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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Prophetic Rhetoric in the Public Square

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Boston College theologian and legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny spoke at the Boisi Center on October 1 about her upcoming book, Prophecy without Contempt: An Ethics of Religious Rhetoric in the Public Square.

She began by describing the 2004 presidential election cycle as the height of recent culture wars. Embedded within vicious arguments over issues like abortion, Kaveny noted, was an increasingly frequent use of what she terms the “rhetoric of prophetic indictment,” which accuses listeners of deviating sharply from the founding or covenantal principles that once rooted the community. Kaveny cited the jeremiad as the quintessentially American form of prophetic indictment. In colonial times, jeremiads were delivered in sermons that lamented the community’s wide chasm between its ideals (e.g., America as the new Israel) and its sinful reality; these sermons served as a sort of legal indictment for breach of the covenant.

Prophetic indictments stand in stark contrast with the more measured, reasonable tradition of “deliberative rhetoric,” which was in short supply, Kaveny argued, during the 2004 election season. She noticed a curious trend during that campaign: those who used prophetic rhetoric about abortion rarely did so about torture, and vice versa. Kaveny argued that prophetic rhetoric continues to be a dominant tradition in American culture, but that it has become divisive because it presupposes a common moral framework that may not exist in our modern, pluralistic society.

She concluded her talk by suggesting some “best practices” of prophetic indictment, arguing that Martin Luther King, Jr., represents the gold standard of such discourse in the modern age. Prophetic rhetoric aims to target cancers in the body politic; like chemotherapy, it can do as much harm as good. As such, it needs to be calibrated appropriately to particular contexts. The ultimate key to successful prophetic rhetoric lies in standing with the community one condemns, rather than as a judgmental outsider.