in the marketplace, but capitalist economies also have suffered their second major breakdown in eighty years. Political liberalism, moreover, is embarrassed by the acknowledgment of the relative lack of political power and participation of the poor and of various racial, cultural, religious, and linguistic groups to effectively pursue their interests in the democratic process. There is a growing sense of an underlying crisis in liberal societies.

[7] While government intervention in domestic economies has had some positive effects over the years, public policy interventions during the Great Depression of the 1930s and so far since the financial collapse of 2008 have had both slow and disappointing effects on the economies if the world. Debates between the governmental non-interventionist school of Smith, Marshall, Hayek, and Friedman on the one hand, and the government interventionist school of Keynes, Galbraith, Samuelson, and Krugman on the other, are difficult to resolve both politically and as matters of policy, as the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years and the European debt crisis show. This intractable policy debate is mirrored in our partisan politics in a way that now poses these two approaches to government policy making in stark either/or terms. Democratic Liberals suspect Conservatives of–in effect–idolatry of unregulated markets, while Republican Conservatives accuse Liberals of–in effect–idolatry of government action which Conservatives see as by nature economically inept and an inherently direct threat to individual liberties and to free markets.

[8] After over two hundred years of experience with liberal societies, liberal theory–both economic and political–may stand in need of a fundamental re-thinking from first principles on up in the face of hard social realities of how liberal economic, political and social institutions have so far fallen short of their promise and expectations.8 Liberal idolatry of the self and of certain models that liberals hold of the social need an internal contemporary critique to match those liberals leveled against Communist and corporatist ideologies of the twentieth century. Not only might this be important for historically liberal societies in the West. It may also be urgent for the sake of those people now struggling and suffering to bring forth liberal-style societies and to nurture liberal values, institutions, and habits of being in their own countries.

May’s Critique of American Fears and Appetites

[9] Into this world-wide context William F. May comes both to critique specifically American public and political life and to offer what he regards as an alternative to currently prominent liberal idolatry of the self expressed in social contract theory. May draws his alternative from the intersection of both Reformed Protestant tradition and a particular American civil tradition. Americans, according to May, are the victims of their own inordinate anxieties, fears, and desires. Desires as such, as Augustine reminds us, are not problematic. They attune us to what may be good in the world and necessary for our well-being. But they quickly and easily get out of hand, and we can be trapped by them and held captive to them. May asserts that the political metaphor of democracy as a self-governing community was taken over by “the rise of classical liberal politics in the nineteenth century, which associated the self with an expansive and indeterminate liberty free of any and all constraints, external and internal.”9 Meanwhile, our “preoccupation with death and destructive power has replaced attentiveness before a good and nurturant God as the central religious experience of modern people.”10 The more expansive our liberty has become, it seems, the more our desires multiply and the more our anxiety over limits or threats to our desires, liberty, and lives grows. Our anxieties and our inordinate desires feed each other.

[10] This is what May argues happened to Americans in the twentieth century as the experiences of the Great Depression, World War II, post-war prosperity, and the Cold War created anxieties about both our individual and national economic well-being, as well as about our national independence and political freedom. At the same time they stimulated appetites for material prosperity, social mobility, and the physical mobility made possible by the automobile. There was real cause to feel anxious and insecure in the face of international political events and domestic economic depression, as well as a reasonable appetite for economic well-being after two decades of economic deprivation for many. May argues that our anxieties over national security became excessive, on the one hand, while our appetites for both security and prosperity grew inordinately. Contributing to our excessive anxiety in May’s view was a habit of thinking in dualistic terms of either/or, good/evil, or friend/enemy. Emerging from World War II as the ascendant military and economic power in the world, our imperial impulses reasserted themselves. We thought we could both do whatever we wanted in the world and have whatever we wanted to consume. We indulged in the “illusion of remaking the world in our own image.” (p. 18) To succeed all we had to do was to “contain” the threat of the evil Communist enemy, as George Kennan’s metaphor put it.11 Other countries in this endeavor either were our good friends and allies, or they were suspect as at least potential evil enemies in whose political life we were entitled to interfere.

[11] The “American Dream” became synonymous for many with owning ever larger homes, cars, and other accoutrements of individual lifestyles, while individual liberty became identified with whatever we imagined we needed to do to “express our true selves” and “fulfill our potential,” both of which are indeterminate aims. Our prosperous lifestyles required huge quantities of oil (which we had less and less of at home) and other commodities and raw materials from elsewhere. Whatever threatened those threatened “national security” and caused great individual and collective anxiety. While the collapse of the Soviet empire eased our national security anxieties briefly, the Soviet threat was soon replaced by the terrorism of al Qaeda in the attack on the World Trade Center. A reasonable cause for anxiety soon was overwhelmed by national paranoia over terrorism and all things Muslim. A new crop of intelligence agencies was grown seemingly overnight.12 Individual freedom to travel quickly suffered the indignities of invasive security checks in airports, which served to heighten our anxiety and a sense of threat. Then, our excessive economic appetites ripened into the conditions of their own demise as the inflated housing market began to collapse in 2007 and the financial markets imploded quickly in 2008, taking much of the rest of the economy–including the automobile industry–with them. Excessive economic appetites for most people except the rich were temporarily checked either by a jobless and foreclosed present or a clouded future as far as the historical imagination could see. Our worst economic fears were realized and our anxiety only increased still more, manifesting itself in “anxious frugality” and the “paralysis of fear.” (p. 78)

[12] Integral to our inordinate appetites, May believes, are an idolatry of the self and the satisfaction of its wants, on the one hand, and an idolatry of the social in the form of the economic marketplace, on the other. That marketplace, moreover, was granted a kind of imperial authority unchecked by other centers of power on the expectation that it would satisfy all our material desires. The idolatry of the market tended to make business the pre-eminent social institution in American society after 1980. The result, he thinks, is the co-optation of the professions (think Enron or the financial rating agencies before the financial meltdown in 2008), the diminished power of labor unions, the marginalization of Protestant Mainline churches in public affairs, diminished government regulation of the economy and labor, and increased corporate influence in universities. May rehearses the Conservative argument for unregulated markets and its counterpart Liberal argument for a mixed economy and the Keynesian case for government action to stimulate the economy. He has a preference for the latter arguments, but primarily for covenantal rather than Liberal political purposes.

Social Contract and Identity

[13] What makes such idolatries possible? May does not think it is only a matter of simple human passion for consumption aided by a social mechanism that makes it both possible and efficient. He argues that there is also a way of reasoning about social reality involved that abets that passion and makes both it and its means of satisfaction seem morally legitimate. While there are other theoretical possibilities, he focuses on one of them–the idea of the social contract–and then argues that the idea of a social covenant is an ethically and politically preferable mode of social reasoning. May’s general thesis is: “Acquisitiveness and anxiety test America’s core identity and fiber as a nation. Two competing story lines are at play in American politics–contractual and covenantal. They partly resemble one another, but they also offer differing accounts of the nation’s identity and its ways of accommodating or containing its appetites and fears.” (p. 80)

[14] May’s method of working on covenantal ethics relies on the juxtaposition of two or more images in order to “see” how each one works and what implications they have for personal or social practice, to “map out” as he puts it “what fits and what jars.”13 Both the images of a social contract and a social covenant, May believes, help us perceive and express what making each kind of agreement is like. They are–or imply–a kind of compressed story which structures relationships among characters in certain kinds of circumstances. They are also useful both for helping to retrieve a past and for charting a future.14

[15] What May calls the “narrative” of the social contract functions in two distinct ways in his argument. On the one hand, it is an image that provides a way of reasoning about social reality which he believes operates either implicitly or explicitly in the way contemporary Americans think about themselves and American life and society. On the other hand, it is a theory expressed in a set of sources, developed in the thought of political philosophers such as Hobbes,15 Locke,16 Rousseau,17 Rawls18 and others. For May, the thought of Hobbes and Locke are particularly important because they somehow explicitly inform both our cultural imagination and the imaginations of Americans who adopt social contract thinking as a way of reasoning–the first function above. This is a part of the past which he is keen to retrieve.

[16] The idea of a social contract, as May uses it, is a narrative a people tells itself about who they are by means of an account of how they originated as a civil community. So, for the United States that story is about an original plurality of peoples who decide to form a common government. “In the midst of that plurality, “ May says, “a gathering of men in constitutional convention drew up a contract that they felt might satisfy the multiple but perhaps overlapping interests of each.” (p. 82) Their collective identity was not grounded in anything prior to the contract, May claims, except, perhaps, in the need to deal with some serious threats to individuals, families, or communities. Their social unity is purely a voluntary invention; their identity and what it means to them is a project to be fashioned out of disparately collected elements aiming toward goals or ideals which they have to imagine and choose.

[17] The lack of a narrative or genetic account in contract theories which includes a national identity in the social contract of the American founding leaves Americans prone, according to May, to all manner of personal, social, and political anxieties, and prone as well to excessive appetites. “Anxiety throws a long shadow over the identity of the nation and its citizens,” he writes. “Eager to prove their own earnest buy-in, citizens may be particularly tempted to point an accusatory finger toward immigrants, liberals, and other assorted outliers whose customs and choices may seem less than 100 percent pure.” (p. 83) Political consequences of collective anxiety also may result: “At length a fear of the negative can dominate, as the nation preoccupies itself with the fight against the evil du jour–foreign powers, domestic enemies, strangers in the neighborhood, 19 the disease of the month, whatever. A government founded in fear is easy prey to runaway fear.” (p. 85)

[18] May believes that the characteristic features of social contract theories are an inadequate moral basis for national life. Contract theories are too individualistic and “insufficiently communal” to account either for how we actually live or for how we ought to.20 Some are also too naïve about ourselves, failing to account either for aggressive self-interest and human evil or for the necessity to create political arrangements on the fly in the midst of bustle and buffeting of real life rather than in hypothetical states of nature or abstract original positions.21 May thinks they also encourage not only a minimalist and overly-calculating ethic about relationships among citizens and what they owe one another but also a maximalist impulse to vigorously defend our personal interests and rights against others.22 Because contract theories, in May’s view, emphasize “the importance of choice, pure and simple, in creating a [social] unity”23 they devalue the reality and importance of our existing communal relationships and narratives at the point of contracting.24

[19] May objects both to social contract theories themselves and to our use of them as images for understanding our national life and for living it out. This important distinction should be borne in mind. In defense of the theories themselves, they were not created to address every social reality, first of all. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were created specifically to address the political reality of the rise of absolute monarchies which claimed to be autocracies unaccountable to higher law or authority. In the face of justifications for absolute monarchy based on genetic claims of either direct donation of authority from God (“Divine Right of Kings”), patriarchal descent of political authority from God through Adam and Noah, or the customary possession of authority by royal families through inheritance, social contract theorists responded with a genetic theory of their own relying on social contracts agreed to by individuals in a state of nature.25 The political issues at stake were the justification of political rule, whether it was in some sense natural (in human history or social life) or voluntary, whether it was absolute or limited, what the basis of political obligation was, and (for Locke) when people may rebel against political authorities. The claim of social contract theorists was not so much that political arrangements must be based in “choice pure and simple” as May thinks, but that obligation to any political arrangements must be based on consent26 under the laws of nature and that no one ought to consent to absolute authority. Theorists of this era, however, quickly jettisoned genetic explanations of the social contract. As Gordon Schochet notes, “Ultimately, contractual notions came to rely more on logic and hypotheses than upon presumably factual history and moved away from genetic justifications altogether.”27 This characteristic has been maintained by most contract theories down to the present. Today, social contract theory is not so much a unified body of political theory as it is disparate a set of thought experiments about various aspects of political life and involving some kind of express collective agreement.

[20] Regardless of the issues or historical contexts particular social contract theories were intended to address or not address, what use have we made of the image of contract in either the past or present? And what use should we make of this image when we come down from the lofty intellectual playing field of political theory into the gritty daily flux of American public life? As the founding of the American republic is of keen interest to May, it is interesting to note that although the colonists were familiar with the contract theories of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the rhetoric of social contract does not appear to play a prominent role in American public discussion in the Revolutionary and immediate post-Revolutionary periods.28 Possibly, later historians and political theorists projected the process of making a social contract on to this period at some point, resulting in a close association of social contract theory, political liberalism and democratic constitutions.29 The detailed story of how and when this happened has yet to be written. But when that story is written it should explain how John Locke became a member of the pantheon of great liberal political thinkers despite the rejection of Locke’s ideas by some thinkers who founded the liberal school, such as Bentham and Kant.30 To the extent that a social contract was projected on to American history and into liberal democratic thought and our political imaginations,31 we may still find in that heritage ideas and images important for facing the political issues of our own day. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Historically the details of contract theories have differed significantly.

[21] It is possible to imagine a form of social contract thinking which exaggerates many of the typical features of contract theory which May criticizes. In such a view an exaggerated individualism would picture individuals largely as sovereign autonomous moral agents, seen fundamentally as choosers who exercise personal rights among self-selected alternatives. Since autonomy is paramount, in this way of reasoning individuals are viewed as being largely detached from relationships with others except those into which people voluntarily enter for reasons of personal advantage, preference, or interest. The terms of such arrangements–rights and liberties as well as obligations and constraints–are spelled out in clear understandings (social contracts) which are either morally or legally binding. Their completely voluntary nature also means that such relationships may be dissolved when they no longer are to the individual’s advantage, preference, or interest.

[22] Because all relationships in society are seen to have this radically voluntary character, in this version of the theory individuals know that they alone are responsible for arranging their own social support. People’s capabilities are more or less limited by their resources and other social circumstances, and events such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or natural disaster, social circumstances such as economic recession or rapid technological change, or other conditions such as environmental degradation may at times overwhelm them. Such vulnerability compels people to live in a constant state of vigilance and with a certain level of persistent anxiety. This may at times contribute to what May calls exaggerated appetites for all manner of goods. Such a world, May notes, “does not offer a narrative to counter adequately the problems of either runaway fear or appetites” (p. 85)

[23] This is one hypothetical contract theory among others that could fit a certain conception of a liberal society. As noted earlier, May uses a contract theory similar to the one above as a heuristic contrast to the kind of covenantal theory he proposes, although he does not establish that such a theory operates in our political imaginations. But liberalism is a highly contested body of thought with many variations within it. Some of these are much more social in nature and more difficult to reconcile with the particular account of social contract theory immediately above. Liberal political thought is neither historically nor logically dependent upon social contract theories, however consistent such theories may be with specific versions of liberal thought. But May is particularly eager to counter the kind of jarring idolatry of the self and an idolatry of America as a contractual society seen in the latter image of the theory which he imagines to have been superimposed upon the history of the American founding.

A Social Covenant and Identity

[24] A different image of ourselves as individuals and as a society than that provided by social contract theory is needed, May argues. This image would provide not merely some social mechanism of making basic social or political decisions, but also a compelling narrative with a view of God, the human condition, the American community, and what is right and moral by which Americans may interpret themselves and act as members of that community. May’s argument for a covenantal political ethic is therefore addressed both to all Americans as citizens and to those who are Christians. The narrative of the covenant would help people interpret these decisions in light of a certain purpose the society aims to achieve, a promise it hears, a hope that animates its life, or a destiny to which it is called. The narrative and the agreement also define what one may expect from others and the obligations one also may owe to them. “A covenantal identity resembles a contract in that it issues from a promissory event,” May says. “But it differs in that it recognizes a doubleness in that event. The United States is a project, as the motto ‘out of many, one’ emphasizes. However, it announces itself at its very birth as both a reality and a project.” (p. 87)

[25] What is striking and important about May’s accounts of the national covenant and its alternatives is how much these accounts are about identity, both national and individual. For May, as for ancient Israelites and for Christians, covenants (or “a new covenant”) are tied up with narratives in which a people is formed, a collective identity bestowed, and a history or story is lived out. Covenantal identity is contrasted rather markedly by May with contractual identity where the latter is either implied or imposed on the history of the American Revolution and founding. The Israelite, Christian, or American covenantal communities have corporate identities. And members of those communities have individual identities that are at least partly constituted by those communities. (Recall the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” [1 Cor. 12:27]) But, May’s contrast of these two forms of identity is deeply problematic; the comparisons do not hold on the level of identity. For, as we have seen, contract theorists very early gave up narratives of the origins of social contracts for reliance on their theoretical elements. So, while I may be a party to a social contract, I do not have thereby a contractual identity. This does not preclude my having a national identity as an American, a Canadian, or a Mexican, and a political identity as a Liberal or a Conservative. But neither my national nor my political identities are contractual identities, though both might be voluntarily assumed.

[26] However, following his argument, by entering into the covenant May commends, Americans would both declare faithfulness to each other for the pursuit of the above aims and promise for American life, and would bind themselves to each other in those pursuits.32 Such a covenant, May believes, while it does not eliminate all vulnerability or perfect each individual, works on the whole to restrain runaway fears and appetites in order to make possible a sustainable society that can strive toward its aims. How do social covenants come about? For May, covenants arise both out of express agreements like the ratification of the U.S. Constitution or acceptance of God’s covenant at Sinai, and tacitly out of the ordinary process of living in relationships. As express agreements, we have already noted that they resemble social contracts. But they commit people to long-term relationships that go beyond the specific and limited terms of legal contracts–including being “open to the unbidden”33–and they are in an important sense internal to the identities of the parties rather than arrangements external to them.34 But May notes that tacit covenants also arise out of promissory, gifting, or obligating events that occur in the ordinary, daily interaction of individual people and transform relationships where no formal agreements are expressly affirmed.35 Our ordinary, daily interactions may involve, for May, something more than impersonal transactions in the marketplace or the mere discharge of contractual obligations.

[27] Rather than projecting some social contract theory on to our national history as some political liberals have done, May contends that the founding of the American republic occurred through making a real covenant. He backs his view by arguing that we have covenantal ideas and experience in our colonial history in John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arabella which informed how the Puritans understood what they were doing in light of their Calvinist heritage, first of all. But, second, we also have a promissory event and an explicit covenantal formula in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, whose ratification indicates express acceptance of this covenant by the states and their citizens. The Preamble recognizes a previously existing social community (“We the People”) and articulates common purposes and aims of its future common life (“form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”). Adoption of the Constitution becomes the promissory event in this national covenant by means of which Americans bonded themselves to each other and in light of which they wholeheartedly committed themselves to strive together indefinitely toward a greater perfection of their public unity as a political community. May contends that, rather than having a social contract, Americans both have a national covenant and are now an imperfect covenantal community formed through a common tumultuous history and not by the fiat of a merely voluntary choice by a set of independent individuals. As such, they must live as a public covenantal community rather than as a politically contractual one.

[28] May acknowledges that the understandings of this public covenantal community come from disparate classical, Enlightenment, and religious sources. He is keen to note the significance of the religious sources especially for Christians. These include both the more immediate traditions of American religious dissenters along with establishment Anglicans, as well as the historically more distant Calvinist, Old Testament and New Testament traditions. The Calvinist heritage May appreciates sees government as a gift both for social order and assuring basic necessities and as a means of providing for human flourishing. While refusing to identify government with the kingdom of God, government is still useful for human well-being, and as a way of “reordering and reenergizing life.” (p. 95) Responsible citizenship and life in community for Calvin requires the practice of a set of virtues in order for people to serve the common good. Practicing these virtues and being held accountable for doing so helps individuals to check their inordinate appetites and their runaway fears in May’s view. “Clearly Calvin (and the Puritan preachers following him in the New World) emphasized the importance of structures, intellectual, ecclesiastical, and civil. . .”, May asserts. “At the same time, Calvin had emphasized the importance of an animating spirit–holy rather than perverse–in sustaining the inward covenant and common life. In effect the religious life included two sides: the mind illumined and the heart warmed. This Calvinism crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans.” (p. 108)

[29] The tasks of living as a covenanted people include striving not only to improve in those areas identified in the Preamble36 but also to fully incorporate into the covenanted community those left out or on the margins (the descendants of slaves, Native Americans, and immigrant strangers). That groups like Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, or the Amish may not want to be fully incorporated is not duly considered. How does one live covenantally with such groups in our midst? However, May gives an extended example of what living as a covenanted community means in practice in a discussion of how America should deal with the immigrants and undocumented workers in its midst. Here May brings treatment of the stranger in both the Old and New Testaments to bear. From this examination of these covenantal traditions he suggests three guidelines: “One, protect rather than exploit the vulnerable; two, respect others as self-determining rather than manipulate them as instruments; three, honor their excellences, even though their excellences may be alien to one’s own.” (p. 131) Treating undocumented workers according to these guidelines requires, May contends, a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers. While he recognizes that the public power of the churches to directly affect this change is limited, he nevertheless encourages them to raise the issue publicly, to lift up the vocations of those who have direct contact with undocumented workers, and to minister to their needs. All these and more are included in what it means to “keep covenant” both with them and each other. And as we do so in this and other areas of our common public life, May argues, covenantal life restrains both our unwarranted fears and our excessive appetites.

[30] In an era of intense conflict over the present and future character of democratic liberalism, May makes a strong argument for a covenantal understanding of the American liberal democratic tradition. Notably, he affirms a strong role for government while also affirming the importance of individual responsibility and personal exercise of key virtues in service to the common good. Economic conservatives with a habit of making strict either/or distinctions between Conservatives and Liberals will no doubt put May in the latter camp regardless of where he comes out on questions of responsibility and virtue. But it is part of May’s challenge to all of us to discount our reigning either/or logics and to re-examine our personal political views and ideologies. Careful readers will discern that he does not critique capitalism as such. Rather, his critique is aimed more at inordinate appetites for consumables and, implicitly, at reducing people to being essentially consumers. In May’s theological anthropology we are much more than homo economicus narrowly conceived. But leaving a place for robust government action does not necessarily make May a conventional Liberal either. Moreover, by arguing that America is a covenantal community May challenges both libertarian and utilitarian views of its individual and national life. In locating the covenantal promissory event in the Constitution and lifting up the aims, aspirations, and purposes of the Preamble, he also significantly undercuts a contractarian and literal “strict constructionist” approach to the meaning of its provisions as necessarily normative.


[31] May’s insistence on the covenantal nature of the American community also challenges the moral supremacy of both the posited natural harmony of interests presumed in economic liberalism and the presumed artificial harmony of interests of political and interest group liberalisms. As a covenantal community, May insists, we are bound to each other in ways that make us mutually morally responsible for deliberate and intentional action to address our national dilemmas, problems, and injustices rather than free to assume that social mechanisms tend to generate harmony or justice as a matter of course. The common good for May is more than the sum of our individual interests. In advocating a covenantal political ethic May does not critique our idolatry of the self only to flee to an idolatry of the social covenant. As a Christian ethicist in the Reformed tradition, May reminds us all of the human capacity for sin and injustice and of the tendency to deceive ourselves that our politics and policy tend to produce just outcomes for all affected by them. If those social mechanisms are to generate something approaching justice or a harmony of interests, human beings must assume a place of responsibility in them in light of how they are bound to each other and work to see that this happens as far as possible.


[32] I have disputed the accuracy of May’s thesis that “Two competing story lines are at play in American politics–contractual and covenantal.” But, if we substitute “liberal” for “contractual,” I think his thesis is more valid. While May developed his covenantal political ethic in contrast with his view of social contract theory, the really valuable uses of that ethic are two. First, as a positive proposal for living as the American political society he claims we have already been from this time forth. Second, as a way of critiquing versions of liberal theories and practices of American public life which now predominate. Both uses are very valuable in our time. Although May appeals to a certain reading of social contract theory in order to create a contrasting covenantal conception of the American polity, he ultimately contends against certain aspects of American social and individual life and identity as well as aspects of liberal theories and ideologies used to justify that life apart from contract theory. Like covenantal societies, liberal societies themselves have strong, though complex, narratives of origin, not easily characterized as promissory events. Historically, while liberal societies seldom, if ever, have a contractual beginning, they also are often created by those who already are a people in May’s sense, not through express discrete covenants but through the messy process of political change which, like America, may have been accomplished at least partly through armed conflict in some cases and through lengthy processes of political reform.

[33] May’s strong challenge to liberal societies, whether seen as contractual or not, and his advocacy of the covenantal image as an alternative provide a significant way for liberals to address the current problems besetting liberal thought and practice. Social contract theorists will continue to arise, and some liberal political theorists will create new social contract theories to illuminate specific political issues. Again, however much we may project social contract theories into liberal ones, liberalism is a wider body of theory than social contract theory. May’s bracing critique of the contract image should ultimately help liberal theorists and Christian ethicists address what ails liberal theory and practice, particularly where it has become overly individualized, atomized, and abstracted from both the net of real social connections people have and the contemporary threats to those connections. May’s critique is penetrating, and his advocacy of a covenantal political ethic for American life is vigorous, eloquent, and prophetic. We all should listen attentively and hear him.

A Covenantal Political Ethic for Lutherans?

[34] What does May’s covenantal political ethic imply for Lutheran social ethics? May notes the socially conservative nature of the Evangelical Churches in Germany up to World War II, and along with his indictment of the largely quiescent social nature of the mainline churches in the United States after the war–including Lutherans37–he tends to dismiss Lutheran thought as a fertile ground for covenantal ethics with a prophetic edge. William Lazareth has argued, however, that Lutheran theology and ethics in the post-Nazi period recovered its heritage of public responsibility and analyzed how and why this occurred.38 In recent years Lutherans including Svend Andersen,39 Robert Benne,40 Martin Marty,41 Cynthia Moe-Lobeda,42 Richard John Neuhaus,43 Gary Simpson,44 and Ronald Thiemann45 have all made contributions to Lutheran public theology and ethics.46

[35] Lutheran theologians and ethicists have generally not used the concept of covenant in discussions of public or social life. Luther seldom did himself. This is usually explained by referring to Luther’s understanding of the Law as a means to restrain the wickedness of sinful humanity along with Luther’s distinction of the realm of God and the realm of the world where the Law functions. As Stewart Herman remarks, “Lutheran praxis ever since has seen law primarily as a device of constraint, rather than as a resource for empowerment for building social covenants.”47 But recently, Herman questioned whether there may be some reasons and theological resources in the Lutheran tradition that could be used to construct a Lutheran covenantal political ethic despite this history.48 He points to Luther’s endorsement of the Leisnig ordinance49 and his comments commending making covenants in his 1539 lectures on Genesis50 as hopeful signs that Luther would not have ruled against a covenantal ethic out of hand. But he argues that Luther never integrated this concept explicitly into his theology and ethics “because his thinking was constrained by an underdeveloped notion of law, which left him blind to the actual processes by which social relations are constructed and sustained.”51 Herman goes on to suggest a strategy for Lutheran ethicists to construct a Lutheran covenantal ethic on Lutheran grounds.52

[36] A hint at another approach to how one might construct a Lutheran covenantal ethic is found in Luther’s theology of creation. According to Oswald Bayer, “Luther’s own testimony shows that the teaching about the three estates carries much greater weight for him than the teaching about the two realms of God.”53 The three estates of church, household, and state are, of course, features of Luther’s theology of creation as we have it after the fall into sin. How the so-called left hand rule of the Law functions in the life of society matters in Luther’s doctrine of creation. As it turns out, it not only functions to restrain sin, but it does so in order that created life may flourish as much as possible under conditions of sin. This has implications both for how public officials may and ought to exercise their authority and for how Christians may exercise their citizenship.

[37] God’s fundamental character is as a giver and God’s fundamental activity is giving, not only in creating the world but in all of God’s subsequent dealings with it and its creatures including humankind.54 Giving is characteristic of the whole Trinity in all God’s actions. Luther comments on Genesis 1:26: “Not even so far as Their activity is concerned, therefore, is God separated, because all three Persons here co-operate and say: ‘Let Us make.’ The Father does not make one man and the Son another, nor the Son one man and the Holy Spirit another; but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one and the same God, is the Author and Creator of the same work. Nor is it possible in this manner to divide God subjectively, for the Father is not known except in the Son and through the Holy Spirit.”55 In creating Adam and Eve, God gives the gift of human community and the promise of its preservation.56 In Bayer’s reading, “For Luther the world is the world that God promises. Creation is the promised world.57 The world promised in the word, “Let Us make” continues to be at stake for Luther in justification and sanctification as well as in creation.

[38] Luther sees the Three Estates (church, household, government) in the context of God’s promised world. The church is established with the creation of Adam and the establishment of a relationship with Adam through God’s address and commands to him. God establishes the household with the creation of Eve and the establishment thereby of human community. The government is established with God’s admonishing and punishing of Adam and Eve to restrain their sin in the garden as an expression of God’s rule of creation through Law. Yet God implicitly promises that creation will continue nevertheless and their own callings in creation will continue outside the garden. Luther thus pictures the Three Estates in effect as nested inside one another; civil government as created for the sake of maintaining peace in the household, and the household as created in the context of the church–God’s relationship with humanity in creation.58 Set in the context of creation as God’s gift and promise, even the calling of sinful human beings to participate in creating the world is liberating. “In granting all these domains of life (the world, the estates, the body, and time),” says Johannes Schwanke, “God says to the human being: ‘You may live in the world!’ Along with this opening up of the world and the empowerment to live in it, human beings are equally exhorted with the second command: ‘You may give shape to the world!”59

[39] Luther’s doctrine of the Three Estates holds two views of civil government simultaneously in a paradoxical relationship.60 On one hand, Luther sees civil government as an “order of necessity” to confront and restrain sin in the household and the larger creation. (This is a view Bayer sees as “sadly” dominant in Lutheranism since the nineteenth century, a dominance Herman also laments.) On a second hand, Luther takes a positive view of human beings’ capacity to use reason at the level of human affairs despite sin to live peacefully to some extent and to use their freedom to live together in society. Here, the estate of the household is seen expansively as society as a whole. Civil government and law are among the human means that make a peaceful society possible. Luther derives the authority of civil magistrates from the authority of parents because of their authority in the household and in creation, and sees the estate of the household as the “source of all public affairs.”61 Thirdly, therefore, civil government exists partly to restrain evil from sinful humanity but also exists partly to support the activities of the estate of the household to help human life flourish and to carry out the human calling in the creation.62 As a just war is prosecuted for the sake of reestablishing a just peace and promoting peacemaking,63 so also the civil use of the law is undertaken for the sake of protecting a household-society and promoting its flourishing.

[40] Such a nuanced Lutheran understanding of civil government requires a correspondingly nuanced understanding of power in both the civil government and the household. Rather than being evil in itself, power is partly needed to restrain evil, but it is also, Bayer believes, “constitutive of what makes the human existence of human beings possible.”64 This has to do with the fundamental created capacity of human beings to hear, respond, and speak not only with God but also with each other: “As one who hears and speaks, like every other human being, I am one who has power over others and one over whom others have power. . . . From the time of its origin according to God’s creative will, ‘freedom’ as a form of interaction within community does not exist within a power vacuum, but in a relationship that views power as that which always seeks to benefit the life of the other, which shapes the relationship from the beginning, which practically creates it.”65 Such power can be and often is abused and needs to be restrained, as Luther recognized. But it also often is used to benefit the neighbor, as Luther not only recognized but also called upon Christians to do personally. The dual purpose of power both to “preserve and promote”66 human life is the basis of responsible rule and dominion for civil government.

[41] For Luther, the responsibility of civil governments to both preserve and promote life is bound up with their authority from God in the Third Estate, the virtues of rulers, and the daily bread God provides to human beings. Civil government is one of the “masks of God” by which God helps provide our daily bread. In his commentary on Psalm 82, which portrays God as a judge in the midst of human communities pictured as congregations and their rulers, Luther connects the “daily bread” or the material and social conditions of the community’s life to obedience and good rulers.67 Good rulers, in turn, are those who practice the virtues of ruling. One of those virtues is “to help the poor, the orphans, and the widows to justice, and to further their cause.” Exercising this virtue, Luther argues, “includes all the works of righteousness: as when a prince or lord or city has good laws and customs; when everything is regulated in an orderly way; and when order is kept by people in all ranks, occupations, trades, businesses, services, and works, so that it is not said: ‘The people are without laws.’ For where there are no laws, the poor, the widows, and the orphans are oppressed.”68 Another virtue of rulers is peacemaking, described by Luther as guarding against force and violence, which has tangible benefits: “Now, it is from peace that we have our bodies and lives, wives and children, houses and homes, all our members—hands, feet, eyes—and all our health and liberty; and within these walls of peace we sit secure.”?69

[42] Exercising these virtues gives Christian rulers the mind of Christ so that their primary aim is to serve the well-being and prosperity of their subjects or citizens.

First. [The ruler] must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every thought to making himself useful and beneficial to them; when instead of thinking, ‘The land and people belong to me, I will do what best pleases me,’ he thinks rather, ‘I belong to the land and the people, I shall do what is useful and good for them. My concern will be not how to lord it over them and dominate them, but how to protect and maintain them in peace and plenty.’ He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs. I will use my office to serve and protect them, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit and profit from my rule.’ In such manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ did to us. . . .70

Luther’s Trinitarian theology also associates this creative work of God in civil government with the work of Christ; civil government “is an image, shadow, or figure of the lordship of Christ. . . .”71 Luther could therefore see good and effective work of civil government, Lazareth asserts, as “proleptic ‘signs’ and foretastes of the coming kingdom of God . . . .”72 This happens, in part, because of the justification and sanctification of Christians.


[43] The justification of Christians by grace through faith in Christ turns them toward works of love. “But once we have been justified by faith,” says Luther, “we enter the active life. . . [which] exercises itself in works of love toward one’s neighbor.”73 These works of love have both personal and corporate expressions. “Moreover,” in Lazareth’s reading,” [love] can also be employed both personally or socially, whether intimately as benevolence or corporately as justice, depending on how many neighbors are being served.”74 As justified Christians are simultaneously both righteous and sinful before God, so before humanity through the Spirit they grow to be more morally responsible. Lazareth describes the “ethical function [of the cross] in the Spirit to empower the Christian righteousness of loving persons to break out into the realm of renewed creation (iustitia Christiana). . . .”75

[44] As these works of love may be directed toward society as well as individual neighbors, that is, toward both Luther’s expansive understanding of the household as well as toward civil government, Christians have a civil and political calling either simply as citizens or as political officials in some cases.76 Relevant to how those callings are exercised is Luther’s recognition of the distinction of natural and positive law, and their relation.77 Positive law is based on natural law but takes particular circumstances into account. Luther often associates a de-Hebraicized version of the Decalogue with natural law. In his catechisms Luther similarly offers general explanations to each of the commandments, including those of the second table governing the Christian’s relationships with other people in society. It is clearly implicit in those explanations that Luther expects Christians to use their human reason78 and Christian imaginations in discerning how to live out those commandments in their own particular circumstances, relationships and settings.

[45] Discerning how to act in particular circumstances for Luther is an exercise of Christian freedom. Indeed, “insofar as they are already righteous, Christians will find it continually necessary ‘to make new Decalogues’ . . . .”79 Such freedom is also called for in one’s calling as a Christian citizen or political official. Christians today are not bound to obey autocratic hereditary rulers as they were in Luther’s time. Christians as citizens or public officials have the freedom to imagine, reason, and give shape to forms of democratic government that strive for the purposes of civil government Luther argued for despite the forms of rule he commonly experienced. These can include covenantal forms of democracy, though they need not be limited to such forms.

[46] Stewart Herman’s conviction that the Lutheran heritage has resources with which to construct a covenantal political ethic is borne out in Luther’s thought. But Herman’s belief that Luther’s understanding of the Law stood in the way is a common misconception. While Luther regarded the Law partly as a means of restraint, as Herman notes, he did not think of it as only that. Its overall function in society, as we have seen, was as a means to ensure human well-being under conditions of sin. As such, it had both restraining and promoting operations as shown particularly in Luther’s explanations to the Second Table of the Ten Commandments. Luther’s admiration for the Leisnig ordinance as a means for public well-being was therefore not a rare or careless exception to his uses of the law but was entirely consistent with them. Using “means of cooperative self-obligation,” as Herman puts it,80 to form and sustain covenants in civil society is as consistent with Luther’s understanding of the civil use of the Law as his admonition to the princes of his day to positively further the well-being of their subjects. The one was pragmatically possible in the cities and towns of Luther’s day, but not realistic (however desirable it may have been) for the principalities and kingdoms where monarchy was the ruling order. Whether or not a Lutheran covenantal ethic is ever produced in the future, Lutherans today have ample reasons from their own theological and ethical heritage to engage May’s covenantal political ethic and to take it seriously. Moreover, they have the power and freedom of Christians to do so.

Ronald W. Duty is Coordinator for Cross-cultural Conversation in the ELCA’s Congregational and Synodical Mission unit. Formerly, he was Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society.



1. Quoted by Gustave Thibon, “Introduction,” in Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Arthur Wills, tr. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952) 41.

2. The term “liberal” is used in this review essay to refer to a movement of intellectual thought that began to arise in the late eighteenth century in Europe and the United States which argued in general that individual thought and action should be liberated from the social, political, economic, moral, and ecclesiastical authorities of older ways of thinking about and organizing social life in order to explore and embrace newer and freer ways of thinking, acting, and organizing political, economic, social, moral, and religious life. This use of the term “liberal” is distinct from the current use of the term “Liberal” to describe a particular political approach to common social, political, economic, and cultural problems which involves significant governmental action and public expenditures, and which is commonly associated with the “Liberal wing” of the Democratic Party in the United States. As the term “liberal” is used in this article, it applies both to economic conservatives in the Republican Party as well as the proponents of a strong role for government in the economy in the Democratic Party, since both position have historical antecedents in eighteenth and nineteenth century liberal thought and liberal movements. This common origin is now generally unrecognized–or at least unacknowledged–by both contemporary Conservatives and Liberals in the U. S.

3 The history of liberal economic and political thought in England is told in the classic study by Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, Mary Morris, tr., (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelly, 1972). The language of the natural and artificial harmonies of interest used here to distinguish different strands of liberal thought is his.


4. Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1979) 42-63. Lowi calls this picture of American political life “interest group liberalism,” and his book offers an extended critique of it.

5. See Benjamin E. Lippincott, Victorian Critics of Democracy: Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Stephen, Maine, Lecky (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938; reprint New York: Octagon, 1974) for an account of nineteenth century British criticism of political liberalism by cultural figures and political conservatives. For socialist criticism of political and economic liberalism by Marx and others see Socialist Thought: A Documentary History, Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, eds (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964). And for Fascist and National Socialist arguments, see Readings on Fascism and National Socialism, Members of the Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado , eds. (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1952).


6. China has thus curiously swapped a Communist political, economic, and social strategy for a corporatist or fascist one. Economically, at least, its strategy seems to be succeeding spectacularly up to this point. Chinese leadership is, however, perpetually nervous about maintaining an acceptable level of social and political harmony and stability through political rule and policies. They seem to fear individuality as much as they loathe idolatry of the self. But having jettisoned its Marxist-Maoist ideology, the Chinese Communist Party is without a coherent ideology or set of values to either guide its action, to appeal to the Chinese people for support, or to address domestic dissent and protest movements. It is, in effect, a corporatist or fascist regime without a corporatist ideology. Every government response to a perceived threat of anarchy is, in turn, prone to be interpreted by the Chinese people as tyranny. Widespread government corruption only reinforces such popular interpretations.


7. Dierdre McCloskey, “Avarice, Prudence, and the Bourgeois Virtues,” in Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, William Schweiker and Charles Mathewes, eds., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 326-327.


8. Some fundamental soul-searching and reexamination of contemporary liberal democracy has already begun. For two examples, see Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial, (New York: BasicBooks, 1995) ( Elshtain is also now working on an updated edition of this book); and Cornell West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).


9. William F. May, The Physician’s Covenant: Images of the Healer in Medical Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983) 22.


10. Ibid., 32.

11. “X” "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", Foreign Affairs 25:4 (July 1947), 566–582. The American policy of containment of Soviet conduct in foreign affairs originated in a comment in this article. The author “X” was later revealed to be George F. Kennan.

12. In addition, the mission of the National Security Agency was expanded for the first time to include domestic as well as international surveillance. For some details James Banford, see "The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),“ Wired, 3/15/2012, online at http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1 (accessed April 12, 2012). Expansion of the NSA mission to include domestic surveillance began in the George W. Bush administration and continues in the Obama administration.


13. Ibid., 17.


14. Ibid., 16-17.


15. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), Michael Oakeshott, ed., (London: Macmillan, 1962).


16. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1688), Peter Laslett, ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).


17. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762), Drew Silver, ed., G. D. H. Cole, tr. (London: Dover, 2003).


18. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971); and Political Liberalism, expanded ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). For a study of how and why Rawls changed is position about the stability of the social contract emerging from the Original Position from the earlier to the later work, see Paul Weithman, Why Political Liberalism: On John Rawls’ Political Turn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


19. An example of this anxiety to which May might now point is Patrick Buchanan’s recently published book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011). When interviewed about the book on CBS by Charlie Rose on the morning of February 21, 2012, Buchanan’s anxiety and heightened sense of alarm about the nation’s future were palpable.


20. May, The Physician’s Covenant, 125.


21. Ibid., 126, and May, Testing the National Covenant, 82.


22. Ibid., 122.


23. May, Testing the National Covenant, 82.


24. Ibid., 85.


25. Earnest Barker, Principles of Social and Political Theory, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950, 1962) 184-190.


26. Gordon J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes Especially in Seventeenth Century England, (New York: Basic Books, 1975) 8-9.


27. Ibid.


28. See Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1967).


29. While recognizing the disparate historical origins of Western democracies, Earnest Barker, writing in the mid-twentieth century, describes their constitutions as social contracts: “The modern State of the Western world is a legal association. As such it depends upon, and is constituted by, a memorandum of association, or a set of articles of association, or in other words a ‘constitution,’ which states the contractual terms on which the association is made and under which it henceforth acts. The constitution of a State may thus be regarded as the contract on which its action, and the action of its members in their capacity of members, is ultimately dependent; and from this point of view political obligation may be regarded as contractual obligation.” Barker, Principles of Social and Political Theory, 190. Barker’s judgment likely reflects an earlier consensus of liberal thinkers. It is also likely that an identification of social contract theory, democratic liberalism, and the formation of the American republic happened much earlier as well.


30. Bentham argued that the contractarian account of the origin of governments is “pure fiction.” Natural rights are for Bentham “simple nonsense, natural and imprescriptible rights rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.” Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies: being an Examination of the Declaration of Rights issued during the French Revolution, in Bentham, Works of Jeremy Bentham, v. II, Bowring, ed., (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1843) 500 ff. Kant rejected natural law, which Locke affirmed, as a basis for liberalism. Kant regarded natural law and natural rights to be a priori principles of reason that cannot be known with certainty and which are necessary for the existence of civil rights to property and other things. A state of nature and a contract to enter civil society are logical fictions rather than historical occurrences. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysical Elements of Justice, J. Ladd, tr., (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1965) 43-44, 64-66, 76-77, and 80-81.


31. That it has and that social contract functions in our popular political imaginations to some extent is revealed in one example May cites–the use of the trope of social contract in the “Contract with America” promoted in 1994 by congressional Republicans through then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. May, Testing the National Covenant, 85.


32. May The Physician’s Covenant, 17.


33. May, personal comment at a “Breakfast with an Author” session about Testing the National Covenant at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Washington, D.C., January 7, 2012.


34. May, Testing the National Covenant, 93.


35. May illustrates how this occurs with examples in the fiction of William Faulkner. See The Physician’s Covenant, 106-108, 119-120 and Testing the National Covenant, 128-129.

36. May, Testing the National Covenant, 99-108, 116-118.


37. May, Testing the National Covenant, 57.


38. William H. Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 2-30 and 66.


39. Svend Andersen, “Lutheran Ethics and Political Liberalism,” Philosophical Studies in Religion, Metaphysics, and Ethics: Essays in Honor of Heikki Kirjavainen, Timo Loistinen and Tommi Lehtonen, eds., (Helskinki: Luther-Agricola Society, 1997) 292- 302; “Back to the Christian State? European Perspectives on Religion and Public Morality,” in The Sources of Public Morality–On the ethics and religion debate, Proceedings of the annual conference of the Societas Ethica in Berlin, August 2001, Ulrik Nissen, Svend Andersen, and Lars Reuter, eds. (Munster: LIT Verlag, 2003) 103-111; “Kant, Kissinger, and Other Lutherans: On Ethics and International Relations,” Studies in Christian Ethics, No. 1 (2007) 13-29; "Democracy and modernity–A Lutheran perspective," Religion and Normativity Vol. 3: Religion, Politics, and Law, Peter Lodberg, ed. (Aarhus : Aarhus University Press, 2009) p. 14-29; Macht aus Libe: Zur Rekonstruction einer lutherischen politischen Ethik (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), and "Lutheran Political Theology in the Twenty-First Century," Transformations in Luther's Theology: Historical and Contemporary Reflections, Christine Helmer and Bo Kristian Holm, eds.. (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2011) 245-263.


40. Robert Benne, The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981); The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); “The Twofold Rule of God,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 2:8 (August 2002) http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/August-2002/The-Twofold-Rule-of-God.aspx; Reasonable Ethics: A Christian Approach to Social, Economic, and Political Concerns (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 2005); “Lutherans in Public–Four Lively Options,” Dialog 43:4 (Winter 2006) 356-365; and Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).


41. Martin E. Marty, The Public Church: Mainline–Evangelical–Catholic (New York: Crossroad, 1981); Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation about Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life with Jonathan More, (SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000); and Building Cultures of Trust (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).


42. Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, “A Christian Ethical Re-read of Economic Globalization: A Step Toward Subversive Moral Agency,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 52:3-4 (1998) 131-155; “Journey Between Worlds: Economic Globalization and Luther’s God Indwelling Creation.” Word & World, XXI: 4 (Fall 2001) 413-423; Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); “Globalization and Luther’s Eucharistic Economic Ethics,” Dialog 42:1 (Fall 2003) 250-256; “Communio and a Spirituality of Resistance,” Karen L. Bloomquist, ed., Communion, Responsibility, Accountability: Responding as a Lutheran Communion to Neoliberal Globalization (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 2004) 145-156; “Offering Resistance to Globalization: Insights from Luther,” Globalization and the Good: Ethical Perspectives on the Global Economy, Peter Heslam, ed. (London: SPCK, 2004) 95-104; The Public Church: For the Life of the World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004); “Religious Claims in Public: Lutheran Resources,” Dialog 45:4, 322-337 (2006); “The Holy Spirit: Power for Confessing Faith in the Midst of Empire,” Being Church in the Midst of Empire: Trinitarian Reflections, Karen Bloomquist, ed. (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2007) 125-148; “Economic Justice, Ecological Degradation, and Militarization in the Global Economy: Moral and Theological Responses,” Journal of Political Theology 10: 4 (2009) 685-716; “Karen Bloomquist, Luther and the Challenge of Climatic Justice," Festschrift in honor of Karen Bloomquist. Currents in Theology and Mission, 37:3 (June2010); “Love as a political-ecological vocation in the Context of economic globalization,” Globalization II: Global Crisis, Global Challenge, and Global Faith, Allan Boesak and Len Hansen, eds., (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2010).


43. Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984, rev. ed.,1996).


44. Gary M. Simpson, “Civil Society and Congregations as Public Moral Companions,” Word & World , XV: 4 (Fall, 1995) 420-427; Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002); “Puckering Up for Postmodern Kissing: Civil Society and the Lutheran Entwinement of Just Peace/Just War,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 2:11 (November, 2002) http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/November-2002/Puckering-up-for-Postmodern-Kissing-Civil-Society-and-the-Lutheran-Entwinement-of-Just-PeaceJust-War.aspx; “Toward a Lutheran ‘Delight in the Law of the Lord’: Church and State in the Context of Civil Society,” in Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives, John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle, eds., (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress: 2003), 20-50; “Congregational Strategies for Invigorating Lutheranism’s Just Peacemaking Tradition,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 3:7 (July, 2003), http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/July-2003/Congregational-Strategies-for-Invigorating-Lutheranisms-Just-PeaceMaking-Tradition.aspx; “God against Empire: Implicit Imperialism, Deliberative Democracy and Global Civil Society, Consensus 29:2 (2004), 9-60; "Hope in the Face of the National Security Strategy: Three Readings and Patriotic Publicity," Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 5:5 (May 2005) at http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/May-2005/Hope-in-the-Face-of-The-National-Security-Strategy-Three-Readings-and-Patriotic-Publicity.aspx; "Hope in the Face of Empire: Failed Patriotism, Civic International Publicity, and Patriotic Peacebuilding," Word & World,v. 25 (Spring 2005):127-138; “Our Pacific Mandate: Orienting Just Peacemaking as Lutherans,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 5:7 (June 2005) http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/June-2005/Our-Pacific-Mandate-Orienting-Just-Peacemaking-as-Lutherans.aspx; "God in Civil Society: Prophetic, Sapiential, and Pacific," and ”Church as Public Companion: Entering God's Pacific Mandate," both plenary addresses to Luther Seminary’s 2006 Mid-Winter Convocation, published in Living Out Our Callings in the Community, Frederick J. Gaiser, ed., (St. Paul, Centered Life,.2006) 5-24 and 25-45; War, Peace, and God: Rethinking the Just War Tradition, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007); “God, Civil Society, Congregations as Public Moral Companions,” in Testing the Spirits:, Patrick R. Keifert, ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); and "Retrieving Martin Luther's Critical Public Theology of Political Authority for Global Civil Society Today," Theological Practices that Matter, Karen L. Bloomquist, ed., Theology in the Life of the Church, v. 5, (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press and The Lutheran World Federation, 2009) 153-168.


45. Ronald F. Thiemann, "The Gospel and American Civil Religion," The Church and American Civil Religion (New York: Lutheran World Ministries, 1986) 63-72; “Toward an American Public Theology: Religion in a Pluralistic Democracy,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, v. 18: (October/November, 1987), 4-6, 10; Constructing a Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991); “Beyond the Separation of Church and State: Public Religion and Constitutional Values,” New York State Bar Journal, 66:4 (May/June, 1994), 48-51; “Political Liberalism: Religion and Public Reason (symposium, Harvard University),” Religion and Values in Public Life (Harvard Divinity Bulletin) Supplement 3 (summer, 1995), 1-11; Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996); “Public Theology: The Moral Dimension of Religion in a Pluralistic Society,” Zietschrift für Evangelische Ethik, 42, Jahrgang, Heft 3 (Juli bis September 1998), 176-190; and “Public Religion: Bane or Blessing for Democracy?” Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies, ed., Nancy L. Rosenblum (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 73-89.


46. Other contributions to public or political theology and ethics by Lutherans are found in Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives, John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), a collection of articles on the theme “Leadership in Public,” Dialog 45:4 (Winter, 2006), another collection in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics 6:5 (May 2006) http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/May-2006.aspx, and A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology: A Festschrift in Honor of Rogert Benne, Michael Shahan, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). The most pertinent contributions from the latter for this review are the essays by Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther and Liberalism,” Ronald F. Thiemann, “The Public Theologian as Connected Critic: The Case of Central European Churches,” Jean Bethke Elshtain, “A Cultural Disorder: C. S. Lewis and the Abolition of Man,” Gilbert Meilaender, “The Lutheran Corrective,” and Carl E. Braaten, “The Crux of Christianity’s Case: The Resurrection of Jesus.”


47. Stewart W. Herman, “Luther, Law, and Social Covenants: Cooperative Self-Obligation in the Construction of Lutheran Social Ethics, “ Journal of Religious Ethics, 25:2, (Fall, 1997) 259.


48. Ibid., 259-260.


49. Luther, “Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest at the Entire Assembly at Leisnig,” LW 45, The Christian in Society, II, W. I. Brandt, tr. and ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 176-194). Luther writes approving advice to the community about its proposed ordinance in the Preface.


50. Herman, 262.


51. Ibid., 259 citing LW 4, Lectures on Genesis, chapters 21-25, 484, 85.


52. Ibid., 269-272.


53. Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Thomas H. Trapp, tr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 124.


54. Ibid., 99.


55. Luther, LW 1, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1958) 58.


56. Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 104.


57. Ibid., 112.


58. Luther comments on Genesis 2:18: “Here we have the establishment of the church before there was any government of the home and of the state; for Eve was not yet created. Moreover, the church is established without walls and without any pomp, in a very spacious and very delightful place. After the church has been established, the household government is also set up, when Eve is added to Adam as his companion. Thus the temple is earlier than the home, and it is also better this way. Moreover, there was no government of the state before sin, for there was no need of it. Civil government is a remedy required by our corrupted nature.” LW 1, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, ed. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958) 115. Oswald Bayer comments, “ Yet [Luther] always knew that politia was founded in oeconomia, and must be interpreted throughout as an implication of household life. In one aspect, then, it shares the creaturely status of the household and its administration.” “Nature and Institution: Luther’s Doctrine of the Three Estates,” in Bayer, Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies, Jeffrey F. Cayzer, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).


59. Johannes Schwanke, “Luther on Creation,” in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, Timothy J. Wengert, ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 93.

60. Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 146-148.


61.Ibid., 147.

62. Ibid., 149.


63. Gary M. Simpson, “Puckering Up for Post-Modern Kissing: Civil Society and the Lutheran Entwinement of Just Peace /Just War.” Paragraphs [6], [8], [13], [15], [30], and [45]-[48].


64. Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 149.


65. Ibid., 150.


66. Ibid., 151.


67. Luther, “Psalm 82,” LW 13, Selected Psalms II, C.M. Jacobs, tr., J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1956) 47, where Luther writes: “Such communities are God’s work, which He daily creates, supports, and increases, so that they can sit at home and beget children and educate them. Therefore this word is, in the first place, a great and pleasant comfort to all those who find themselves situated in such a community. It assures them that God accepts them as His work and His creation, cares for them and protects and supports them, as we can, in fact, see with our own eyes. For who could have or keep a cow or a heller if God did not give it and help and guard it? Therefore everyone ought to admonish himself to be thankful for everything that is offered him by his rulers, and be glad that, in such a community, he is worthy to eat his bread and live. For this word ‘congregation of God’ is a precious word; and anyone who is in it ought to be ten times happier than if he were enrolled as a Roman citizen. . . .” For a discussion of the role of Psalm 82 in Luther’s public theology, see Gary M. Simpson, “Retrieving Martin Luther’s Critical Pubic Theology of Political Authority for global Society Today,” above, endnote 41.


68. Ibid., 53.


69. Ibid., 55. See also Luther’s explanations of the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed and the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Theodore G. Tappert, ec., (The Large Catechism: 1, 158). Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959) 158 and 74-75, respectively.


70. Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), LW 45, The Christian in Society II, J.J. Schindel, tr., rev. W.I. Brandt, W.I. Brandt and H.T. Lehmann, eds., (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962) 120.


71. Luther, “Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” LW 46, The Christian in Society, tr. C. M. Jacobs, rev. R. C. Schultz, R. C. Schultz & H. T. Lehmann, eds., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 237.


72. Lazareth, Christians in Society, 170.


73. Luther, LW 26, Lectures on Galatians (1535), , J. Pelikan, tr., J. Pelikan and W. A. Hansen, eds., (St. Louis: Condordia, 1963) 287.


74. Lazareth, Christians in Society, 217.


75. Ibid., 198. Lazareth calls this the paranetic function of the gospel in Luther’s theology, which he describes this way: “However, insofar as they are already righteous, it is rather the gospel’s paranetic or ethical function, under the indwelling Holy Spirit’s governance, to empower and guide the joyful fulfillment of God’s pre-fall and perennial command of dominion-sharing love by God’s renewed Christian workers serving as responsible members of church and society.” (p. 224)


76. Ibid., 166-167, where Lazareth, noting Luther’s “Biblical realism,” observes that “Since civil occupations serve God’s creating and preserving rule over humanity, all Christians are to become involved in public affairs for the sake of the commonwealth” and “exercise . . . loving justice in society.”


77. Ibid., 152. See also Luther’s Table Talk, “Difference between Natural and Positive Law” (July 7,1538) LW 54, Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds., (Philadelphia: Fortress,1967) 293, where he is recorded as saying, “Natural law is a practical first principle in the sphere of morality; it forbids evil and commands good. Positive law is a decision that takes circumstances into account and conforms with natural law on credible grounds. The basis of natural law is God, who has created this light, but the basis of positive law is civil authority.”


78. Lazareth, 167 and 232.


79. Ibid., 228, quoting Luther, WA 39, 1:47.

80. Herman, 269.



© July 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 4