A Hebrew biblical guide to the Democratic presidential debate

The priest and the prophet are two ancient archetypes that help illuminate two strong tendencies in American moral and political life.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks after the senate voted on a resolution ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS)
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks after the senate voted on a resolution ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018.
 As the upcoming Democratic presidential debate begins further whittling down the field of potential challengers to President Donald Trump, Americans can find a guide for evaluating the proceedings in an unlikely source: the civic traditions of the Hebrew Bible.
As far back as the 19th century, Western social and political thinkers saw two types of religious figures featured in the Hebrew Bible, the priest and the prophet, as representing two archetypes for responding to challenges facing society. Given the Hebrew Bible’s deep intellectual influence on the American founding, it is no coincidence that these archetypes provide valuable insight into the past and future direction of American politics.
The Hebrew Bible sees the priest as coping with moral matters at a deeply technical level. The priests are responsible for the practical upkeep and operation of the Temple, the institution at the heart of biblical society. More broadly, they serve as essential repositories of wisdom and legal expertise. Prophets, by contrast, do not have tightly-defined technical responsibilities in the biblical tradition. Rather, the prophet’s role is to hold up a mirror to society and articulate uncomfortable larger truths about what it has become. The biblical prophets hope to prevent society’s potential disintegration, but know that its problems are sometimes so far-reaching that technical fixes can no longer be enough.
These two ancient archetypes, priest and prophet, help illuminate two strong tendencies in American moral and political life. The priest is the practical thinker who understands the crucial value of technical precision, and knows that expertise is essential for a polity to function properly. The prophet, by contrast, believes that an emphasis on technical excellence can sometimes become a moral crutch, and instead focuses on larger questions of values and culture.
American politics has long featured both priests and prophets at critical moments in history. In his recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Yale historian David W. Blight explicitly casts the monumental abolitionist thinker as a prophet, referring to him as “a living prophet of an American destruction, exile, war for its existence, and redemption.” He called America to account for betraying its fundamental ideals of liberty and equality, and instead bowing down before the idolatrous altar of slavery. Only through its extinction could a second, more virtuous American republic be born.
DOUGLASS’S MOST influential counterpart during the fight for abolition, Abraham Lincoln, had much greater priestly tendencies. In his approach to slavery, an institution he deeply hated, Lincoln saw his role as working within the constraints placed upon him by the Constitution. He initially thought emancipation should be achieved gradually through policies like compensation of slave owners, and voluntary colonization of African Americans outside the United States. While he later decided upon the more drastic step of announcing an emancipation edict, Lincoln still took the practical caution of waiting several months to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after Union battlefield success would lend it weight.
To be sure, the examples of Douglass and Lincoln illustrate that priests and prophets are not in fundamental opposition. Douglass eventually recognized the importance of the political system, with its concern for priestly policies. And in his second inaugural address, Lincoln would utter one of American history’s most stirring prophecies. As Douglass himself later described the speech in 1893, “There seemed at the time to be in the man’s soul the united souls of all Hebrew prophets.”
American society, like its Hebrew biblical antecedent, has always needed both priests and prophets in order to thrive. In many ways, each archetype serves as a check on the other. In recent history, the priestly tendency has dominated American politics. Whether related to education, entitlement reform, healthcare, immigration, or global trade, American political debate has long revolved around elite policymaking. At the beginning of this decade, the future of Republican politics seemed to lie in Congressman Paul Ryan, widely known as a policy wonk. Progressive technocracy, meanwhile, has now found its apotheosis in Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But with the rise of Donald Trump on the Right, and the rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Cory Booker, and Marianne Williamson on the Left, Americans have increasingly responded to figures who downplay detailed policy-making, and instead speak in broader terms about values and cultural problems.
Of course, the Hebrew Bible expected its prophets to serve as moral exemplars of the highest caliber. By no account can any of America’s contemporary political prophets measure up to this lofty standard. But just because they are insufficient to the task does not mean that Americans’ prophetic instincts will go away. On the contrary, they will likely be stoked even further. This could tip the balance of the coming election in favor of a prophet-style candidate.
Either way, as the presidential election cycle continues to accelerate, expect the political distinction between priest and prophet to become more relevant than ever.
The writer is special adviser to the president of Yeshiva University.