Not so long ago, the language of mainline Protestantism supplied our country with its ethical vocabulary. Lutheran minister Reinhold Neibuhr guided his contemporaries’ reflection on war; Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher promoted the widely adopted idea of “situation ethics.” The words one read in the paper or heard on the TV often first came from the pulpit—the Protestant pulpit.
I realized how much things had changed a few years back. I was watching a Fox debate over waterboarding in which one participant repeatedly invoked double-effect to defend the practice. A concept coming from Aquinas, passed down through scholastic manuals to today’s Catholic philosophers, was now at the center of ethical debate in a once self-confidently Protestant nation. After the collapse of mainline Protestantism’s public influence, it was Catholic teaching that provided what little shared moral vocabulary we could muster. The same dynamic has held in recent discussions of the budget (with national discussion of the preferential option for the poor), the size of the state (subsidiarity), and national defense (just war).
Of course, if these discussions are going to be fruitful we need to attend to the details of those traditions rather than simply invoking their terms. To this end, it might be worth finding a copy of a new book by David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition: An Introduction, which Nathaniel Peters reviews today at Public Discourse.