In a time of headlines, breaking news bulletins and breathless announcements from cable news pundits about how everything has suddenly accelerated in Washington, it’s easy to forget that the country has a long history of what Boston College legal and theological expert Cathleen Kaveny terms “prophetic indictment.” That history goes back to the very first sermons — jeremiads — preached by the Puritans who arrived in what would become Massachusetts in the early 1600s.
They were “known as jeremiads because they echo the passionate condemnations of sinful behavior that pervades the biblical Book of Jeremiah.....Somewhat ironically, the rhetorical form of the jeremiad proved far more flexible, and therefore more durable, than the Puritan culture that nurtured it.”
In her book, Prophecy Without Contempt, Kaveny argues “that the rhetoric of prophetic indictment is akin to moral chemotherapy. It is powerful medicine that appropriately targets moral cancers threatening the very existence of the body politic....If not used carefully, however, the jeremiad can inflict considerable harm on the national body it hopes to save. Just like actual chemotherapy, great care in dosage and targeting has to be exercised by those using the medicine of prophetic indictment lest the cure kill the patient.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to start an impeachment inquiry is the first step toward a possible congressional indictment of the president. It can also be seen as an attempt to diagnose whether or not the country needs constitutional chemotherapy.
If the answer is no, she will have to have the strength to resist the ideologues in her own party and stop short of administering the treatment. Otherwise, she will play the role that the president has already sketched out for her: reluctant, but ultimately weak-willed tool of the ideologues in her own party, willing to apply a powerful remedy not to cure a specific disease but to silence irrepressible activists.
If the answer is yes, then great care in dosage and targeting will be critical.
One way to do that is to express who or what isn’t being targeted here. The entire Republican Party is not being targeted. Conservatives as a group are not being targeted. Those who voted for the current president in 2016 are not being targeted.
Cringe-inducing, but not impeachable, behavior by the president are not being targeted. All those responsible for the failed impeachment of Bill Clinton and the electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton are not being targeted.
To focus this action and make it issuable, as we say — immediate and specific and subject to correction — it has to be clear which precise actions, which cells, demand this dose of constitutional chemotherapy. Too little or no dosage will enable the cancer to spread and deepen. Too much dosage will weaken the entire body politic. It may also drive the group that I believe is the largest party in the nation, the mixed middle, over to Donald Trump’s side.
I saw this dynamic play out in Wisconsin several years ago. Activists there felt emboldened to administer another form of constitutional chemotherapy — a recall — to then-Gov. Scott Walker. They massed endlessly in Madison and called for a radical cure. The trouble was that they failed to convince the mixed middle in the state.
Much depends on Pelosi. Kaveny describes how “the judicious use of prophetic indictment is a matter not only of content and style but also of character and virtue.”
These old fashioned words are what the speaker has to embody and convey. People need to see her carefully conduct an objective diagnosis and recommend a proportional remedy.
She will need to tell her caucus to stifle their righteousness, to stop describing the sadness they claim to feel, to hold back their instincts to politicize at every turn. She will need to convince the country that she is undistracted, focused on moral realism and fundamental constitutional values.
If she succeeds, if she threads this needle, she will have done the nation a great service, and she will emerge as the most important political figure of our time.
Gecan is co-director of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.