One page 135 in Sharon Crowley’s text, Towards A Civil Discourse, she examines the effects of Christian activists and their focus on achieving specific goals. She, and Justin Watson, claims that Christian activists use a two pronged attack to reach their desired targets. Specifically, the Christian Coalition uses “recognition” and “restoration” to meet their preferred objectives. Crowley states that “the Christian Right wants recognition of Christian positions and issues in the public sphere. However, members of this group also want to “restore” America to its status as a “Christian Nation.” The latter term becomes useful within contemporary political rhetoric. If the Christian Right is attempting to restore American values to what they once were (I’m not sure what time period), then the specific tools to persuade their audience need examination. One device, the jeremiad, becomes particularly useful when examining specific speeches. The jeremiad’s evolution begins with the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. In the book, the prophet Jeremiah laments the current state of the Hebrew peoples and predicts their nation will fall due to the broken covenant with God. This type of speech was also a favored by the Puritans, especially Jonathan Edwards. His “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” forecasts life in hell for those that do not repent and seek Christ’s salvation. With this history in mind, a speech in the jeremiad tradition seeks to display society’s current state, one that is always in moral peril, and offers a prophecy of its downfall typically in the near future.
As Sacvan Bercovitch describes the “current” American jeremiad (I use quotes here due to his book’s publishing date in 1978), it is “designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal” (xi). He further states that “the jeremiad survived the decline of Puritan New England, and, in what amounted to a nationwide ritual of progress, contributed to the success of the republic” (xv). For Bercovitch, the American jeremiad helps establish a mythic tradition centered on the prophet crying out in isolation. While his study focuses on writers of fiction, he, nevertheless, states that this “symbol set free titanic creative energies in our classic writers, and it confined their freedom to the terms of the American myth. The dream that inspired them to defy the false Americanism of their time compelled them to speak their defiance as keepers of the dream” (180). For Melville, Hawthorne, and other canonical writers in the nineteenth century, the jeremiad became a vehicle of social critique. Not unlike the pervious periods who favored this type of writing. Each author lamented the state of society within their texts and offered a final prophecy of doom: for Melville’s Ahab, his singular vision destroys his whole world and his life.
But what of the jeremiad and its current configuration in modern political discourse? Examining two political texts, I believe the jeremiad develops two branches. The first corresponds to the past usage and attempts to “restore” traditional values within American society. The second division attempt s to position America’s current state as gloomy, but offers a future that can and will be better. Both of my chosen texts are political speeches from the 2008 presidential race. Barack Obama’s speech entitled “A More Perfect Union” was delivered on March 2008. The second text is Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination acceptance speech.
Palin’s speech re-enforces Crowley’s notion of restoration within political rhetoric. During Palin’s speech, she laments the current state of American politics and “the permanent political establishment” found in Washington D.C.. With her special skills as a political outsider, she asserts that the only way to restore America is to remove the special interests within the political community. “This was the spirit that brought me to the governor’s office, when I took on the old politics as usual in Juneau, when I stood up to the special interests, and the lobbyists, and the big oil companies, and the good-ol’ boys. Suddenly I realized that sudden and relentless reform never sits well with entrenched interests and power brokers. That’s why true reform is so hard to achieve” she states mid-way through the speech. Within the context of the jeremiad, Palin seeks to reaffirm traditional values such as “integrity,” “good will,” “clear convictions,” and “a servant’s heart.” She desires to reestablish the office of the presidency and vice presidency within these values precisely because her base identifies and suspects these ideals are not present in the present-day state of American Politics.
On the other hand, Barack Obama’s jeremiad begins with the existing state of the American society, but offers, to use his campaign slogan, hope. His message resonates due to the insistence that we can do better. Citing the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, he reveals the ideal America, but one that could not be fully realized due to equality issues. The central issue of the speech was racial politics within his campaign. Stating that
it’s only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn. On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wild and wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation and that rightly offend white and black alike.
For Obama, the speech deplores the surrounding issues of his past associations with several incendiary people. But, he provides hope, something that emerges from his form of the jeremiad. Stating at the end of the speech, Obama offers optimism:
This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation — the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
Obama positions himself within the speech as an optimist. He acknowledges America’s past, but claims we can, nay we must do better, whereas Palin offers a model based on history’s idealized values and the need to restore them within American politics. Each speech contains an analysis of the current state of political discourse and how it is not satisfactory, but each speaker offers a different prophecy to remedy the situation. Palin want to restore, but Obama offers hope.