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John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation.

John Courtney Murray and the American Civil Conversation. Edited by Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992. Pp. x + 298. $21.95.

All thirteen essays in this collection focus on the entry of religiously informed perspectives into the public forum. Despite possible variations in the terms "religion," "entry," and "public forum," a common negative boundary definition of Christianity unites most of the essays, while variations within that negative definition distinguish between them.

Most essays begin with strong claims that movements--falling under the general labels of secularism or liberalism--have displaced or are displacing the religious heart of Western, and, especially, U.S. societies. Most affirm that religious core to be (Judeo-) Christian. Given the strength of the contributors' concerns with these movements, the Christianity they describe remains, primarily, and in some cases exclusively, defined and delimited by its boundary oppositions.

From this negative starting point, the individual authors differently locate this anti- or a-Christian social force. The main carrier of this counter-Christian culture is held to be the Supreme Court (G. Bradley, R. Hunt), a cultural and/or ecclesial elite (R. Neuhaus, G. Weigel), a contemporary societal betrayal of America's Christian roots (F. Canavan, W. Luckey, K. Grasso), or the foundational philosophies of the American experiment (P. Lawler). Depending on the breadth of the corrosive challenges and the degree to which they reach America's heart, the authors call for religious revitilization that ranges from accommodation (compromise), to aggressive imposition, to purely prophetic denunciation bereft to policy recommendations.

These strong rejections of secularism/liberalism, in combination with clear, though differing, identifications of religiously hostile social sectors, lead many of the contributors to critique, abandon, or ignore Murray's complex juridical and social theories. For example, Bradley claims that recent. Supreme Court decisions legitimate abandoning Murray's conception of the Bill of Rights as "articles of peace," demand the recognition that they entail Christian "articles of faith," and now require a struggle for America's religious soul (see also Lawler and Canavan). Again, Hunt brands all attempts to restrian immediate imposition of Christian values through civil law as little more than liberalist attempts to privatize religion, leading him to call for the abandonment of Murray's juridicial principle ("as much freedom as possible") as a guiding commitment within civil society. These and other essays betray little awareness of Murray's notion of the nature and limits of civil law, of society (as opposed to the state or church) as the proper arena of moral discernment and development, or of the means appropriate to the moral and spiritual betterment of contemporary society--means proportionate to the dynamic, social notion of human dignity that served as the core of Murray's later social theory.

Again, by suspending Murray's juridical and social theory in the face of secularism's comprehensive (apocalyptic) challenge, the societies that many of the authors endorse resemble those they criticize. From his critique of U.S. individualism, Grasso offers only coercion or individualistic conversion as correctives to personal egoism, maintaining throughout a solid cognitional individualism. In a conflictual, irrational society, Hunt offers only coercive imposition without a reasoning religious voice. In a polarized society, Neuhaus offers derision with little positive Christian content to bridge his Lutheran kingdoms.

Finally, several contributors do attempt to move beyond contemporary society's individualism, group biasing, and naive polarization. M. Segers and J. Cort try to situate, however incompletely, discussions of abortion and economic justice within fuller conceptions of what Murray meant by moral responsibility for, and human dignity within, modern societies. Others move onto more fertile ground by reconceiving our root contemporary problems in less conspirational, atemporal and more foundational, historical terms. R. Cuervo addresses a pervasive skepticism that infects religion as much as civil society. D. Novak tries to allow for the self-correction of social knowing in civil society, even while he struggles to preserve a type of absolute, essentially unchallengeable knowledge (through his "correspondence" theory) within the Church. D. Mason more fully addresses the complex roots of American constitutionalism and the presently active religious elements within American society, leading him toward a critical refounding (in his notion of "reflexivity") of America's self-understanding. By doing so , he has moved from what Murray called a naive to a critical realism, a move that does not yet reach the late Murray's perspectives on religious languages, but certainly serves as an advance over brands of realism and Christianity offered in many of the other essays in this volume.

Woodstock Theological Center, D.C. Leon Hooper, S.J.
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Author:Hooper, Leon
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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