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The American Catholic Law Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny Addresses Our Culture Wars (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 15, 2016: Out of ancient Greek culture, the prophet/philosopher Socrates emerged. In Athens during the experiment in limited participatory democracy, he made a big impression on impressionable young men such as Plato. Tragically, Socrates was brought to trial on trumped up charges, found guilty, and executed. His grief-stricken follower Plato memorialized him as the fictional character named Socrates in his artfully written dialogues.

It has famously been said that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Over the centuries, footnotes to Plato have been written by secularists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Our American experiment in representative democracy emerged out of the philosophical thought of the Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason). As a result, figuratively speaking, we Americans are living footnotes to Plato, including those Americans who have not cultivated a philosophical mind. But in American culture today, we still have a certain number of professors of philosophy in academia who try to make a big impression on impressionable young men and women enticing them to cultivate the philosophical mind.

But a few centuries after the prophet/philosopher Socrates' tragic death in Athens, a religious prophet named Jesus of Nazareth emerged out of the matrix of the ancient Hebrew religious culture that is now memorialized in the Hebrew Bible. In Jerusalem at the time of the festival of the Passover one year, something happened involving Jesus. As a result, he was brought before the local authorities of the Roman Empire on trumped up charges, found guilty, and executed by crucifixion, as Paula Fredriksen explains in her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (Knopf, 1999). But his grief-stricken followers memorialized his life and tragic death by constructing the greatest story ever told with Jesus portrayed as the long-awaited Messiah (also known as the Christ). In American culture today, we still have a certain number of Christians.

Historically in American culture, the tradition of freedom of religion (i.e., no established church) emerged in our experiment with representative democracy, alongside the tradition of free speech (i.e., free political speech) and the tradition of separating church and state.

But political speech involves articulating and expressing political values.

But where do our political values in American culture come from? Do the political values expressed in our founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and its Amendments) express the grand total of our political values?

But doesn't our practice of occasionally voting in new amendments show that as our American culture continues along its evolutionary trajectory we tend to articulate and express evolving new political values?

But does our American tradition of separating church and state mean that only political values emerging from our American state's official documents, including of course the various amendments, should be discussed in the so-called public square?

This brings me to the American Catholic law professor M. Cathleen Kaveny's new book Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square (Harvard University Press, 2016). It is ironic that her new book came out at a time when Donald J. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2016.

Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor at Boston College, a Jesuit university, a position which allows her to teach in both the department of theology and the law school. She did her undergraduate studies at Princeton University and graduated summa cum laude (1984). She holds four advanced degrees from Yale University: M.A., M.Phil., J.D., and Ph.D. In her 1991 doctoral dissertation she focused on the theme of the common good. Her prestige education qualifies her to try to make her mark in life in the prestige culture in American culture. Her educational credentials also contribute to her ethos appeal.

Having her book published by Harvard University Press is prestigious and contributes to her ethos appeal. Because of the prestige of Princeton, Yale, and Harvard universities in American culture today, perhaps I should explain here that each of these universities has a school of divinity, but it may not be in good odor with certain anti-religion secularists in other university units.

In the present essay, my pathos appeal involves the frustration and understandable anger that progressives and liberals feel about the obstructionist tactic of anti-60s radical conservatives in the Congress and in the Republican Party. In certain respects this pathos appeal is similar to Kaveny's pathos appeal in her new book.

As progressives and liberals may know, in the book The Theocons: Secular America under Siege (Doubleday, 2006), Damon Linker delineates how radical conservative American Catholics have conspired in recent decades to bring their anti-abortion religious zealotry and other rash religious views to greater prominence in American culture.

In the book Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (Oxford University Press, 2006), Philip Jenkins details how the 1973 Roe v. Wade was, for rhetorical purposes, subsumed under anti-60s rhetoric to promote radical conservative candidates and issues in the Republican Party.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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