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Prophethood and Partisan Hackery

A recent post on First Things lambastes progressive evangelical leaders Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and David Gushee for styling themselves as “prophetic” voices that “speak truth to power” while gushing in support of Barack Obama, and particularly the recent appointment of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Sebelius is widely known to have a strongly pro-choice position on abortion, and as of now evangelical leaders such as these still purport to be opposed to abortion. Hence the disgust of the First Thingsers:

Now, we all know that those who engage in the rough and tumble of everyday politics, including the hardball of cabinet nominations, have to make compromises and make careful judgments of prudence. There are, no doubt, worse appointments than Sebelius (although one simply could not imagine an Obama appointment these guys would actually protest).

But if you are going to get into the rough and tumble of everyday politics and if you are going to take the side of President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, against evangelicals and Catholics leaders in the pro-life movement on a cabinet appointment, could we at least be spared all the self-righteous drivel about being “prophetic,” and “speaking the truth to power.” You can be a flak for the Obama administration on things like cabinet appointments. Or, you can claim to be a “prophet” and “speak the truth to power.” But you can’t be both. It seems obvious what the Wallis, Sider and Gushee crowd have chosen.

Now, on one level Pavlischek’s post is certainly right, to the degree that Wallis et al claim to be representing “prophetic” religion they are certainly full of shit. This has been true all along and should not be news to anyone. Neither should it be news to anyone that the First Things crowd could never muster up one criticism of the Bush administration, even when the Pope straight out condemned the war. Everyone here is quite clearly and ideologue.

However, what’s funny about the post is that it portrays a sort of pissy jockeying between the First Things crowd and the new evangelical left over who has the clout to call themselves prophetic. It’s the evangelical equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken arguing over whether republicans or democrats are the true patriots.


  1. dave wrote:

    I’ve never heard Sider “style himself” as a prophet, and I’m not sure how connected he is to Obama’s administration. Admittedly, though, I’ve checked myself out of national politics.

    In general I agree: it is amusing. What is really tiring is constantly seeing rhetorical anti-abortion stances taken by people (not to mention when this is articulated outside of a seamless ethic of life). It’s as if the whole “pro-life” issue for Christians has become even more paramount now that a “pro-choice” candidate is in office. Maybe that’s because it gives people something to bitch about, because I didn’t hear as much about it when a “pro-life” candidate was in office for 8 years.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I only include Sider here because Pavlischek does. Wallis is the real culprit in my book. He tosses that label around all the time. He doesn’t flat-out call himself a prophet, but that’s about all he stops short of.

    But what’s funny is that since Obama won the election, all the First Things people have talked about is abortion and now they think they are the anti-empire prophets of our time.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  3. dave wrote:

    Ok, cool. I have a lot of respect for Sider, and I know his son, actually, and almost did a study abroad program in inner-city Pittsburgh with him (he was the director, and the program is now in its last semester). Really cool guy.

    The whole “prophet” label is really perplexing, because it seems like if you label yourself a prophet, then, well, you are likely the furthest thing from one. I was in a conversation on David Dark’s blog a few weeks ago and this topic of prophets came up, and I really liked what he had to say. It was in the form of a quote by Cornel West, and I liked the quote so much that it now hangs above my desk:

    “To be a part of a prophetic tradition is not to be a prophet or elitist. Rather, it is humbly to direct your strongest criticisms at yourself and then self-critically speak your mind to others with painful candor and genuine compassion.”

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I actually really appreciate Sider as well. Why he’s signing this manuscript is a bit of a mystery to me, but in general I don’t have anything to complain about with Sider.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Tim Kumfer wrote:

    “to the degree that Wallis et al claim to be representing “prophetic” religion they are certainly full of shit. This has been true all along and should not be news to anyone.”


    It would behoove you to do your homework a bit on this one. As much as I share your concerns about Sojo’s God’s Politics-era message and methods (see my paper in last fall’s issue of The Other Journal), that’s not the whole story on them.

    Sojourners was founded in 1971 and has had a number of different incarnations. From 1975 to 1994 the Sojos lived in intentional community in then what was a quite rough part of DC, and embodied a theopolitics which was more Barthian, Yoderian, and Stringfellowian than any of us bloggers can imagine. For more on this, read Wallis’ Agenda for Biblical People or an early edition of Call to Conversion. I’d also be willing to send you some articles from the magazine (which was first called The Post-American).

    Furthermore, the present work Sojo does RE: Capitol Hill and press releases is not everything, or even the majority, of what they do. Have you even read the magazine? How you could do so and think the writers are all “hacks” is unclear. The only thing full of shit is your strict left-right dichotomy which needs a counter to First things to make your blog writing easier.

    (Full disclosure: I worked for Sojourners for 1 1/2 years and love the hell out of those folks, even as i have significant ecclesiocentric concerns about some of the work they do. )

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Tim, I actually have read Agenda for Biblical People, and I too, think its a great book. In fact, in my review of God’s Politics in Cultural Encounters I discuss this very thing–the radical departure of Wallis and Sojourners from their early roots.

    I was not attempting to elide Sojourners roots–any more than I was trying to do so with First Things, their earlier incarnations were much more salutatory than what things have become over there. I was just commenting on the state of things as they are now.

    But you’re right, my “all along” comment probably isn’t quite right, considering the initial beginnings of Sojourners. I suppose I really meant “since they’ve been a force in national politics.” So my bad on that, but I’ve certainly done my homework on this one.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  7. Tim Kumfer wrote:


    Thanks for that correction. I would be interested to read your review of God’s Politics.

    Even as Sojourners may not be a lone voice crying in the wilderness today, I think their work is extremely important, particularly as a bridge for conservative evangelicals looking for signs of life after so many years of lockstep conformity. I think often those of theologically inclined and politically informed forget that literally millions of people in this country believed (and probably still believe) that is was impossible to be a Christian and vote for someone other than a Republican candidate.

    I’m extremely grateful for Wallis’ work in this sense; the millions of Christians who have read Warren, Dobson, etc. will not likely pick up anything by JHY, Hauerwas, or Rowan Williams anytime soon. But they might read Jim, which could help to dislodge some of this ridiculousness and reorient them toward priorities which I think even you would agree are more in keeping with the Kingdom than those of the RR.

    I think where we might differ, Halden, is that I would rather have a bunch of crude, post-conservative followers of Wallis than I would Hauerwas.

    One other fallacy is that Jim Wallis’ work is representative of all that Sojourners is and does. I would be remiss not to point out the deeply theologically rooted and spiritually grounded work of folks like Rose Marie Berger ( and Julie Polter. Their consistent–and creative–attendance to the lived realities of discipleship is one of the best kept secrets around.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  8. Matt Shafer wrote:

    Tim Kumfer makes a good point about Sojourners, whatever its flaws, acting asw a bridge between the religious right and the more anabaptist-influenced groups (Hauerwas et al.). In fact, that is precisely what Sojo has been for me over the past year, as I’ve transitioned from older staunchly right-evangelical ideas to a a more radical-reformation-inspired theopolitics.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

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