Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

Many scholars, myself included, have argued that there is a “prophetic” tradition of language and criticism in American history and politics. Rather than repeat such arguments here, I would like to ask: On the one hand, how does Barack Obama draw on and yet also distance himself from this tradition and genre? On the other hand, how does he appear from a point of view closely identified with it? The first complication in making these judgments is that “prophetic language” is not a simple substance easy to designate, so let us begin by identifying major strands of argument about what it is and its place in American politics.

One stream of scholarly argument involves the idea of civil religion, and debates about cultural consensus and liberal nationalism. For “communitarian” scholars like Robert Bellah, or Michael Sandel later, and for “left Puritans” like Cornel West, the “biblical” dimension of “civil religion” is the critical and political supplement to a procedural and acquisitive liberalism that is otherwise unable to articulate collective purpose or “substantive vision.” For some of these scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.” Even in 1968 he calls civil religion a “broken shell” because it has been used to justify empire, racial domination, and a materialist culture, but in his own jeremiad, The Broken Covenant, he insists that this discourse remains a resource for justifying social movements, equality, and a critique of imperialism. In the American case, credible forms of dissent must take the “prophetic” form of calling people to (re)turn to their own professed first principles and highest aspirations. For Bellah, then, the risk in politics is not faith, what John Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrine,” but giving up (or ceding to the right) the biblical language that gives dissent a consensual ground.

A decade later, however, Sacvan Bercovitch lamented how “the ritual form” of a “jeremiad” works to “contain” dissent. Whereas Bellah fears marginality if critics do not use biblical language as a democratic resource, Bercovitch fears incorporation because a “prophetic civic identity” binds critics to the hegemonic form of liberal nationalism. Whereas Bellah argued that civil religion could contest the abstract formalism of liberal principles, the exclusions they justify, and the “arrogance” of imperial nationalism, Bercovitch claims this “form” of criticism works as a “rite of assent.” The jeremiadic rhetorical form, he argues, makes “the very exposure of social flaws” into a “ritual of socialization,” because dissent is taken to re-affirm the assured redemption of a specifically American possibility. The “dream that inspires [critics] to defy the false Americanism of their time” is what compels them “to speak their defiance as keepers of the dream.”

As the jeremiadic form always authorizes criticism by invoking sacred origins and first principles of a chosen people, he argues, so criticism in the United States repeatedly confirms the hegemony both of liberal principles and of a specifically national frame for politics. To refuse either, Bercovitch claims, is to step outside jeremiadic rhetoric, and lose legitimacy. As he thereby distinguishes Eugene Debs from Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King from Malcolm X, Bercovitch identifies the hegemonic gravity defining how critics “must” speak to be legitimate. Contingent yet intractable, this “must” signals the strategic and internal pressures that drive critics to redeem the society they criticize. Correspondingly, American politics unfolds not as conflicts over “moral and social alternatives” to liberal nationalism, but as competing calls for the “cultural revitalization” of its authentic but jeopardized values. Grasping how politics in the United States unfolds as all actors invest “America” with sacred and redemptive meaning, Bercovitch depicts a “poly-ethnic, multi-racial, openly materialistic, self-consciously individualistic people knit together in the bonds of myth,” a “modern nation living in a dream,” a “collective fantasy” that collapses the secular and the sacred.  In contrast, he imagines the United States “recognized for what it is, not a beacon to mankind as Winthrop proclaimed…not the political messiah as the young Melville hymned…not even a covenanted people robbed by un-American predators of their sacred trust,” but rather as “one more profane nation in the wilderness of the world.” What would it mean, that is, if “America” was severed from “the United States?” The question jolts to a degree that signals the hegemony, unsaid and invisible, that he would name, and contest.

But a second stream of scholarly argument about prophetic language intersects this debate about civil religion. It concerns abolitionism and the idiom of the black church tradition. For Bercovitch to some degree imposes the very homogeneity he claims to oppose because he ignores both the fact of race and the ways that critics of white supremacy inflect the biblical genre of “prophetic” speech. Indeed, as black and white critics use prophetic language to contest white supremacy, they develop a critical view of the liberal axioms, jeremiadic rhetorical form, and national frame that have indeed dominated American politics. While Bercovitch splits an incorporated inside (and repetition of the same) from a radical outside, critics of white supremacy—like Frederick Douglass as well as Henry Thoreau, the radicalized Martin Luther King and James Baldwin—use prophetic language to advance an agonal rather than a consensual politics. They cross the line between the liberal and the democratic, and as they try to redeem a democratic promise, they create a conflicted relationship to both liberalism and nationalism.

Working not within a democratic framework, but confronting the racial state of exception that at once founds and violates it, these critics must live in a vexed relationship to the democratic ideals they value. They must stand in tension with individual rights and property rights, majority rule and the rule of law, conventional forms of pluralism, customary practices of localism, and ideologies of individual and ethnic mobility, all of which protected slavery, then legal apartheid, and now, ongoing forms of institutionalized racism. We hear this more obviously non-liberal form of prophecy when Martin Luther King turns from the problem of Jim Crow to capitalism and poverty, militarism and imperialism. But as Bercovitch would expect, the dead King is folded within a dominant American exceptionalism, as if he had stood only for liberal principles, and wholly within the national frame.

To say “prophecy,” therefore, is to designate not so much the literal words of “The Book of Revelation,” but rather a biblical genre, involving characteristic tropes and figures of speech, that is taken up and transformed, from the English Revolution to the abolitionist and black church tradition in America. What is sanitized in the canonized King is the radical and political character of the re-workings of this genre by critics of white supremacy. It may intersect with the jeremiadic narrative of civil religion, but it does not entail a consensual politics, even though its idioms are readily recognizable even by Americans who are secular. It may intersect with the language of liberal rights as it objects to disenfranchisement and exclusion, and it may register the reality of national identification as it stands with outcasts to criticize the already-enfranchised, but this prophecy is oriented toward not mere inclusion, but fundamental reconstitution of a regime built on domination and idolatry.

Like the biblical prophets, critics in the American prophetic tradition remember what people would forget, not only the haunting consequences of conduct in the past and the present, but also those Toni Morrison calls “the disremembered and unaccounted for.” They thus perform central aspects of the “office” of prophecy as depicted in the Bible. First, they speak as messengers, to announce unspeakable truths and inescapable realities, which people disavow, but which they must acknowledge if they are to flourish. When Amos announces a just god, when Nietzsche announces the death of God, when Frederick Douglass depicts how the freedom of some depends on the slavery of others, when Baldwin names “the price of the ticket,” or when Morrison depicts the disavowed past ruling the present, they avowedly draw on prophecy as a genre to make imperative claims about truths we deny at great cost. Second, prophecy is the office of witnesses, who make present what has been made absent and who say what they see and stand against it. They bear witness against domination, and on behalf of those who are not counted as real by the enfranchised, but they also bear witness to what our professed principles really mean or entail. Third, prophecy is the office of watchmen who would forestall danger by warning of it, and by showing it can be averted if we amend our ways. As we hear when Baldwin warns of “the fire next time,” watchmen do not decree a fate, but insist on our capacity to act otherwise, though sometimes they must announce that it is too late to avoid the relentlessly unfolding consequences of past conduct. Their office is not to predict as such, but as Martin Buber argues, to call people to a fundamental and fateful “decision” about constitutive practices and first principles. Thus, if the danger they warn of comes to pass, it means they have failed. Lastly, therefore, the prophet’s office is to compose songs of lamentation, for they must witness the pathos of our freedom, and they must try to redeem the past for the present by endowing our suffering with meaning.

In each regard, prophecy is a political “office” because those called to it must address a worldly community about its circumstances and history, professed principles and prevailing practices, choices and fate. Prophetic speech acts are also political in the sense that they conjure into being, or reconstitute, the collective subject they ostensibly address. “Prophecy” thus refers not only to an office whose inhabitant make certain kinds of claims about collective life, but to characteristic speech-acts and registers of voice: the imperative voice that announces truths we deny at great cost, that declares the costs of (in)action, that stipulates the terms of redemption; the voice of judgment that refuses to pluralize or privatize a practice that it insists must be overcome; the voice of action, declaring “the fierce urgency of the now,” as King put it, and insisting on “decision” rather than deferral of responsibility.

Obviously, therefore, prophetic speech acts seem and can be dangerous to a democratic politics organized by the pluralist axiom that all viewpoints are valid. Because critics of white supremacy work not within a democratic frame, however, but address the exclusions and silences that have constituted it, this tension is unavoidable. Indeed, in a liberal society especially, critics of domination turn repeatedly to the genre of prophecy because they need to voice problems and concerns that are occluded by liberal languages of individual rights, formal equality, preference aggregation, or interest group politics. Addressing domination and disavowal, they seek a language whose intensity and cadences perform what Douglass calls “scorching irony,” to provoke self-reflection and to elevate the temperature of the body politic.

Jeremiah Wright thus belongs in this tradition, as much as Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglass. When Wright announces from his pulpit that god damns America, when he bears witness on behalf of those (whether blacks or Palestinians) whose reality remains invisible to the enfranchised, and when he warns of the consequences of a house divided by domination, he is speaking in the prophetic mode and cadences of Amos and King. His loyalty is not to the state as such, to the exigencies of national interest, or to the nation as an imagined community, but to his god and to his people, a divided loyalty fraught with productive tension. When he condemns racism and empire, he speaks as a critic not only of social injustice but of idolatry, the worship of power (and reification of identity) that should be chastened, not replenished. Sometimes he addresses the fate of an American whole by bearing witness to the experience and gifts of its excluded part, and seeks the mutual reconstitution of part and whole. But when he addresses his African-American congregation as exiles in Babylon, he also speaks in a prophetic mode, just as his namesake addressed the Hebrews about making a life in exile. Unlike King, Wright may not effectively or consistently mediate between the two sorts of appeal characteristic of prophecy in America: one to a white majority ruled by self-denial and willful innocence, who call themselves a chosen people in a promised land, and the other to subalterns who live as strangers in a strange land. He may be devoted to redeeming, not so much America, as the black nation within it. But given Bercovitch’s argument about the hegemony of civil religion, we need to credit the value and indeed courage of this refusal of American exceptionalism, which allows Wright to question the exclusions entailed by liberalism, and the idolatry entailed by nationalism. He thus continues a powerful strand in the tradition of Black prophecy in America, and he speaks it in the prophetic registers of an imperative and judging voice seeking decision and action.

To inquire about Obama’s relation to “prophecy,” therefore, is to explore not only what he says but how. His repudiation of Wright must be read in both regards, just as his use of civil religion must be traced by considering that how he speaks is part of what he says. I will take up this exploration in my next post.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]