Commonweal panel discusses prophetic language in politics

New York — Prophetic language in politics is much like chemotherapy: absolutely necessary at times to combat cancers in the public discourse, yet it should be used carefully, lest it poison dialogue.

That was a unifying conclusion reached by participants in a March 7 panel discussion here sponsored by Commonweal, a lay Catholic opinion journal. The meeting, which attracted about 100, was titled “Prophecy Without Contempt” and served as an introduction to Cathleen Kaveny’s recently released book by that name from Harvard University Press.

“We need to think about how we use prophetic language,” said Kaveny, a panelist, Commonweal columnist and professor at Boston College Law School. “It is a double-edged sword.”

Religious Americans, drawing from the Puritan and Old Testament traditions, are frequently tempted to use prophetic language. Still, it should be used, said Kaveny, “to make a fundamental moral claim” and not for everyday political concerns.

Prophetic language has been a strong thread of American history used by Puritans who saw themselves as a new Israel in colonial Massachusetts; by abolitionists and civil rights leaders, as well as, in more recent times, by opponents of legal abortion and torture.

Kaveny’s book was discussed by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy; Peter Steinfels, former New York Times religion editor, former editor of Commonweal and writer; and Matthew Sitman, associate editor of Commonweal.

Religious leaders engaged in political rhetoric, said McElroy, need “to have conversations in a prophetic mode that don’t become injurious.” Using prophetic language wisely, said Sitman, is a way that “religion can be a constructive part of our political dialogue.”

McElroy, who holds a doctorate in political science from Stanford University, said that prophetic language is best used by those who are members of the community, upholding its best ideals while seeking change. Pope Francis provides a model, even when he offers strong language, such as his statement that “this economy kills.”

McElroy noted that the pope, while speaking to the U.S. Congress, supplemented his prophetic views with a reference to American heroes, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., while calling the country to socially just policies.

“If anyone points to inclusion, it is Pope Francis,” said Kaveny. “He is standing with the community he is condemning.” The pope’s focus on mercy makes his prophetic stance more credible, she noted.

Kaveny said she began the book around the 2004 election, when competing “rhetoric of prophetic indictment” argued that Catholics could not vote for Democrats because of abortion, and that they couldn’t vote for Republicans because of the Bush administration’s sanction of torture. She described the time as the height of the culture wars; now rhetorical anger has veered into other directions.

Panelists agreed that in this election season, Americans are prone to anger which expresses itself in heated political rhetoric. Steinfels noted there are common threads in this year’s campaign, including an embrace of the Constitution and the belief that the U.S. is a winner, themes reflected largely among Republican candidates, and, among Democrats, the belief that certain social ills, such as the Flint water crisis and the lack of universal health care coverage, points to an unfulfilled American promise.

Referencing the candidacy of Donald Trump, Kaveny noted that there is bad prophetic rhetoric. Asked how bad prophetic rhetoric can be countered, she cited comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who effectively skewer outlandish political talk.

McElroy said that frequently the best prophetic language is communicated through story. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramatized the humanity of slaves, invaluable for the abolitionist cause. Today, he said, stories about undocumented immigrants can help to counter political rhetoric which dehumanizes them.

The American myth of exceptionalism – that the United States has been chosen for a special role in the world – can be either positive or destructive, said McElroy. “It goes to the heart of what it means to be a patriotic American,” he said, noting that in a country built on immigrants, political ideals, not blood ties, are what binds the nation together.

While the leadership of the church in the United States has, on occasion, engaged in prophetic discourse, sometimes that leadership has been lacking, said McElroy. He noted in particular American involvement in the wars of the Middle East, in which “the Catholic community has been virtually silent” despite pleas from three popes.

He suggested that the lack of strong denunciations can be attributed to the professionalization of the U.S. military and the lack of a draft. “The suffering is not here (in the United States),” he said, noting that the prophetic voices on the Middle East come largely from that region’s Muslim and Christian communities.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR’s Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, New York.]

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