Prophetic politics in transatlantic transfer. Discourses on prophecy in the Weimar Republic and in the USA from the 1940s to the 1960s

A series of workshops discussed the figure of the Prophet in the political theory of the 20th century, a figure which attracted increasing attention in Christian and Jewish discourses around 1900. In the Weimar Republic, the figure of the Prophet stood for a different form of politics—democratic, but not liberal—that, along with the exiles, travelled across the Atlantic, where it still plays an important role in the political discourse to this day.

In Science as a Vocation (1918), Max Weber warns of the so-called ‘Kathederpropheten’ (ex-cathedra prophets) who use their lectures to advocate for new doctrines of salvation. A year later, Hermann Cohen regards the prophets as the founders of modern historical thinking. At the same time, Karl Jaspers demands a reformation of thought in the form of a ‘prophetic philosophy’. Especially in the early stages of the Weimar Republic, it is not only the ‘barefoot prophets’ (Ulrich Linse), the teachers of salvation, and apostles of inflation that take the stage—Prophecy also becomes an important model of intellectual politics. In the Weimar Republic, the renaissance of messianism is also a renaissance of prophetic charisma which seems predestined to express an increasingly precarious political authority. The prophet can appear as either a revolutionary or a reformer. In either case, he embodies radical moralistic-political and epistemic aspirations within these discourses—a set of aspirations far beyond the legitimacy of traditional political institutions.

The fascination with prophecy looks back at a long history of political and, especially, denominational distortions. In the context of the discussion on Adolf von Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1900), the figure of the prophetic teacher and proclaimer as a religious, cultural, and political model has already been invoked by both the hegemonial, Protestant discourse and the advocates of von Harnack’s dismissive conception of Jewish religion as plain legalism. However, these discourses mix in various ways. Whereas the Protestants picture Jesus first and foremost as a moral teacher, the Jewish discourses portray the prophets as substitute sufferers. Since the prophet and the prophets are always situated at the boundaries between internal conscience and political action, prophecy becomes the venue of a syncretistic and highly complex dispute between biblical tradition and current politics. This dispute continues throughout the years of the Weimar Republic: in the debate between Hermann Cohen and Ernst Troeltsch, a debate on the interpretation of prophecy, in a dispute between the Protestant exegesis and dialectical theology in the works of Max Wiener, or in Martin Buber’s conception of a charismatic tradition in Kingship of God (1936). These disputes are widely received by the public and accompanied by countless literary adaptions of prophetic speech.

With the expulsion of Jews from Germany, many of these discourses spread across the globe. Paul Tillich teaches in the USA, Martin Buber emigrates to Israel, Abraham J. Heschel takes his finished study on the prophets to America where The Prophets (1962) is published with considerable success. Of course, this is not just a linear transfer of European ideas. Firstly, the authors react to their experiences under Totalitarianism. Secondly, America confronts them with a thoroughly different discourse on ‘American Prophecy,’ a discourse based on the Anglo-American tradition of literary politics, from Milton and Blake to Shelley and Whitman. Also, they are met with a long practice of radical prophetic criticism, from the American Jeremiade to various social reform movements. Thus, Heschel’s work at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York does not only make him one of the most important mediators of European religious thought within the American context, the political implications of prophetic rhetoric also become directly manifest in his work. In the 1960s, he collaborates with the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. Here, he develops essential ideas on free speech, but also on the agency of the suppressed—ideas which stem from the old social and political implications of prophetic politics.

As an alternative to Carl Schmitt’s ‘Political Theology,’ the dominant line of thought until today, these analyzed discourses on prophetic politics are of great relevance, especially in the context of a currently newfound interest in the relation between politics and religion. They demonstrate that religious rhetoric may be mobilized not only in the name of power and order, but also in the name of justice and resistance—a process that does not only have to occur in the form of dogmatic decrees but may also take the form of a risky rhetorical performance.

The project, which was made possible with start-up financing by the DFG, organized a series of workshops to establish a transatlantic network on this topic. A first workshop in Berlin (June 2017) focused on the forms in which prophetic politics were discussed in the Weimar Republic. A second workshop in New York (September 2017) viewed the figure of the prophet in the American context where prophecy seems to become more democratic and practical. It was discussed just how the figure of the radical prophet ties into other discourses and how it is received by political rhetoric such as the Civil Rights Reform.

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to Support the Initiation of International Collaboration 2017–2018
Head researcher(s): Nitzan Lebovic (Lehigh University Bethlehem/USA), Daniel Weidner (ZfL)


Nitzan Lebovic, Daniel Weidner (ed./eds.)

Prophetic Politics

Political Theology, Special Issue, Vol. 21, Issue 1–2 (2020)
Taylor & Francis, 2020, 168 pages
ISSN 1462-317X (Print), 1743-1719 (Online)

Nitzan Lebovic

Daniel Weidner

  • Smashing Words. Prophetic Words and Alternative Political Theologies, in: Dominik Finkelde, Rebekka Klein (eds.): In Need of a Master: Politics, Theology, and Radical Democracy. Berlin, Boston: de Gruyter 2021, 271–284
  • Introduction, in: Political Theology 21.1–2 (2020), special issue Prophetic Politics, ed. by Nitzan Lebovic, Daniel Weidner, 1–8 (with Nitzan Lebovic)
  • Prophetic Criticism and the Rhetoric of Temporality: Paul Tillich’s Kairos Texts and Weimar Intellectual Politics, in: Political Theology 21.1–2 (2020), special issue Prophetic Politics, ed. by Nitzan Lebovic, Daniel Weidner, 71–88

See also


13 Jul 2018 · 12.30 pm

Daniel Weidner: Prophetic Politics

Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, Südliches Schloßrondell 23, 80638 München

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Workshop in Berlin
28 Jun 2018 · 9.30 am

Prophetic Politics as Alternative Political Theology. Pluralizing Horizons of Conceptualizing Religion and Politics

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

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Workshop in New York
13 Sep 2017 – 14 Sep 2017

The Power of the Future. Prophetic Politics between Political Crises and Civil Rights

Center for Jewish History New York, 15 West 16th Street, New York 10011 (USA)

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Workshop in Berlin
29 Jun 2017 – 30 Jun 2017

Ethical Idealism, Charisma, and Cultural Critique: Prophetic Politics in the Weimar Republic

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Seminarraum 303

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