Review of William F. May’s, Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics

[1] William F. May has already gifted us with an elucidation of how code, contract, and covenant serve as important lenses in understanding the different relationships within the realm of health care. In this book he extends and expands these critical distinctions in his treatment of American politics. At the heart of the book is the attempt to understand how living by contract or covenant affects one’s disposition to communal and political life. May coverMore specifically, he argues that an understanding of the United States primarily through the lens of contract and contractual obligation does not allow us to think about the country as anything more than a bulwark against threat and fear (xv). Instead of thinking about the country only through the negative freedoms it provides, May suggests that, in addition to contractual language, we must view the country through covenantal language, which allows room for an understanding of a community that tries to promote the common good by striving after positive freedoms. There are more extensive discussions on the need to balance contract with covenant1, but where May’s book excels is in its ability to bring light to the urgency of the conversation, and it excels through a thoughtful reading of current affairs in the light of contract and covenant. Additionally, his theology of the stranger demands attention and consideration as it provides a compelling way to get beyond narrowly conceived covenants.

[2] May contends that from the seventeenth century forward contractual understandings of society have tended to collapse the understanding of their foundation to a mere resisting of evil and assuagement of fear. He contends that an identity forged simply through resistance creates an unstable identity that is open to being malformed by the machinations of power. The only way to adequately deal with the great inequalities that are created by fear and threats of violence is to have an identity that constitutes itself, to some degree, apart from these fears and threats. True stability and security for all demands the recognition of an identity as a people that is prior to resistance, and this is the realm of covenant.

[3] Through a series of brief reflections on the influence of the free market on various aspects of American life and community, May suggests that the smaller communities which comprise the United States have either weakened in their ability to resist a purely contractual, and individualist, way of understanding the nation or have developed very insular and narrow notions of community. He elucidates this critique through attention to a variety of communities, which includes lawyers, unions, media, and even universities. For example, how prophetic can some congregations be when they might alienate some of their biggest donors? How much have universities become a training ground for the market instead of a place of critical reflection?

[4] May also provides a critique of the type of desires and addictions that drive a consumer society. He describes how the desire for commodities comes at the expense of communities and how the consumptive desire for so many items exists as a failed attempt to allay fears. One particularly insightful section expresses how US consumption of oil functions as a type of addiction, which, like many unhealthy dependencies, obscures one’s plight and the price paid for the habit (67). Continuing with the addiction metaphor, May suggests that the way out of destructive addictions cannot just focus on an “other” to blame. Living a free life demands a recognition of one’s own complicity in the shoring up of the structures which narrow our visions of communities until all we see in the world are contracts and commodities.

[5] One of the key distinctions between contract and covenant that May provides, and uses to structure the book, is that, while both identities rely on a promissory event, a covenant identity understands its identity as an ongoing project (87). It is the future orientation of the covenant that proves to be a central concern for May. The future orientation of covenant allows the community to enable its members in a more robust manner because there is no future when the members will not be subject to each other. May offers a short, but instructive, reading of this future orientation in relation to the US Constitution and the classical distinction between commutative, legal, and distributive justice. He argues that the body of the Constitution presents the commutative and legal forms of justice which allow for the maintenance of society; however, it is the Bill of Rights that presents the idea of distributive justice which has a much more future-orientated view of the society that promotes creative thinking about community directed towards its flourishing, and not merely its maintenance. And this future orientation, marked by covenant, is so critical because a “nation that tends to its flourishing and well-being, may be more confident and less rattled by the inevitable passing threats to its survival” (102). In this claim, one can see a parallel to, and important expansion and update of, John Courtney Murray’s claim that if the country seeks just survival then it will probably not even attain that.2 May acknowledges that as a country we need more than the “truths” that are found in simply declaring oneself against something (94-5).

[6] May concludes the book with an acknowledgement of how covenants, while looking toward a common good, can also narrowly define who is within the boundaries of a covenant. And because of this concern he ends the book with a discussion of how covenant should affect ideas about immigration. He develops a theology of the stranger in conversation with those who seemingly have already, admittedly, benefitted from immigrants’ presence and labor (127). He does not address those who feel threatened by immigrants or who have already tried to isolate themselves. This focus on conversation partners allows May to do something quite interesting in terms of speaking about narrowly defined covenants. While not explicitly saying so, May implies that those who regularly engage in contracts with one another may in fact be moving into covenantal territory because contractual language can no longer fully describe the depth of the relationship. Therefore, discussing some commitments only through contractual language allows people to operate with a certain blindness towards the communities that their contracts have created. So, after a compelling journey that describes the difference between contract and covenant in everyday life in the United States, we begin to see not just the necessity of covenantal thought but, perhaps, also its logical inevitability. A covenant community then becomes not just a heightened promise of what the United States should be, but, in actuality, what it has been, although obscured and undermined by purely contractual language. May exhorts us to question who the “stranger” really is and if the “stranger” is kept strange because we too narrowly define the life we are already living with them.

[7] May invites the reader to question to what extent anonymity and passivity have dominated the constriction of the community in the United States, and to what extent this anonymity and passivity has led the country into the inequalities and injustices that plague the nation. Even though I am prone to reflection on these concerns, May’s book re-enlivened my thoughts on the matter and has left me questioning my own passivity and my own “addiction” to contract…you should allow his book to do the same for you.

1. See Adela Cortina. Covenant and Contract: Politics, Ethics, and Religion (Leuven: Peeters, 2003).

2. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2005) 87-100.