Cornel West's course, “American Democracy,” co-taught with Harvard Law School professor Roberto Unger, addressed the rise of inequality and nationalism in the United States through the lenses of class, race, and identity, and suggested ways to work for institutional change. In this interview, he shares his thoughts about the “escalating spiritual blackout” in American politics, what can be done to counteract it, and the role that Harvard Divinity School can play.
HDS: How do you characterize this moment in American democracy?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I think that we certainly live in a moment of escalating spiritual blackout. There’s a relative eclipse of integrity, honesty, decency, and courage.
American democracy’s always had ups and downs, but we’ve also had institutional sources to produce fightback in regard to the civic virtue, in regard to visionary energy and to courageous witness. We do have some fightback in the country now, but I think there is a kind of fatigue setting in. It’s an open question as to whether we have enough for what needs to be done, to shatter the carelessness and indifference toward the poor and vulnerable.
HDS: You use a term to describe a coming together of the political and the spiritual: democratic soulcraft. Can you unpack that a little bit? For instance, what’s our role and our responsibility to that work as a divinity school?
CORNEL WEST: I think Harvard Divinity School has a certain calling, in a multireligious mode, to accent love, empathy, and compassion and resist any double standards. No tradition gets a pass. If Christians are talking about Jesus but are mistreating Jews, serious critique must be brought to bear. If Hindus, including Gandhi, are not coming to terms with our untouchable brothers and sisters, then serious criticism must be brought to bear. We can go right down the line: Buddhists, Muslims, and so on.
It’s a matter of bearing witness with more consistency and a spiritual richness that calls into question self-righteousness, and yet also refuses to allow despair to have the last word. I mean, that’s the important thing. Our role as a divinity school is never to allow for despair and cynicism to have the last word. It doesn’t mean that we don’t wrestle with the darkness, but we don’t allow it to have the last word. The 32nd chapter of Genesis is Jacob wrestling at night with the angel of death. Even in the bleakest situation, you look for the best in humanity.
Since the election of 2016, we’ve seen the best of America. That’s what the International March of Women was all about. That’s what the march in the airports was all about in defense of our immigrant brothers and sisters. That’s what support of the Black Lives Matter movement is about. It’s a spiritual and moral awakening.
At the same time, we don’t ever want to fetishize President Trump. He’s made in the image of God. He is an expression of American culture. He’s a fellow citizen. He’s a human being. The last thing we want to do is to demonize him in the belief that the rest of us are not responsible for the state of our country today. No. All of us are responsible.
HDS: You recently wrote in The Guardian about the need for “a class- conscious multi-racial [political] party attuned to anti-sexist, anti- homophobic and anti-militaristic issues and grounded in ecological commitments . . . . ” That description sounds a lot like the learning environment we try create at HDS. How are we doing?
CORNEL WEST: You’ve got two things going on at Harvard Divinity School. You’ve got the shift from the old liberal Protestant model that was in place for so long and the move to embracing other religious traditions. At the same time, you also have this shift from a kind of faith-based engagement with the world—albeit with scholarly tools—to one that’s a more scholarly study of religion.
We’ve been in this transition for a while, but I think we’ve still got a number of challenges. You can’t really have a serious engagement with a variety of different religious traditions without there being a vibrancy and a vitality within the various faith traditions that are coming together. That’s one of the real challenges of any institution that’s concerned about comparative religious orientations or ecumenical dialogue. And I think the trends in higher education right now can make it difficult for us to stay in contact with the best of our past that is not translatable in market terms. We’ve got great traditions that must be preserved, but it’s hard to preserve them if it’s always a matter of looking at what the payoff is. It’s a problem not just with Harvard Divinity School but also with every major institution of higher learning in a capitalist society.
HDS: You talk a lot about the need for “institutional capacity” so that there are concrete alternatives to the current politics and social order for ordinary citizens. Here we are at HDS. We’re an independent school. We’re also part of one of the world’s great research universities. How can we contribute?
CORNEL WEST: It’s just a matter of being more intentional about it. It’s not a question of narrow ideology or petty politics. It’s really a question of spiritual values and virtues, like what it really means to care and have deep concern for the vulnerable. How is that reflected in our curriculum? What does it really mean to engage in a quest for truth on which no one of us and no tradition has a monopoly? How does that quest take us outside of ourselves and force us to examine our traditions and communities and nations in new and sometimes painful ways? If you have resources and you’re just using the resources to reorient and reiterate something that you’re already tied to, you don’t have enough Socratic energy at work.
HDS: Another challenge for the School is how to engage with voices across the political spectrum. You engage pretty fearlessly with figures on the right, from your former Princeton colleague Robert George to Fox News host Sean Hannity. If HDS is trying to create a class-conscious, multi-racial, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-militaristic environment, how can we open up to people who are not all those things?
CORNEL WEST: I think we have to. The world is made up of a lot of different people. America is made up of a lot of different people. Our families are made up of a lot of different people. The notion that somehow we can stay either in a bubble or in a homogeneous context and not engage people who have very deep disagreements with what we fundamentally believe I think is simply a form of escapism. We have to be in contact with each other.
People who are deeply conservative are still my brothers and my sisters. There’s a human connection with them. More than that, I believe that I can learn something from them and I try to listen very closely. Now, I disagree with them about a whole host of issues, even after I learn and listen, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not empowered by engaging them. I hope that they are empowered by engaging me. The last thing we want is just some kind of narrow, ideological homogeneity that reinforces a sense of self- righteousness.
I’ve always taught classes with conservative thinkers. I had debates with [Yale Divinity School Professor] Paul Holmer way back in the early 1980s. He was one of the first theologians to critically engage in a very negative way black theology. It was intense. It was beautiful. We had a deep friendship, even though I thought he was wrong most of the time, and he thought I was wrong most of the time. Robbie George and I teach classes together. We travel the country. I also believe in debating Jewish conservatives who think I’m too critical of Israel. I’m having a debate with [Harvard Law School’s] Alan Dershowitz pretty soon. I’ve always debated black conservatives. Shelby Steele and I debated all around the country. So, I believe in dialogue, not in any naive sense. I just believe that it’s part and parcel of a Socratic and prophetic way of being in the world.
HDS: Along those lines, you’ve talked about “prophetic fire” as a “hypersensitivity to the suffering of others that generates a righteous indignation that results in the willingness to live and die for freedom.” I’m wondering where you see that prophetic fire today. Can it be taught?
CORNEL WEST: There’s no doubt that it’s something that can be taught, primarily by example. We’ve got to replace market-driven celebrities with spiritually laden exemplars—and the exemplars make all the difference in the world.
A lot of prophetic fire is at work in terms of defending our precious trans people. We see it in concerns about domestic violence. We see it in concerns about working people, where certain elements of the trade unions are trying to come alive. We see it in concerns about civil liberties or the persecution of the Baha’i, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the persecution of Christians or Muslims or Jews. So, there are plenty of articulations of prophetic fire.
The problem is that it’s hard for all these expressions to come together to form some kind of overlapping unity or overlapping commonality and have a larger impact. Right now, it’s still so scattered and dispersed. It would be wonderful, for example, if you had people who are fighting against anti-Jewish hatred, fighting against anti-Arab hatred, in the same context.
HDS: Finally, we’ve just finished celebrating the School’s bicentennial. There have been many prophetic voices in our history—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Paul Tillich, James Luther Adams, to name only a few. As we enter our third century, do we have a responsibility to try to produce those kinds of leaders?
CORNEL WEST: I don’t think the divinity school is the kind of institutional machine to generate prophetic voices. You’ve got to be open to prophetic voices throughout the various traditions of religion, but all voices are not prophetic. That’s the difference between a school that’s open to robust dialogue and inquiry, and a particular church, or temple, or mosque, or political party, or ideological gathering. It’s the latter where, if you want certain kind of prophetic voice, you’d be much more explicit about it. At a school, you want conversation.
Now, if Harvard Divinity School is going to be concerned about quests for truth, quests for goodness, quests for beauty, quests for the holy, you’re going to have a number of prophetic voices. But I don’t think it’s the end aim of the School. I think that’s a little bit too much for any university. You can’t confuse the vocation of one’s own interpretation of a tradition with the vocation of an institution as a whole. I mean, Harvard is still going to be Harvard!