This past Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I was privileged enough to attend the 57th presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol. Spirits were high and it seemed as if we were breathing recycled air infused with the hope of four years past. As the President approached the stage, he appeared with the confidence of a second term sage, and yet there was a newer, fresher quality about him – purified and politically born-again. As he began to speak, the religious undertones leaped out into the pews. Beautifully crafted in diction, rhetoric, and reference, Obama pleased and inspired his dedicated supporters. Guiding us historically through Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall, we understood the meaningful tributes toward women, African Americans, and the LGBT communities. But there was an excess – another constituent represented – God had entered the stage.
The President began, invoking the sacred document of the constitution:
What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
As I stood amidst my fellow citizens with our sacrificially chilled bodies, I heard shouts from left and right – “preach,” “we love you Barack,” and “Amen.” Obama-as-candidate became, once again, Obama-as-preacher. I happily joined in the collective effervescence, bordering on a sort of secular admiration yet quiet anticipation that perhaps the democratic party was beginning to dress for Sunday church again. Since this moment, I’ve been wondering whether or not Obama’s re-election now gives him the freedom to perform the religious rhetoric the liberal party once crafted so well.
It was only a couple of years ago that Theo Hobson, a British theologian, academic, and outspoken advocate for “secular liberalism,” published an article in Open Democracy called, “The Religious Crisis of American Liberalism.” Hobson begins his piece by reminding his readers of the short-lived rise and fall of “liberal idealism” during President Obama’s campaign in 2008. Indeed, though I didn’t work on the 2008 campaign, my experience organizing in 2012 was much more about “forwardness” than “hope.” Hobson argues that contrary to a steady rise and maintenance of outspoken Tea Party activists in recent years, liberals lack an audible political voice to echo Obama’s idealism. In response to his question, “Why is liberalism so much culturally weaker than conservatism?” Hobson responds that the answer “lies in the relationship of liberalism with religion.”
Obama’s branded rhetoric of “hope,” Hobson argues, placed him in the same liberal religious tradition as civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew on prophetic justice and the Social Gospel. Obama’s strategic link to prophetic religion was based on the idea of “his candidacy as ‘unlikely’, and ‘improbable’: as if his career was a reason-defying miracle, as if he were not a normal politician but the amazed witness to God’s action, like Abraham or Joseph.” Hobson’s main argument is that while Obama’s prophetic trope resonated with American liberals for a short-lived cultural moment, the reason it faded so quickly is because the liberal prophetic tradition in America “lacks clear roots in contemporary culture.” In short, conservatives have bogarted religion when it comes to politics, and American liberals have lost their key religious ingredient, which once effectively motivated their followers.
Of course, compared to more outspoken activist theologians like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Obama isn’t exactly the black liberation theologian of our time. In fact, West is very clear about differentiating Obama from the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., evidenced most recently by his condemnation of Obama using Dr. King’s bible during his inauguration. He says, “All the blood sweat and tears that went in to producing a MLK, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power no matter what color they are. So the righteous indignation of a Mlk, Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation. And that makes my blood boil.” For West, a Dr. King bible is significantly and starkly not the bible of Jesus, even as socialist, feminist, and progressive as some of the Social Gospelers made Jesus seem.
I respect and welcome the fiery critique of this presidential performance, and yet, at the same time, I was beginning to feel like for the first time in a long time, the liberal prophet tradition was reignited in both religious rhetoric and symbol gesture. Yes, Dr. King might have his way with Obama, but does it make the President any less of a branch on the genealogical tree of a this liberal prophetic tradition? Consider this part of Obama’s speech:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Now consider the language in this 1952 letter Martin Luther King wrote to his wife: ‘‘Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world’’ (Papers 6:126). If he is not drawing on a rich tradition of progressive theology and prophetic justice, then what bible deserves the hand of the President? If anything, a diversity of biblical literature on the inaugural stage I believe would serve civil society pretty well.
But here’s my main question. If Obama is perhaps repaving the way for prophetic justice in liberal politics, what kind of space is available for a non-patriarchal religious voice in the public sphere? While so-called evangelical feminists like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin seemed to break the theo-political glass ceiling two elections ago, can we imagine their left counterpart? Could one imagine, say, a Hillary Clinton sworn in on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, The Women’s Bible? Are we preventing avenues for the female religious left to navigate? What of non-Protestant traditions? What will our political female preachers look like? Is Oprah’s capitalist gospel all that we have made room for? In the spirit of modern individualism, are we better off following our personal bibles (I welcome a Hannah Arendtian bible), or can we rally under a shared aegis of an MLK-inspired, organized movement of pluralistic American crusaders, fighting for justice, freedom, and equality, in the name of (enter preferred divine inspiration here). In short, do the ideals of liberal tolerance and diversity prevent the possibility of a re-birth of a liberal prophetic tradition?
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with a focus on American religious liberalism.
13 thoughts on “The Next Liberal Prophet: What Will She Look Like? By Amy Levin”
Great blog, Amy, there were parts of the speech I liked too.
But really, American exceptionalism? This is rooted in the notion that God gave a covenant to Israel, then to Christians, then to Americans. (See Robert Bellah, “America’s Civll Religion”) I am sorry but can we not affirm our commitment to democracy without saying in effect, us and only us, or us and only us as the leaders of the free world. We are not the only moral souls in the universe, and we should not set ourselves apart from the rest of the world.
I too was happy to see Senca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall linked.
But am I the only feminist or womanist who doesn’t feel affirmed by the phrase “my fellow Americans”–sorry fellows, but I am not a guy, sorry if JFK used the phrase, it is time for one that is inclusive.
And then there was the reference to women’s pay equality for our mothers, sisters, and daughters. Sorry I do have a mother, though she is dead, I have no sisters, I am not a mother, and I have no daughters. Why didn’t you address ME. It is 2013!!!!!
And then there was a reference to God-He at the end of the speech. I am sorry Barack, but when I read in your autobiography that you took women’s studies, I guess I assumed that you would have learned the lesson of inclusive language. I would have loved to hear you say Goddess or God She bless America (but not only us). But I didn’t expect that. Still, haven’t you even ever been told that you could simply repeat God where you said He and then you would avoid the clear implication that your God is part of a tradition of male power?
The prophetic tradition is deeply flawed. MLK beqan to address that when he advocated nonviolence, certainly not a theme the prophets promoted, when they envisioned God as wreaking vengeance on his enemies, including his own people. I hope no one thinks we can ressurect the prophetic tradition in public discourse without criticizing its linking of God with violence, even on the “side” of the “oppressed.
I admit that I may have idealized Barack Obama, but I expected more.
PS I love the idea of the swearing on the Woman’s Bible. When I was sworn as a Greek citizen I had the choice of the Greek New Testament or the Koran. I laid one hand on the Greek Bible, but the other was on a plant on a desk in the office. In my mind, I sword my allegiance to our Mother Earth.
Carol, Goddess bless you, too!
Amy, Goddess bless you!
Amy and Carol, Goddess bless both of you. Goddess bless each of us. I too had very high expectations of Obama (on his first election, I said, “At last! A president who believes in science!”) that he has not met. I voted for Hillary and I’ll vote for her again, and I hope she does use Cady Stanton’s Bible, but how cool would it be if a woman took an oath of office with her hand on The Spiral Path or even a calligraphed Charge of the Goddess? I’m also extremely skeptical of American exceptionalism. When I was in high school in St. Louis, our American history textbook opened with the dinosaurs. Really! Straight and exceptionally from dinosaurs to (back then) Eisenhower. Sheesh–don’t get me started.
2 things (which I will try and say quickly):
Having been a part of the atheist community for more than 10 years, I am biased in saying so, but what I hope for is not a new liberal social gospel, but a new way of looking at morality, government, and culture which moves on from religious considerations. I am of the opinion that religious language and influence is only helpful to us insofar as it is practical and concerned with reality. In other words, when it is secularized and moves away from theological concerns. I don’t think religion is harmful, per se, but I think it is only accidentally helpful insofar as it emulates secular concerns.
Second, I do think that the need for a liberal female voice is important. I think that women such as Elizabeth Warren are a good place to start, and I want to see more women like her around.
Thanks, Amy, for your enthusiasm about Barack and what he can do for those of us on the left. Like you, I had high hopes when he was first elected (although I voted for Hilary, too, Barbara). And as Carol says, there were parts of his inauguration address that moved me. And I’m optimistic that in his second term he will be more effective.
The one thing I would add to this discussion (which I look forward to seeing more of) is that for me as Wiccan, the prophetic tradition, like the historical “Renaissance,” can only be seen as something decidedly negative. As we know, the Renaissance was a historical period in which women’s lives got harder. Similarly, the prophetic tradition not only involved violence against Yahweh’s enemies and sometimes His own people, but it was targeted against polytheists like me, often genocidally. How can we as feminists hold it up as something positive?
A liberal prophetic women’s voice out in the world…. I think we have a lot of these voices. As for Obama actually talking directly to women outside the “ownership” mode of patriarchy, I always find that hard to understand about Obama. I am not a “wife” I have no “daughters” my Mom is still going strong, but we need to address women directly. I want a just world for women, and not a “my wife” “my daughter” “my Mom” world. Men love to own women, Michelle Obama is owned in the name change, for example.
I am offended by “he” for God, not a radical speech at all, and certainly “gay” doesn’t mean me a lesbian, it refers to men. “Gay women” is that cowardly phrase that women use because they fear the power of LESBIAN! Seneca and Stonewall was good, women’s bible with Hillary would be great. But really, we put men on pedistals for “being non-violent” when women worldwide are non-violent all the time. We have war because men wage it. We have terrorism because men do this in the home. And I want my freedom in my own name and in my own right, and there is NO OWNERSHIP attached to my relationship to my partner. She is not “MY wife” she is my partner and radical equal. Sheesh.
It’s important to differentiate between being a part of tradition and merely employing its rhetoric. Obama does the latter. The reason why this kind of liberal prophetic tradition dies is because its proponents or representatives like Obama always fails to speak truth to power and have entirely capitulated to financial and corporate power. It instead it breeds followers who think and speak in the empty cliches of hope and change.
Unfortunately (for me) politicians seem to think they need to use culturally-inherited “religious” norms, to which they revert on solemn occasions, in their speeches. I regret this, especially in persons like President Obama, for whom I voted–twice–and who disappointed me by not finding a more secular language in his inaugural speech to avoid what could be interpreted as either pandering or lip service. However positive his intent and will was, the platform conferred its usual authority: in this case the authority of generations of patriarchal and “prophetic” control.
From my perspective as a woman outside the so-called “Abrahamic” faiths it would seem safer and more freeing to me to have a “wall of separation” between church and state firmly in place at government events, which can all too quickly turn into camp meetings. It would also avoid (futile, in my opinion) attempts to find inclusive religious language in a nation with too many religious–and non-religious–traditions to make real inclusivity of speech possible.
I was also taken aback by the the God-He language at the end of the President’s speech. Seems we have backtracked. I recall that Bill Clinton, when President, steered away from calling “God” by any gendered pronoun. As for the similarity between phrases in the inaugural address and MLK’s phrases, my guess is that this was intentional, but not an attempt by Obama to take on MLK’s prophetic role, rather to pay tribute to him on what was also Martin Luther King Day. My inclination, rather than to mimic the right wing linking of politics (or government or governing) and religion, is to keep them separate. Though I did like the reference to the statue Freedom (aka Columbia, a Goddess) atop the Capitol by Sen. Schumer (who called her “a woman.”)
Nice to see you as a part of this conversation, Judith. I hope you contribute more often to the discussion.
Thanks Nancy:-) I enjoy the discussions here.