Were the Shutdown Republicans Prophetic (After a Fashion)?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at shutdown rally: Prophets in their own minds?

During the 16-day government shutdown, Tea Party Republicans rose above, or somewhere beyond, earthly politics. Their aim was to stay true to their principles, to be faithful, not necessarily effective. At their meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday, House Republicans began not by calling themselves to order, but by singing all three verses of “Amazing Grace.” In other words, the shutdown Republicans were prophetic in their own way.

By this, I don’t mean they accurately predicted a future state of being. If their stance foreshadowed anything, it was probably some dark days ahead for the GOP. But they were prophetic in the sense that they exhibited the style, if not the substance, of ancient biblical prophecy.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the prophet is “an assaulter of the mind” who speaks “one octave too high.” This biblical figure is given to “sweeping generalizations” and “overstatements.” He is often “grossly inaccurate” because he concerns himself primarily with meaning, not facts, as Heschel explained in The Prophets, his classic 1962 study.

“Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist,” wrote Heschel, who looked the part of an Old Testament prophet, with his disorderly white hair and conspicuous white beard. The rabbi-philosopher-activist also believed that what a prophet says is radically true. It’s God’s truth, not merely the human variety.

The Tea Party crowd in Congress would seem to fit much of this description, but the truth part is problematic. Normally a prophetic stance involves speaking out for the lowly and oppressed. Prophets do not necessarily take the right stands on every issue, but they stand in the right places, biblically speaking—with the poor and vulnerable.

The job of a prophet is to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah declaimed. Arguably, in contrast, the people who brought us the shutdown are more often found strengthening the strong hands, including those of upper-bracket income earners and, at one peculiar turn in the shutdown brawl, medical device makers specifically. And to be fair, many politicians of both parties are often up to these same old tricks of that trade.

Still, the government shutdown tossed light on what you could call, especially if you edit out some biblical material, the prophetic personality.

Posted today in Tikkun Daily.


  1. With all due respect to the good rabbi, no. The Republicans were [unprintables]. Prophets spoke God’s message. The GOP kindergarteners somehow elected to Congress on a “Tea Party” platform spoke the message of [unprintables] and so did their feckless leaders.

    • William Bole says

      I think Heschel was speaking affectionately of the OT prophets, while driving home the point that prophetic truth is very different from the merely human variety. I think he’d also say that what we’re seeing today from the Amazing Grace-chanting Tea Partiers is a kind of ersatz prophetic stance–disconnected from the stuff of prophecy, the attention to the weak and vulnerable.

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  3. Vincent Sbano says

    If you are arguing that the tea party and their titular leaders are adopting the forms of the prophetic tradition I agree with you. If you are thinking that their source is some spiritual font (albeit misinterpreted) I think I have to disagree. I think all of the tea party energy has been channeled by people like Cruz (a Harvard trained attorney) to cynically serve their own ends. The tea party movement originated in the realization that America is divided into the haves and have nots. The haves experience no problems in the world because they can command society to provide whatever resources they need. The real genesis of the tea party was a movement against TARP why should greedy speculaters be paid off while we lose our jobs. It fed on the frustration of 30 years of unrelenting class warfare started by the Gipper against the middle class. Their complaints initially were far more aligned with the Occupy movement than the republican party. These people wanted and deserved answers as to what happened. to the America that you and I grew up in. Good decent paying jobs with benefits, a chance to move up in society etc. This energy was quickly channeled by Dick Armey, and the Koch Brothers et al into the very opposite direction – government can’t help you, regulations hurt jobs and unions are no good. The progressives never made a strong counterargument (or not one as well funded). So we have the spectacle of the traitorous confederate flag flying at the white house gate as a call to restore the US to its constitutional basis (presumably without the 13th amendment). Cruz and the rest of the gang are not inspired by the goals of the tea party he is using them to advance his own agenda. I’m sure David Koresh and the other screwballs who have conned so many sounded a lot like old testament prophets but the only inspiration I can ever discern seems to be “I am smarter than you dopes and you should follow me” . The prophet never looks to himself, his words are meant to show people a way to help other people.

    • William Bole says

      Yes, thanks for underlining the distinction. I was thinking mainly of what is called the “prophetic style” as practiced or skewed by Tea Partiers (and the religious right, before them). The substance? Not so much.

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