Two women protest the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina.Jason Miczek / Reuters

Ten days before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, he spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of Conservative Jewish clergy. He was introduced by another great religious leader of the civil-rights era: Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Where does moral leadership in America come from today?” Heschel asked. “Where does God dwell in America today?”

In retrospect, it’s easy to identify the voices of moral leadership during that time in history. In his new book, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, the emeritus Princeton professor Albert J. Raboteau gives short accounts of the lives of King and Heschel, along with A.J. Muste, the anti-war activist; Dorothy Day, a leader of the Catholic Worker Movement; Howard Thurman, the civil-rights leader; Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk; and Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting-rights activist. Each of these figures drew from his or her faith, and each had a remarkable affect on politics.

But, as Raboteau writes, they were also rejected and criticized. They were prophetic voices, he argues, which necessarily means they spoke from the margins of culture. It’s not easy to understand prophesy in progress.

This is especially true today, during a time of major division over a hate-filled presidential race and protest against police killings in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many radical voices are speaking out from the margins, but they’re different from those who spoke out 50 years ago: for one thing, fewer seem to be explicitly religious. And while many Americans seem ready for a prophetic figure, they are radically split over whether that figure should be someone like Donald J. Trump or a movement like Black Lives Matter.

Looking back, Raboteau says, the civil-rights era seems like a clear “kairos moment,” divinely marked by God as a time for action. Perhaps another such moment is happening today. I spoke with Raboteau about his prophetic figures—the lessons from their activism, and the tensions inherent in their radical political projects. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Emma Green: In many of today’s activist movements, and particularly ones focused on racial and income inequality, the heads of religious institutions play a role, but they’re not necessarily the most visible leaders. Why have the prophetic voices of today’s activist movements become more secular than they were, say, during the civil-rights movement?

Albert J. Raboteau: Each of the people in my book went through some kind of conversion experience that motived their action and opened them up to seeing themselves as part of the long tradition of prophesy with Judaism and Christianity. I think that’s less the case today with activists—the movements don’t seem to flow as much from churches as they did in the past.

It may have something to do with the fact that church growth in the country is decreasing. If you look at the Pew reports on religious membership, the “nones” (people who don’t identify with any particular religious tradition) seem to be increasing. That’s less so in the black church, but it’s true generally among church-goers. There is also a sense among some people that religion is such a fraught and controversial issue that they’re reluctant to use religious reasoning in order to justify social action.

Then I think probably another factor is the sense in which people are reluctant to engage in discussions of values because they worry that the discourse will turn into anger and fighting— that religion is one more source of disagreement in a highly polarized society.

The two book-sellers at my local book store, which is now selling the book, asked me a question: “What good is religion in politics?” And my answer to them was, “Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer.” Their response was, “That’s not fair because they were exceptional.” I said, “Yes, they were exceptional, but they were also exemplary.”

What the book in part is about is to look at how exceptional these characters were, but also how exemplary. We shouldn’t just keep them frozen in some kind of civil-rights museum of the past. They should still provoke us to civic discourse that has a different kind of character, and more empathy.

Green: You talk about how Dorothy Day experienced a loss of community when she was baptized in the Catholic Church—a lot of her socialist, Labor-oriented friends felt that she was aligning herself with an institution that was fundamentally corrupt.

This seems to be a tension in the model of prophetic voice you describe. Religious institutions can be oriented toward stability, and have often been directly opposed to calls for change from the radical fringes. How do you reconcile these two legacies of religious institutions and figures: their distinctive ability to speak prophetically, but also their distinctive ability to cause harm?

Raboteau: What all of these people had was an ability to criticize religious institutions as well as civic ones. Institutional religious change is part of what these people were struggling for, and each of them had difficulties with their denominations because of their radicalness.

King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a very strong condemnation of religious “do-nothing-ism.” He talks about how he would prefer those from opposite sides to those ministers who are hiding behind stained-glass windows. He’s an example of somebody who is taking to task his own religious tradition, both white and black, in terms of its failure to act.

We tend to think of some of these people as being domesticated by their traditions. With all of them, that’s not the case.

Green: All of these figures seem to emphasize personal encounter with social change. Members of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, for example, were asked to “to appreciate the needs of the poor through face-to-face contact instead of the institutionalized and depersonalized structures of charitable giving.”

This seems to be in tension with the way American policymaking is structured. Elites are often given the most power over issues like mass incarceration or poverty, even though they arguably have the most distance from them. How should we think about this?

Raboteau: I met Dorothy Day when I was 17 years old. I was on retreat at a Benedictine Monastery outside of Los Angeles—I was a freshman in college. I knew who she was because I had been reading the publications of the Catholic Worker Movement since I was 13, 14 years old. The leader asked her to make an address, and she said in her talk that she thought the United States should unilaterally disarm. This was right at the beginning of Kennedy’s presidency.

I and the rest of my group were troubled, so we asked the retreat master what he thought about that advice. And he said, “Well, I have no doubt that Dorothy Day will someday be a saint”—which, she’s up for canonization now—“but if I were President Kennedy, I wouldn’t follow her advice.”

I realized in that moment that there was something wrong here. Dorothy Day was constantly saying, “Don’t call me a saint, because I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

This book is an attempt to deal with that challenge to a 17-year-old’s sense of morality.

Green: You wrote about the Catholic Worker Movement’s decision not to take a position on World War II because it was a pacifist organization. Theirs was a decision to not get involved in politics. How do you think about that tension: the obligation of prophetic voices to be part of politics, versus the impulse to stay committed to politics in its ideal form?

Raboteau: Emphasis on consistency can smack of perfectionism. But for them, I think it’s consistency that’s not so much a matter of perfectionism as a matter of, “This voice needs to be heard.” And we’re still not hearing it.

This is the prophetic voice. The prophetic voice presents another alternative to the dominant narrative. The prophetic voice creates discomfort, and a sense of shame: Is this America? How can this be happening in a country with these values? How can this be going on—a police state murdering black men? How can this go on in America, and is there something I can do about it?

That’s the thrust of these kinds of actions, which seem to be foolhardy or not really effective. We need to continue to struggle. Otherwise, there’s no change.

Green: You talk in your book about a “kairos moment” in politics, as Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others saw the 1960s.

Today, it seems like we may once again be at an inflection point in American politics. Would you call it another kairos moment?

Raboteau: Marking a kairos moment is useful in terms of urgency, saying this is a divinely providential moment. That may have some use in the current moment.

It’s hard to know, when you’re right in the middle of something. It’s a prophetic voice that points to a kairos moment: that this moment needs to be taken seriously and used to try to bring society together. Civil rights didn’t solve the racial problem in this country. The legacy of slavery still lives on. And this is a moment when once again we need to deal with it. We need to acknowledge that it’s still going on, and we need to recognize that it’s still a stain on the honor and probity and reputation of the country.

Looking back at their kairos moment, it’s not something to place in a civil-rights museum. But we can say, hey, maybe this is a kairos moment for us as well. And for those of us who are old enough to have lived through that kairos moment, it’s maybe our task to remind people that we still have an unfinished agenda.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.