ELECTION-YEAR POLITICS reveal the struggle faced by people of all political persuasions: how to meaningfully engage a process that increasingly sows division, disappointment, disgust, and even despair. Americans, no surprise, are more cynical than ever. Our elected officials are spectacularly unpopular. While there has never been a golden age of American politics, the current levels of vitriol, fear-mongering, and childish bickering have unsettled even the most jaded of political observers. And the corruption wrought by money? Let’s not even go there.
Navigating the intersection of religion and politics in such a toxic environment poses an even more acute challenge. What’s a person of faith to do? That, of course, depends on whom you ask, since the political battle lines in religious communities are often drawn as rigidly as they are in the culture at large.
Four recent books, each dealing broadly with religion and politics in contemporary America, offer insights on these and other pressing questions.
In Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics (Georgetown University Press), ethicist William F. May takes the historical approach, examining two competing accounts of America’s origins—the contractual and the covenantal—and the prospects and promises held out by each. He notes that the preamble to the Constitution begins with a given identity—“We the People”—followed almost immediately by the acknowledgment of ongoing work (to form “a more perfect union”). May argues that this “American identity of gift and task” is best held together by the concept of covenant. The nation, he says, “is both a community and a community in the making.” 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.