Politics and the Impossible Pulpit

Charles Lemert

Religiously I am a kind of manic-depressive. Currently, to the good fortune of fellow worshippers at our Episcopal church, I am in a mildly depressed state. This means I attend for the liturgy and the music. It helps also that there is a bit of exercise in the standing, kneeling, going forth for the Eucharist. When the preaching is bad, as everywhere it sometimes is, I can be glad for the solace of the liturgical activities.

Yet, because I was ordained in 1963 in a free-church tradition, where the pulpit was meant to be the focus of worship, I cannot let go of my manic attitude toward preaching. After many years of therapy, I have concluded that the bipolar irregularities of my spiritual life owe to the fact that I became a churchgoer when I was ten. I discerned that on Sunday mornings, when my depressive father threw his weekly fit over my mother’s burnt bacon, they could not object to my getting out of the house by going to church. The preacher at the Westwood Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati was the Reverend Everett C. Morehead, an imposing man of gray hair, eminent stature, excellent diction, and gentlemanly grace. It helped that his son, Bruce, was my best friend. Still, while I recall not a word of what Bruce’s father said, I was somehow moved by it – at least to the extent of escaping the parental fights.

Many years later, after an erratic youth, the manic pole of my religious life was at its height when, after college, I became a seminary student in Boston. In that day, the early 1960s, the city had more than its fair share of great preachers. I pursued them Sunday after Sunday when my seminarian duties at a nearby Congregational church permitted. Among the more satisfying preachers, as I remember them, were Frederick M. Meek at Old South Church on Copley Square, Theodore Parker Ferris at Trinity Episcopal just across Copley Square, Harold J. Ockenga at Park Street Church, Rhys Williams at First Church Unitarian on Marlboro Street, and a long succession of visiting preachers at Harvard Memorial Church. Neither doctrine nor denomination mattered. In the years following, in what preaching I did, I borrowed as best I could from what I had heard.

Good Preaching and Bad

When my brief ministry of less than a decade was ending I went back to graduate school, finished a doctorate, and became an academic. I was not the only leftish liberal minister to do that. For myself, it had mostly to do with the oddly bipolar domestic reasons I first went to churches as a child. For a long stretch early in my academic career the depressive phase of my spiritual life dominated. I attended churches sporadically. After a few decades I lapsed back into a manic period in which I had the insane idea of becoming an Episcopal priest. My bishop laid down the reality principle, suggesting that I did not seem to be the kind of fellow who could be obedient to a bishop. I said, “Good point.”

Today, what trust there once was has been eroded by a failure of political leaders to preach the limits of political power. When that happens, the unembarrassed ideologies of self-interest corrupt the public sphere.

Yet, through it all, I never lost my fascination with preaching. When it was bad, as it usually was, I mumbled under my breath. My kid told me to shut up. What I was mumbling about was the embarrassment of reflecting on my own preaching, which was mostly awful. In the words of a deacon in my first church, “Very fancy philosophy, Charles.” And that was one of the better ones. Today I realize it is hard work, this preaching.

We who have preached from a pulpit of any kind understand, if we are sensible, that it is a place from which it is impossible to do what one is called upon to do. Faith, whether religious or secular, demands that one preach a transcending word as best she can. It is all too easy to fail – and this is a warning that applies equally well to the political rhetoric to which we are subjected, no more urgently than in election seasons like the one Americans are now suffering through. November 2012 cannot come soon enough.

No matter how nicely appointed, with symbols or flags, a pulpit of any sort is a precipice. A preacher is expected to declaim some promise that what those gathered want or need can be had. The trick here is when the need cannot be requited one must avoid attending solely to wants and wishes of the moment. From time to time even the most haphazard of preachers stumbles upon a spark of wisdom that justifies this calling. More often the crowd must settle for a sincere gesture that circles around some seasonal doctrine vaguely pertinent to human needs.

Trusting Higher Powers

The problem here is that in religion as in politics the needs addressed are too deep to be satisfied in near time. Both holy and mundane public discourse face the thin prospect of doing more than stir the crowd to trust the higher powers at hand until the end – whether the end is of this life or, as regards political rhetoric, the end of the election season. When the trust of those gathered is sustained, the preacher will have done well.

In the religious sphere, the impossibility of the pulpit is just what it should be. Preaching before the faithful ought to be a modest exercise performed before the transcending fact that even when the gods make themselves known they must be regarded as inscrutable. Otherwise there is no point to having a god, however ruthless or remote he may be.

But in politics, pulpit or platform work suffers the lack of a well-agreed-upon transcending fact of public life. In modern politics, after the disappearance of true royal authority, the politician has had to resort to holding forth on nakedly partisan notions justified by allegations that they are the will of the people. It is widely considered important to the ruse to end a political homily with a plea for the blessing of the local deity.

Unfortunately the thoughts of well-established gods like Allah or Yahweh, Krishna, or even Zeus are decidedly inscrutable; hence pulpit work requires heavy reliance on sacred texts or in the case of political homilies authoritative political codes. When political figures call for divine blessing they convince none but the already convinced. It is the nature of gods to stand apart, perhaps to send mysterious hints as to their thinking on the affairs of lesser beings.

Civil Religion Endures

The claim I make for the hazards of both sacred and profane pulpits is somewhat different from more familiar arguments as to the prominence of civil religion. In the United States, as nowhere in the world with the possible exceptions of places like Iran, the religious dilemma intrudes upon the political sphere. There is a reliable history that traces religious ideas back to English colonizers in the seventeenth century who understood their settlements as divinely ordained. From them we get such secular equivalents as American exceptionalism. The civil religion idea goes back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762, who observed that in the pagan societies “each State had its cult and its gods,” an arrangement that passed on through Hellenic and Roman times into the modern era. 

In modern politics, after the disappearance of true royal authority, the politician has had to resort to holding forth on nakedly partisan notions justified by allegations that they are the will of the people.

For our times, Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” remains the classic study. Bellah’s main idea was that, while “some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of ‘the American Way of Life,’ few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Few would deny that, for better or worse, American political life draws upon religious ideas, ranging from “America the Beautiful,” a harmless hymn to American exceptionalism, to raw political arguments that justify even the most outrageous policies like the denial of health care to women or civil rights to LBGT people as against some ill-construed god’s will. The most benign of these are inoffensive for the most part, even welcome as proof of America’s amiable innocence as to its global destiny.

What is not well-emphasized in the civil religion idea is the role of the pulpit as more than a mere platform for high-minded discourse. The pulpit, literally, is a place set aside – a ritual reality illustrated no less by the lectern in a store-front church, or a cleared stone for blessing soldiers entering battle, as by high church altars raised above the level plane. A pulpit is figuratively, if not always physically, elevated. The pulpit is raised up by the longings of people who seek some word of a better world. The preacher must engage these wishes that are never satisfied in this world. The work is not for fools.

Will of the People?

When a pulpit is lodged in the public sphere it strives to achieve a similar advantage. The political preacher seeks to persuade others to follow a path he means to occupy in order to bring the will of the people into a majority position. Needless to say, the people is a fungible concept meaning in some cases “the mass of the lesser folk,” in others, the embodied high culture of a nation’s public will. Either way, the appeal has a sacred tone without possessing very much potential to sway mind or heart. Yet it recurs time and again in public talk.

This relative vacuity of political invocations of a popular higher power illustrates their differences from even run-of-the-mill religious ones. When, however clumsily, a plausibly honest word of another world is offered from a pulpit paid for by hard-working adherents, a cynic exhibits bad faith to assume that their good faith is without merit. By contrast, overwrought public pronouncements of the truthiness of a partisan avowal of the will of the people seldom hold up from crowd to crowd. In the long run of a religiously implicated nation like the American one, the strains of new immigrant populations upon the already radically pluralist traditions of American culture begin to unravel the very idea that anything like the will of the American people might exist, except as a normal declarative expediency of organized civil societies.

Niebuhr Still Matters

This is the hard lesson that the American political and social system has yet to learn. When it comes to values there is never for very long a strong core belief. There may be, as surely there are, common values that must be learned in school or naturalization classes, but these are of a lower moral order – principles of practical responsibility as opposed to an essential doctrine. Yet, they serve a good purpose. Nations do come together in times of crisis in the interest of fending off an evil force. In the longer run what political cohesion there is serves to calm internal dissent for no better reason than to prevent one’s piece of the political and economic pie from being eaten up in the confusion.

For more than thirty years, Reinhold Niebuhr was the acknowledged voice of left-liberal politics in America and this without the least quiver in his just-as-strong Christian voice.

This is the still, for some, hard-to-swallow but enduring lesson of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932. He was then, still early in the economic crisis of the 1930s, attacking the idea that complex social and international problems can be resolved by an ethic of love issuing from the good intentions of pious individuals. Society, including the State and its political apparatus, can never be counted upon to pursue so much as justice, much less love. Hence, the forlorn divide between the individual and society. Niebuhr insisted that the only way a social ethic of “the people” can come to pass is through coercion, which means that in domestic politics conflict must be an option, as it is in the international sphere.

Yet, Niebuhr, one of Yale Divinity School’s most notable alumni, never qualified his strong religious beliefs. Indeed, though he spent but thirteen years as pastor of a settled parish, even while teaching at Union Seminary in New York City he considered himself an itinerant preacher. Few of his day, or any other, have come close to Niebuhr’s standard for filling both religious and political pulpits. For more than thirty years he was the acknowledged voice of left-liberal politics in America and this without the least quiver in his just-as-strong Christian voice. He was as effective a preacher before political groups and statesmen as before hard-bitten college students and small rural churches. What Niebuhr understood, as have few since, is the lesson of the pulpit. One mounts to utter some higher word but can never know what each and every one of those gathered needs, any more than God’s will for them can be assuredly discerned. Yet preachers of all kinds must say something. That something is (or ought to be) that we cannot know what will happen. 

The well-disciplined believer may believe in a life beyond this one, but she cannot know it for sure. She must trust. Likewise, the well-disciplined patriot cannot know that his national people are truly righteous. What one can know, if he or she will, is that in the end all that is left for the present moment is to trust. This is the ideal that stands behind all good preaching wherever it occurs.

Today, in 2012, in the United States and Europe notably, what trust there once was has been eroded by a failure of political leaders to preach the limits of political power. When that happens, as it has, then unembarrassed ideologies of self-interest corrupt the public sphere. Conflict takes the form not of coercing the State to do better but of beating up on opponents by all manner of distortions and recriminations. And so, in the United States, we suffer through an election season that, more than any in recent memory, crushes the will of the people, as indefinite as it may be, with out-of-control spending, televised half-truths, public attacks on the humanity of opponents, pseudo-revolutionary movements, and worse. The will of the people is not much to appeal to, but without it neither the pious love of individual believers nor the righteous judgment of the dogmatic will get us anywhere.

Never a Final Word

It is of course counterintuitive to suggest that pulpits well served are meant to hold the impossible before those who long for something more definite. Yet, life is impossible to the end. Politics disappoint because there is never a final word, only a probe for the best that can be done now. This mortifying attitude is the true contribution of religion to politics.

One can only hope that politicians who mouth religious platitudes might for a change listen to a higher power, thus to know that there are things even they cannot change. The better of those who preach in churches often get this. In Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, reflecting on his own parish preaching, Reinhold Niebuhr said: “There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks.” All who attempt the impossible are ludicrous before good folk. It is the politicians who have the harder time accepting this fact of life.


Charles Lemert is Senior Fellow in Yale’s Center for Comparative Research and author most recently of Why Niebuhr Matters (Yale University Press, 2011). Though a sociologist by trade, Lemert is also an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.