Resources for the struggle against fear and appetite

[1] Ron Duty begins his review essay with a fine exposition of major portions of William May’s argument in Testing the National Covenant, so I will not cover that ground. Nor will I engage Duty’s (mild) critique of May’s analysis. Since Duty is a political scientist by training, it is not surprising that he focuses his critical attention on May’s claim that covenant provides a more satisfying explanation of American identity than social contract. I suspect May might agree with Duty that truncated liberal contract theories of the “overly individualized, atomized and abstracted” sort (paragraph 33) are more to blame than social-contract theory itself. In any case, both theorists seem to me to be on the same page regarding the value of covenantal self-understanding for the American body politic.

[2] Let me proceed, then, directly to the question which occupies the second half of Duty’s review essay. He asks whether and how Lutherans might construct their own covenantal account of public life (para. 34). More precisely, what resources might Lutheran ethics contribute to a re-appropriation of the covenantal motif? May himself distills from the covenantal tradition a bold and helpfully simple claim: that the idea of covenant offers powerful critical leverage against the currents of fear and appetite in contemporary American politics and public policy. This is a most timely and welcome claim given the fractious, rancorous, and unforgiving tone of the 2012 presidential campaign. So I will take Ron Duty’s question and reframe it in light of May’s claim: what Lutheran theological and ethical resources might be enlisted in the struggle against inordinate fears and appetites that so dominate American public life? Are there theological convictions or enduring moral values that Lutherans might bring into debates about foreign policy, energy policy, immigration policy, and other issues that have so distorted our political discourse?

[3] May claims that Protestants generally and Lutherans in particular traditionally have more to say about containing fears than restraining appetites (xiv), and I think he is right. In foreign policy, as he argues in Chapter 1, the fears that have driven the wars on Communism and terrorism reflect a displaced religious anxiety that finds vicious Manichean expression in American exceptionalism, with brutal consequences on the battlefields we stake out in the world. Here we could use a distinctively Lutheran voice to speak directly to the deep anxieties which drive the contemporary “war on terror”, for we indeed have robust contributions to make. The resource I find of telling value is our signature conviction that salvation is by divine grace alone. This wellspring of justification is a wonderfully soothing balm for Manichean anxiety. Theologically, it serves to drive death, sin, and the devil beneath the horizon of daily earthly anxiety. Practically, justification when properly understood and extended to the political sphere offers a sense of security which might serve to downgrade foreign policy threats from the existential and eschatological to merely temporal, from crusades to police actions. With salvation no longer at issue, we might be encouraged to appreciate the sense of giftedness in our continuing survival as a nation despite the runaway anxieties that might drive us to actions that harm our long-term interests.

[4] A sense of ‘giftedness’ is critical to May’s idea of covenant. As social creatures, we are not likely to realize how impoverished are the contractual bonds which we rely on until we become aware of the ‘giftedness’ of life, where we understand our lives as “defined by a promissory event that cuts more deeply into the self and reaches further into the future than a contract…”(86). May connects such thinking with Luther; he appreciatively sketches Luther’s own reception of faith as gift (May, 76-77). And while he does not pursue the connection further, certainly more Lutheran resources are available for expanding this idea of covenant in terms of gift. For Lutherans, the primordial promissory event is baptism. To this might be added the experience of coming to understand one’s office as a vocation—as a mask of God, even—and oneself as a steward rather than master of one’s life. All these ideas fit nicely with May’s longitudinal view of covenanting. As he has shown in his masterful analyses of Southern fiction, the covenantal dimension of one’s life ripens over time. It takes time to learn to appreciate how the past shapes one’s future, and to take the specifically covenantal step of accepting that shaping as a gift rather than a burden.

[5] Of course, the giftedness of faith, baptism and vocation are venerable and well-worn Lutheran themes –might Lutheran ethics have something more to offer? What is particularly needed, it seems to me, is to make the idea of covenant feel real and authentic as a political bond. What might Lutheran ethics contribute towards that end? Ron Duty makes a start by arguing that Luther gave the state the positive task of building up creation by supporting social institutions such as the household, not merely the negative task to restrain evil behavior (para. 39, 41). He is disagreeing with May’s complaint that “Luther’s sense of the element of gift in human life was too restricted to undertake the task of restructuring civil government” (May, 95). Duty may be right, but much more new Lutheran thinking is needed.

[6] Making the covenant a real political bond is a particularly daunting task given what May identifies as the second ill besetting the American scene: runaway appetites. He devotes three chapters to a broadly framed but richly detailed account of how appetites have undermined a sense of shared national political community. Unrestrained appetites and slack governmental controls have enabled the wealthy to ‘secede’ while vaporizing the wealth of modest homeowners and widening the gap between rich and poor to the point that civilization is at risk (chapter 2, especially 27-31). Since unrestrained appetites in the market present a great threat to covenantal cohesion of U.S. society, May argues for active governmental efforts to “rescue, regulate, stimulate and redirect.” He recommends a specifically Keynesian policy of redistribution: to restrain consumption by the wealthy when times are fat, and stimulate spending by the rest of us when times are lean (chapter 3, especially 40-42). This prescription serves also as a capstone to his discussion of our “addiction” to oil. When spelling out the destructive reach of the petro economy, he makes a sudden turn from macroeconomics to psychology: counseling the addict (which would be us) to recognize and own up to our “thirst for a life without limits” that fuels our addiction to oil.(chapter 4, especially 71) He brings in Augustine to critique the power of desire as doomed to frustration in its effort to satisfy infinite longing with finite goods, and then merges this dynamic with the kind of anxiety Luther faced, arguing that wealth only increases rather than assuages anxiety (74-80). A wise Keynesian policy will address this anxiety by dampening the appetites of the rich–discouraging excessive and self-defeating accumulation–while facilitating the appetites of the 99%–spending when money is particularly needed to serve human goods.

[7] In short, we in the U.S. have massive appetitive challenges and know what to do about them, but we need a powerful metaphor to inspire the discipline that is so badly needed. Here the image of covenant is a most promising candidate. Covenants, after all, are about managing and disciplining expectations, as God frequently did with wayward Israel; the Abrahamic, Davidic and Sinai covenants as a whole comprise a powerful ensemble of promises and rules. Covenanting parties are mindful of what they owe each other, and self-control is at the top of the list. But how might we come to see and believe that we are in such a covenant? Here I think that Lutheran ethics might offer a salutary ‘turn to the agent’.

[8] May addresses the problem of runaway appetites at the broad macroeconomic level and deep psychological level; I would suggest inserting discussion of behavior at level somewhere in between: regarding what individuals themselves do. To understand how individuals discipline their appetites we might take a new look at the Lutheran conception of Law. Law in its second, psychological use serves to discipline appetite by condemning sin in the sinner. I think there is more to be said than what Luther himself realized if one pauses to think how Law is experienced (beyond simple condemnation or civil control). Law gains legitimacy when individuals feel they have a stake in it. The morally strongest law, as Kant noted, is that which individuals legislate for themselves. And there is indeed one kind of Law which individuals construct for themselves, even if is not the exalted, disembodied self-legislation Kant had in mind. Contract law is an empowering device, enabling individuals to obtain what they desire by taking on obligation—by committing themselves to some payment or performance that the other party agrees to. The basic mechanism is do ut des, an ancient formula for individuals to use in projecting their agency into the world and satisfying their appetites. Ethicists rarely applaud this formula, for it smacks of crass exchange: time-bound, limited, and a reciprocity of purchasing and selling— all the features that render contracts morally inferior to covenants, in May’s view (93). And it licenses consumption. After all, do ut des is the primary means through which individuals satisfy their acquisitive desires in a market economy.

[9] Yet there is a specific kind of do ut des which might be used to gain control over disordered appetites. What I have elsewhere termed ‘cooperative self-obligation’ occurs widely, as a means by which individuals make commitments as a means of inducing others to make commitments.1 Such ‘cooperative self-obligation’ ranges from the august, as in marriage pledges, to the ridiculous, as in Survivor and other shows on reality TV. More to the point, it provides the motive power of voluntary associations, which run on shared commitment to achieve their goals: “I have signed the pledge—will you?” To be sure, cooperative self-obligation is no substitute for government in its regulatory power. But neither is it dispensable. I find it hard to imagine a society that could operate without the effervescing efforts of individuals to persuade others by laying themselves on the line. Ethicists from James Luther Adams to present figures like Franklin Gamwell have celebrated the role of voluntary associations to enriching public life. Washington may be overrun with lobbyists, but the entire nation is blessed with groups which publicize, advocate, agitate, recruit, organize, demonstrate, and try every other strategy they can imagine, borrow, or invent to claim attention for their particular perspective on what the nation needs. New social media have only amplified the mutual commitments of the like-minded. More tersely put, cooperative self-obligation has gone viral.

[10] To become motivationally powerful, a sense of covenant has to be felt, and that can happen as individuals experience self-binding commitment as a way to get things done. The Martin Luther of the Leisnig experiment in self-governance might recognize the dramatic awakening of ‘voluntary associations’ as the empowerment of a people who awaken to a sense of the giftedness of the American experiment and find themselves committed to putting their city back where it belongs–back up on the hill.

[11] My thanks to Ron Duty for calling William May’s fine little book to our collective attention. Testing the National Covenant offers us a detailed image of the health of the Republic. Or, to use a metaphor more expressive of May’s own craftsmanship, the argument of the book is arranged line by line with the granular density of an oaken plank. Ron Duty, for his part, challenges Lutheran ethicists to drink more deeply from the well of covenantal reflection about the American experience. Indeed, there’s far more water down there than I have tried to scoop up in this brief conversation. Surely more resonances remain to be discovered and developed with Lutheran theology and ethics.


1. 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.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.