Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2006 | Go to article overview

Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy David S. Gutterman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

I began reading this book with radio reports on Hurricane Katrina in the background. I paused to listen for an interview with a weary pilgrim from New Orleans. Having escaped from Superdome hell, he had arrived in Houston with nothing more than his MacDonald's uniform as a badge of his earnestness. After resting a few hours, he wanted to search immediately for a job. Framing himself within an Exodus-shaped story of wilderness crisis escaped through wandering, he felt that he had struggled through to redemption: "This here is the Promised Land. I ain't gom' back to New Orleans." At that very moment, David Gutterman was pulling my attention to the social level of biblical Exodus narratives that surface as themes of evangelically inspired political movements. For me, and probably for you, his persuasive analysis will change your estimate of the Bible's flexible vitality as a source of calls to transformation.

Gutterman, a political scientist at Linfield College with an ethical bent, is concerned about the compatibility between religious discourse and democratic practice -and this defines his book's timely relevance. Since the presidential elections of 2000 and especially 2004, many Democratic party members have felt a dilemma. Sensing that they have been defeated by the religiously motivated who scorn secular indifference to spiritual matters, they wonder how to recover political power. But pretending to be religious would be dishonest. And even when they possess religious beliefs, they are so wedded to the "wall of separation" First Amendment interpretation that they feel constitutional inhibitions against bringing them to discourse about public issues-preferring to shun any alliance predicated on faith. Without being a political handbook for such Democrats, this book will clarify many issues for them.

Gutterman's interdisciplinary analysis derives its theory and democratic norms from cultural studies and its conceptual orientations from Sacvan Bercovitch's American Jeremiad (1978), and the diverse writings of Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricoeur. He gains primary guidance from Arendt's notion of a democratic story telling in which participants offer their visions as opinion rather than certitude; it invites perspectives from other stories told in the same spirit of search for sensus communis-that condition in which we are drawn out of private perspectives into contemplating things as others see them. The democratic mentality, so understood, is a state of doubt about what we personally believe while we entertain options suggested by others. Apart from developing this interesting conception of how democratic citizens would create a distinctive story culture, Gutterman focuses on the Hebrew Bible's Exodus narrative and selected American evangelical movements that have emphasized it in prescribing for America's ills.

Gutterman follows Bercovitch in mapping a recurrent Exodus paradigm in social polemics: identification of failures in the wilderness, threat of divine punishment, and promise of redemption after self transformation (9). Biblical Exodus moves from hellish bondage, to a covenant for release, a period of journey and test of worthiness as God's covenant partner, and redemption through delivery to Canaan, the promised land. Gutterman's impressive ingenuity lies in showing how four separate evangelical movements accept this "narrative scaffolding" of Exodus to imagine their situation in the American "wilderness" as they tell the new stories of Mosaic redemption. Those movements are sketched through the twentieth-century prophets Billy Sunday (1862-1935) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and two significant formally organized contemporary groups, Promise Keepers and Call to Renewal. How the Exodus story is retold among them is used as a measure of their compatibility with democratic politics. …

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