There is an inverse relationship between prophetic power and political power. The prophetic vocation often requires a manifold critique of political and social structures, which is vastly more difficult to accomplish when one is seeking powerful positions within them. Simply put, speaking truth to power doesn’t tend to get anyone elected to public office. Thus prophets are almost always political in some way, but politicians can almost never be prophetic.
On a day when national remembrance of Martin Luther King – arguably the greatest prophet in US history – coincides with a presidential inauguration, the juxataposition is particularly revealing.
Obama’s inaugural address did have its fleetingly prophetic moments: his declarations “that America thrives … when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship”, “that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity”, and “that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war” have a measure of resonance with Catholic Social Teaching (a prophetic tradition in its own right). At one point he called for a reprieve from the prevailing polemics, saying, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
The general trajectory of the address, however, leaves me wondering whether he really intends to take his own advice. This was, overall, a loaded speech, and a rather overconfident one for a president whose reelection had been so uncertain. In a context in which he appears to be fighting all his political battles at once, the above call for civility ends up sounding ironically like a mere accusation of his political opponents. If his idea of a return to saner politics means everyone simply jumping on board his party’s platform, how much room does that really leave for reasoned debate? This tinge of partisan triumphalism obscures whatever prophetic note may exist in Obama’s calls for unity and solidarity and, moreover, betrays the gaps in his social vision. His challenge to offer “hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice” is definitely laudable, and as he rightly suggests, this must include welcoming immigrants, ensuring public safety and health care, and addressing such pressing issues as climate change and systemic poverty. But concern for the vulnerable must also extend to the prenatal lives that have remained legally unprotected for the past 40 years, and likewise to the Pakistani families living under the threat of American drones.
A more disturbing question is, who are the “we” who “must be a source of hope”? Is it by virtue of being Americans that we have hope to offer? An unofficial yet unwavering requirement for election to the US presidency has been a staunchly professed belief in the national doctrine of American exceptionalism, and Obama has delivered many times over throughout his first term in office. Here, the word “exceptional” comes just a few sentences in, leading into the self-congratulatory city-on-a-hill mythos surrounding the American Experiment. Later, while making a point on climate change and sustainable energy, he adds, “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries”, reiterating the disdain he has adopted in previous speeches toward the idea of any leading innovation taking place beyond American borders. He ends his address with a sentimental appeal to patriotic pathos, invoking the “timeless spirit” of America’s founding and the “precious light of freedom” that is its purported birthright and future.
It is perhaps to this latter question that the witness of Rev. Dr. King speaks most prophetically on this day. These words he once preached contain an admonition that bears repeating, especially in the face of the temptation to bask in our own self-importance:
Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”
I guarantee you’ll never hear that in any inaugural address by any US president.