Theorizing Modernities article

Loss, Lament and Prophetic Modernities

In Prophecy without Contempt, Cathleen Kaveny has written a book for our times—a keen study of the role of the jeremiad in American political culture, both historical and contemporary. The rhetoric of jeremiad, which Kaveny terms “prophetic indictment,” overlaps the fields of law and religion and is also a notable contribution to interdisciplinary fields of philosophical, theological, political, and social ethics. Kaveny’s task in the book is to carve out a normative realm of discourse in which citizens can condemn, but not contemn. (ix-x) She argues that “a full grasp of the nature, function, and limits of religious discourse in the American public square requires coming to terms with the rhetoric of prophetic indictment.”(2) In this brief set of reflections, I would like to highlight the importance of Kaveny’s argument for a cosmopolitan modernity that balances lamentation with justice, irony with hope, and a commitment to the humanity and human rights of all. This domestic and global version of cosmopolitanism is a chastened cosmopolitanism, premised on what Kaveny aptly recommends as a “suitably chastened form of prophetic rhetoric” (375). As such, prophetic discourse grapples with some of the losses that accompany the modern age.

In focusing her contemporary discussion on the issues of abortion and torture in the 2004 presidential election, Kaveny’s studiously avoids the more recently contentious issue of same-sex marriage, which she suspects “includes discourse about purity and taboo, and not only morality.” (7) At a recent Religious Freedom Annual Review conference, held at Brigham Young University, however, the issue of same-sex marriage was the focus of much attention. The previous year’s conference had taken place just days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. In the year since that decision, there had been ample time for both processing and polarization. It was a context ripe for both prophetic indictment and defense of religious freedom and religion in the public sphere.

BYU, of course, is the premier higher educational institution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a uniquely American religion that has experienced historical persecution for its early beliefs supporting polygamy and which stands firmly for traditional marriage and against same-sex marriage today. At issue throughout the conference was the question of how the LDS Church and other conservative Christian religions opposed to same-sex marriage can continue to exist in and engage the American body politic. A key undercurrent of fear was that opposition to same-sex marriage might result in loss of tax-exempt status, government grants, professional licenses and accreditation, and even the ability of church members to participate in groups like the Boy Scouts and other private associations without risking their standing and livelihood in the public sphere. These fears are not just of the suppression of private belief, but of the loss of the civic standing of religiously identified people and institutions in the public sphere.

The conference’s opening keynote speech, delivered by LDS Church Elder Lance Wickman, focused notably on the need to balance religious priorities with practical compromise. In an era of rampant political polarization and government shutdowns that seem to give proof to Alasdair McIntyre’s lamentation of “incommensurable values,” (23) “compromise” has become something of a dirty word. And yet Kaveny, in her discussion of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, notes the very difficult, but pragmatic, compromises that Lincoln made to preserve the nation’s unity. (382)

Elder Wickman cited a New York Times article noting constitutional law theorist Eugene Volokh’s comment in a law and religion blog that conservative Christians’ could be “very reasonably fearful . . that within a generation or so [their] religious beliefs would be treated the same way as racist religious beliefs are.” Citing a litany of legal effects that this could have under the Constitution, Elder Wickman at the same time argued that Americans have come to rely too much on the Constitution and law to do the work of citizenship. This work, he said, would require working through democratic channels and with fellow citizens of other beliefs to achieve the sustainable compromises necessary for peace. Indeed, one such compromise has already been enacted in the “Utah Compromise” law that aims at protecting religious freedom to oppose homosexuality and same-sex relationships both privately and publicly, while also protecting gays and lesbians and others from discrimination their public lives. The law is young and not without controversy, but it may prove to be a model for other states.

Later in the day, discussing religious liberty in our polarized age, American constitutional law scholar Thomas Berg recounted a number of arguments made by liberals against religious freedom claims by conservative Christians. At one point, Berg noted this sense of persecution in conservative Christian communities could lead to alienation and withdrawal from public life out of a “cynical skepticism.” Against this end, Berg called upon religious and political liberals to take account of the views and sensibilities of the other side. Kaveny, in her analysis of the rhetoric of prophetic indictment, expresses concerns about postures of cynicism and retreat. (347) Indeed, she cautions against the adoption of any “cynical strategy” that “undermines the very ground to which the prophet purports to appeal: the common aims and values that bind together his or her political or religious community.”(331) Discussing the criterion of proportionality in her proposed ethic of “just prophecy,” Kaveny argues of dueling prophetic debates, “Each group of prophets feeds off the other’s energy, justifying its own commitment with reference to the dangerous ambitions of its opposition.”(347) Kaveny’s repeated remonstrance against the “oracles against the nations” genre of prophetic rhetoric (esp. 352ff) seems especially appropriate in these “culture wars.” Kaveny seems to fear less that the extremes of the conservative Christians and secular liberal sides will retreat than she does that “the very ferocity of the combat may encourage the ‘muddled middle,’ to steer far away from the battleground in order to avoid becoming collateral damage in the culture war.” (348) Both bitter retreat by one side and the inability for the center to hold would seem to be equally bad outcomes and a loss for our public life.

In fact, loss may be one of the defining features of modernity implicated in these prophetic discourses. In an earlier reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a foundational text for the Contending Modernities project, I was struck by a pervasive sense of loss running throughout the book’s characterization of the secular. Political compromise, done rightly, entails loss for both sides, in that no side can claim a privileged position and both must give something up in order to achieve peace. But there are other losses in modernity that have come through legacies of colonialism, racism, political and economic underdevelopment, and growing inequality that also plague our contemporary world. Many of these seem to be taking place in parts of the Muslim world, currently experiencing the losses that come with migration, diaspora, environmental stresses from climate change, and rising levels of religious and political extremism—all against a storied past of literary, intellectual, artistic, scientific, and economic achievement that seems to be retreating ever more into the mist of time in light of today’s conflicts.

It is in this context that I read Kaveny’s analysis of prophecy and prophetic indictment comparatively across American Christianity and global Islam. Specifically, I remembered a conference in Kosovo where I had occasion to discuss with another Contending Modernities commentator, Usama Hasan, whether Islam had any tradition of prophetic theodicy. Hasan directed me to the work of the Pakistani poet and statesman Muhammad Iqbal, whose writings I am just beginning to explore—particularly his poems Complaint and Answer, constructed as a prophetic indictment by the poet in a prophetic dialogue with Allah over the state of Islam and modernity and the sense that God had let Muslims down. My question was: Some call for a Muslim Martin Luther, but could it be that what is really needed is an Islamic Job? Or maybe a Jeremiah or a Jonah, with a hint of irony, following Kaveny’s rich account (406 ff). That is, someone not so much to incite revolution, as to take up questions of suffering and justice and to instigate a rigorous examination through prophetic indictment of the state of global Islam, which seems as fractured and polarized as American Christianity in confronting modernity.

Toward the end of her analysis, Kaveny proposes a number of terms that seem to be criteria or virtues necessary for a prophetic ethic going forward—an ethic possibly as necessary for Muslims around the world as it is for Christians in America. Foremost among these are: irony, humility, charity, justice, mercy, forgiveness, compromise, a healthy tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and, above all, hope. But what also seems clear, in a cosmopolitan world in which we are ever more aware of and linked to those who are different from us, is that both loss and lamentation accompany the at times necessary rhetoric of prophetic indictment Kaveny aptly describes as a brutal form of “moral chemotherapy.” The lingering question from Kaveny’s account may be whether prophetic indictment—supplementing recognition of loss with lamentation’s call for justice can be not only a chastening therapy, but also a healing salve for the fractures and polarities of modernity in prophetic discourses that condemn and critique without contempt.


M. Christian Green
M. Christian Green is a scholar, teacher, researcher, writer, and editor working in the fields of law, religion, ethics, human rights, and global affairs.  Green is currently a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, a general co-editor and the book review editor for the Journal of Law and Religion, and editor and publications manager for the African Consortium for Law and Religion Studies. She blogs at Cakewalks and Climbingwalls.

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