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Prophetic politics

As a part of our Elections 2012 coverage, Journalism Professor Robert Jensen discusses why we need to chart a healthy role for religion in public life.

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism and director of the Senior Fellows Honors Program in the College of Communication. Before joining the university, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade and received a Ph.D. in media ethics and law from the University of Minnesota. Jensen teaches courses in media law, ethics and politics.

Robert Jensen


Does God take sides in the elections? Is there a voters’ guide hiding in our holy books? Should we pray for electoral inspiration?

Secular people, and many progressive religious folk, tend to answer “no.” Because religious fundamentalists so often present an easy-to-caricature version of faith-based politics even to the point of implying that God would want us to vote for certain candidates it’s tempting to want to banish talk of the divine from politics.

But a blanket claim that “religion and politics don’t mix” misunderstands the inevitable connection between the two. Whether secular or religious, our political judgments are always rooted in first principles claims about what it means to be human that can’t be reduced to evidence and logic. Should people act purely out of self-interest, or is solidarity with others just as important? Under what conditions, if any, is the taking of a human life justified? What is the appropriate relationship of human beings to the larger living world?

These basic moral/spiritual questions underlie everyone’s politics, shaped by the philosophical and/or theological systems in which we find inspiration and insight. It seems unfair to demand that those grounded in a secular philosophy can draw on their traditions, but people whose political outlooks are rooted in religion have to mute themselves.

Rather than bracketing religion out of politics, we should ask how religious traditions can play a role in a healthy politics, and one productive place to start in the Christian tradition is Walter Brueggemann’s new book, “The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipatory Word.” Building on his book “The Prophetic Imagination” first published in 1978 with a second edition in 2001 Brueggemann moves beyond sectarian politics and self-satisfied religion to ask difficult questions about concentrated power.

Brueggemann argues that the gospel narrative of social transformation, justice and compassion is in direct conflict with the United States’ dominant narrative: “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.” The dominant culture fosters “competitive productivity, motivated by pervasive anxiety about having enough, or being enough, or being in control.” All this bolsters notions of “U.S. exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”

The 2012 election season is promising to be one of the most unpredictable cycles in recent history.

In the Elections 2012 coverage on Know, experts from across The University of Texas at Austin weigh in on the politics and the issues, from the economy, the environment and demographics to immigration, energy, social change and more.

Visit a complete list of elections experts at the university.

Brueggemann’s goal isn’t to dictate answers to specific policy debates of the moment but rather critique basic political, economic and social systems. Speaking frankly about those systems means taking risks. Just as the prophets struggled to persuade a royal culture that ignored the message, contemporary preachers must connect the dots and make a case that goes against the grain.

“Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us,” Brueggemann writes. “When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truth-tellers translated into our time and place.” Brueggemann believes those sins are masked by “a totalizing ideology of exceptionalism that precludes critique of our entitlements and self-regard” that the prophetic imagination helps us critique.

The next step is dealing with a sense of loss and the accompanying grief as we let go of the illusions that come with wealth and power, which can lead to “hope-filled possibility.” But he is careful not to jump too quickly into an empty hope: “Hope can, of course, be spoken too soon. And when spoken too soon, it may too soon overcome the loss and short-circuit the indispensable embrace of guilt and loss.”

This is our task the tearing down of systems inconsistent with our values and the building up of something new not only for preachers seeking to be handlers of the prophetic tradition, but for anyone interested in facing honestly our political, economic, and social problems. The task, in Brueggemann’s words, is “to mediate a relinquishment of a world that is gone and a reception of a world that is being given.”

In a world in collapse, these realities often seem too painful to bear and the work before us often seems overwhelming. The prophetic tradition offers a language for understanding that pain and finding the collective strength to continue.