Cathleen Kaveny is Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology at Boston College. Kaveny has published two books in 2016: Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square (Harvard University Press) and A Culture of Engagement: Law, Religion, and Morality (Georgetown University Press).
Q: In Prophecy Without Contempt, you call today’s political climate “almost hopelessly polarized.” Then you say hope lies in reviving the jeremiad. Can you give us a crash course on this religious rhetorical tool?
Kaveny: It’s named after the prophet Jeremiah, who issued blistering condemnations of the sins of the Hebrew people. Jeremiah doesn’t point out their waywardness from some free-floating idea, though, but for violating their covenant of God. A jeremiad is not a rant. It’s more like a step-by-step legal indictment. It’s a way of pointing out a transgression against a commonly agreed upon standard of behavior. You want to condemn the behavior—but without contempt. Because, you ultimately want to bring that violator to reconciliation within the community.
Q: How has the jeremiad played out in American history?
Kaveny: Our country was founded, in part, by of group of Puritans who set up a colony that was based on a covenant with God. They thought they would prosper, spiritually and materially, only if they fulfilled the terms of the covenant. Sundays, fasting days, even election days, the Puritans turned out to hear jeremiads that called out their spiritual apathy or backsliding. It sounds funny to say, but they loved jeremiads! Yet as the nation grew, and became more pluralistic, the terms of the covenant started to shift. The new covenant would be the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. Leading up to the American Revolution, those in favor of independence issued jeremiads, as did those who opposed independence. Later, abolitionists gave jeremiads, as did anti-abolitionists.
Q: Who in history gave the greatest jeremiads?
Kaveny: In Puritan times, I’d say it was a preacher named Michael Wigglesworth whose poem “The Day of Doom” was a bestseller in New England. The modern gold standard for the jeremiad has to be Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he calls to account a nation in violation of the covenant that states “all men are created equal.” It’s no accident that Dr. King studied Jeremiah as an undergrad.
Q: Can you take us from the Puritans to Dr. King to right now?
Kaveny: Sure. What I hope my book does is instill some self-awareness about the kind of rhetoric that’s in the public square today. In our time, the rhetoric is skewed much more toward contempt and exclusion than repentance, rehabilitation, and reconciliation. Dr. King was was lamenting the sins of our nation, for not living up the standard of equality outlined in the Declaration of Independence. He condemned racisim, but he didn’t want his political opponents erased. He wanted them to see the error of their ways–to see that their actions were betraying the deepest ideals of the country. And he pointed in hope beyond conflict toward reconciliation of the races in mutual respect and equality.
Q. Are there certain current topics that might especially benefit from the revival of the jeremiad?
Kaveny: The best ones are based on a fundamental premise we can all agree upon. Racism, the original sin of America, comes to mind, because most of us can agree on the fundamental premise of equality. Same goes for climate change since, unless you’re a climate change denier, we can all agree we need to save the earth. A good jeremiad reminds people that they’re not living up to the premise. But it also energizes them to reform. The best analogy I can come up with is a great coach of a football team. He should motivate the team and the players to greater heights, by reminding you that if you don’t toe the line, the whole community (or team) suffers, not just you.
Q: So which topics don’t benefit so much from the jeremiad’s function of calling you to task?
Kaveny: The jeremiad only works if all parties agree on the fundamental premise. You can’t call people to task for straying from a premise they don’t believe in. So topics like abortion or same-sex marriage don’t respond to a legalistic indictment like a jeremiad. It just doesn’t work in the highly emotive world of the culture wars.
Q: Changing gears, let’s talk about A Culture of Engagement. What was the impetus for this collection of your columns from Commonweal?
Kaveny: After many years, I realized these 56 columns could cohere in book form since they all, in some way, offer a vision of how the church should relate to the world. I write from both a theological and judicial perspective, and I’m interested in how law has a pedagogical function in society. Law is not a random set of commands or prohibitions. It’s about how we can live our life together.
Q: What are some topics you cover in the book?
Kaveny: I realized the columns fell into five general categories: law as teacher, religious liberty, culture, belief, and controversies. Within that framework I cover topics in the news, like the connection between the Affordable Care Act and its controversial contraception mandate, the Bush administration’s “torture memo,” and assisted suicide.
Q: You don’t just teach and write about law. You once practiced it too. How has that affected your perspective?
Kaveny: I clerked for Judge John T. Noonan Jr. (to whom Prophecy Without Contempt is dedicated) on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I also was a health-care lawyer at Ropes & Gray. Both jobs taught me how to think about writing differently: You can’t explore ideas in nebulous ways. You have to communicate clearly and address client concerns.
Q; Speaking of communication, you’ve been on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. What was that like?
Kaveny: He was very smart and very nice.
Q: So where are you from and what do you like to do outside work?
I grew up in Cumberland, Rhode Island. I love to swim. I’ve got a labradoodle named Ziva, after the character on NCIS (I’m a loyal fan). For music, my Pandora has Counting Crows, Dave Matthews, and Rob Thomas. But it’s all classical when I’m writing.