Testing the National Covenant

Fears and Appetites in American Politics

William F. May

"May's work is an important religious contribution to the academic conversation between secular thinkers as William Connolly, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri and theologians such as Joerg Riger and Vincent Lloyd."
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Since the end of World War II, runaway fears of Soviet imperialism, global terrorism, and anarchy have tended to drive American foreign policy toward an imperial agenda. At the same time, uncurbed appetites have wasted the environment and driven the country’s market economy into the ditch. How can we best sustain our identity as a people and resist the distortions of our current anxieties and appetites?

Ethicist William F. May draws on America’s religious and political history and examines two concepts at play in the founding of the country—contractual and covenantal. He contends that the biblical idea of a covenant offers a more promising way than the language of contract, grounded in self-interest alone, to contain our runaway anxieties and appetites. A covenantal sensibility affirms, “We the people (not simply, We the individuals, or We the interest groups) of the United States.” It presupposes a history of mutual giving and receiving and of bearing with one another that undergirds all the traffic in buying and selling, arguing and negotiating, that obtain in the rough terrain of politics. May closes with an account of the covenantal agenda ahead, and concludes with the vexing issue of immigrants and undocumented workers that has singularly tested the covenant of this immigrant nation.

Table of Contents


1. Containing Runaway Fears in America Foreign Policy

2. The Overreach of Free Market Ideology: Business and Government

3. Free Market Ideology: Bearing on Other Centers of Power

4. Curbing Runaway Appetites in American Domestic Policy: Oil and Other Carbons

5. We the People: A Contract or a Covenant?

6. Forming a More Perfect Union: The Task

7. Keeping Covenant with Immigrants and Undocumented Workers



"May's work is an important religious contribution to the academic conversation between secular thinkers as William Connolly, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri and theologians such as Joerg Riger and Vincent Lloyd."—Reviews in Religion and Theology

"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."—Jesse Perillo, Journal of Lutheran Ethics

"May is a keen observer and an eloquent chronicler of the "runaway fears and appetites" that have driven a good deal of self-deception in American public life, and he reckons honestly with the harm done to our national character and, more urgently, to decision-making in policies both foreign and domestic. His final chapter, a moving discussion of immigrants and undocumented workers, brings the theme of "keeping covenant" to bear on one of the most pressing moral and political issues of our time."—Sojourners Magazine

"This unique book brings to American politics, economics, and public life—both contemporary and historical—an imaginative theological understanding. May's distinctive approach throws light in both directions—on the religious categories, which are enriched by their application to topics like American foreign policy, the free market, and immigration; and on public issues, which are understood in a more profound way by the application of religious ideas. A valuable book."—William Lee Miller, The Miller Center of Public Affairs and author of Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography

"Wise, clear, profound, and eloquent, William F. May's new book should be read by anyone who cares about America. He puts on display our runaway fears and desires. He traces the ways those anxieties and appetites have distorted our international policy, our domestic policy, and our economic life. It is a prophetic indictment of our culture, but it is no mere jeremiad. It is a hopeful call for a course correction, for a turning (or a returning) to the tradition of covenant. The concluding chapters elegantly contrast covenant and contract and point the way to a better common life in America."—Allen Verhey, professor of theological ethics, Duke Divinity School

"The national debate on religion and politics commonly adopts political language for its framework—right, left, reactionary, progressive. In a refreshing departure, William May takes a different tack. Religious language itself—community, covenant, good, evil, hospitality, and generosity—is his framework for looking at what unites and divides 'We the People.' He deploys this with his usual keen analysis and elegant style."—Margaret Steinfels, codirector, Fordham Center on Religion and Culture

"This book is a profound and beautifully written meditation on the dueling passions that drive American foreign and domestic policy by one of the nation's foremost religious ethicists. In order to keep those passions in check, May argues for the retrieval and renewal of the covenantal model of our national union. Deeply influential in colonial America, the idea of covenant is rooted in a fundamental model of God's gift and our grateful response. It is therefore capable of inspiring not merely enlightened self-interest, but also the self-expenditure on behalf of the common good that America so sorely needs to face its current challenges."—M. Cathleen Kaveny, John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and professor of theology, Notre Dame Law School

"This book is the capstone of the life's work of William F. May as an eminent Christian ethicist and public intellectual. With stylistic elegance, theological depth, perceptive analysis, and persuasive criticism, May employs the concept of covenant to address the domestic and international policies that the United States should follow today."—Charles Curran, Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values, Southern Methodist University


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About the Author

William F. May is a senior fellow at the Institute of Practical Ethics and Public Life at the University of Virginia. He received his PhD from Yale and taught for many years at Southern Methodist University, where he was the founding director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. A former president of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics, he has written several books on medical and political ethics.

192 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

ISBN: 978-1-58901-765-8
Jul 2011

192 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

Jul 2011

192 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-792-4
Jul 2011

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