September 1st, 2012
11:08 AM ET

My Take: Give me Bali's empty chair over Eastwood's

An empty chair in Bali.

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When I went to Bali a few years ago, I didn’t go, like most tourists, for the beaches or, like Elizabeth Gilbert, for love. I went for the religion. I wanted to learn something about the unique brand of Hinduism practiced there.

Balinese Hinduism differs from Indian Hinduism in many ways. For example, in Balinese temples there are often no images of God. But for me the most arresting religious image I encountered was the empty chair.

I saw this chair, typically crafted of stone, everywhere in Bali—on streetcorners and mountaintops, and in households and rice fields. It is a shrine to Ida Sanghyang Widhi, the High God to Balinese Hindus. And it symbolizes, among other things, the indescribability of the divine.

Historians say this icon was brought to Bali in the sixteenth century from Java. Religious Studies scholars see some Buddhist influence here, which would not be surprising since Buddhism thrives throughout the Indonesian archipelago that encompasses Bali.

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I saw the empty chair as an invitation—an invitation to reckon with God on your own terms and in your own way. I also saw it as an elegant refusal—a refusal to reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand.

Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort. In his speech on Thursday at the Republican National Convention, he argued with an invisible Barack Obama in an empty chair, drawing applause from the audience but upstaging Mitt Romney in the process.

What struck me as I saw this performance was how different Eastwood’s use of the empty chair was from how people use it in Bali.

In Bali, to stand in front of the empty chair is to reckon with your limits, and particularly with what you don’t know. But Eastwood and those who applauded him were driven by hubris, not humility. They claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair, and of course the words they put in his mouth (including profanities) were words of their choosing, not his.

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My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one. Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes.

My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery.

One of the functions of religion has traditionally been to remind us of our limits: we are sinners, and only God is God; we see through a glass darkly, and only God sees face to face. But we have turned that function off.

Today’s political religion puts human beings above God. It turns God into a pawn in our political chess games, brazenly enlisting God's support for our particular policies on tax rates or abortion or the war in Afghanistan.

Once you have accustomed yourself to putting words in the mouth of God, it is pretty easy to start putting words in the mouths of your political opponents. You run not against the real Obama, his words and his actions, but against your own made up “invisible Obama.”

Instead of taking their cues from a Hollywood director, Republicans should follow the example of a great Republican, and perhaps the greatest American, Abraham Lincoln. In the face of a culture war that turned into the Civil War, Lincoln pleaded for a civil politics in both North and South. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said in his First Inaugural Address. “We must not be enemies.”

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln humbly confessed his confusion over what God was doing in allowing the Civil War to drag on and take so many lives, only to conclude that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln’s political piety was a faith of the Balinese empty chair—a humble faith that knew its own limits and confessed its own confusion. I’ll take that over Eastwood’s variety any day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church and state • Hinduism • Mitt Romney • Politics • United States

soundoff (553 Responses)
  1. jerry wallace

    You Misunderstood. He DIDN'T mean an EMPTY CHAIR.....He meant and EMPTY SUIT.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Easy E

      In case you hadn't noticed, everyone in politics is an empty suit. The difference is the level of craziness and incompetence. I'd rather have an affable but incompetent president (Obama) than the alternative. Seriously, who on earth would want anything the GOP offers today? More wars, more tax breaks for cheats, zero regulations so the corps can destroy lives, property, and communities, and 13th century Christian sharia law. No thanks!

      September 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Ruby

      Like Romney, an empty suit with a Hollywood script.

      September 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  2. juankah

    The empty chair also signifies the lack of respect for President Obama. When Chavez came to the UN and disrepected JW Bush, he became a buffon to me for the simply fact that a President even a Dictador deserves respect. (Let's give comedians a leeway.) Countless of times conservatives have shown contempt for Pres Obama. Clint Eastwood is just putting a theatrical angle to the same rhetoric of dispair by a party that has abandoned its own principles due to the embarrasement caused by their last president. Pres Obama responded accordingly with a picture of the Chair of the President of the USA with him on it! It has happened to me on the court, when a short hispanic guy can drain threes with ease causing pain and dispair for the victims of the evidence of talent where unexpected, in the case of the President a mixed race guy from Honolulu.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  3. Easy E

    Clint Eastwood managed to get confused by the empty chair more than to argue with it. I love the guy but it's obvious he's losing his wits...which is probably why he decided to be a keynote speaker for the Republican dingbats.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  4. Peace

    "My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one. Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes."

    Even God makes mistakes. That's why there are Greedy jerks who are grabbing as much as they can from others.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Ruby

      So you know this to be a mistake? You claim to actually be in the know concerning God? Did you understand the article you just read?

      September 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  5. realmike

    You are quite a talented writer. To post such a piece here that conveys a message without the need for spreading hate in very rare. I hope you write more. Humility. Thanks.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  6. Reality

    And "Prof" Stevie P again "sits" in judgement but who cares what he professes since he refuses to be honest about his own beliefs, something all religious "experts" should do before pontificating.


    September 1, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  7. Terry Brookman

    That was a reach, humility amd faith has nothing to do with Obama. Eastwood was joking. He has his right to joke too, the leaks from the White house have something to do with Obama also. When he is not campaigning he is not in the oval office taking care of business he likes to sit in his boy cave and play video games and search the INTERNET for what people are saying about him. He AWOL from his duties, he would not meet with Putin amd blew him off with, we will meet after the elections, I will get a lot done then. What kind of president skips a international power meeting to go to Hollywood to suck up to a bunch of actors.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Carole

      He has a right to joke at the expense of someone else? Choosing the President of the United States is not time to joke unless you are a member of the Tea Party.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  8. hahaha Obama's gonna win again hahaha

    I'm really gonna enjoy the deflated looks on the faces of all the bigots when Frankenstein and Eddie Munster lose to the crafty black man hahahahahahaha!!!!!!

    September 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  9. panorain

    Turns out the Bush tax cuts only cut taxes by $100b per year. Not anywhere near enough to deal with a $1.5t deficit. $5t in 4 years. $10t in 8 years. Or five time Bush's deficit. Obama 2016 is unsustainable without lots and lots of high-paid government jobs and QE3 & QE4 etc to implode the dollar. Obama is a failure. Pure and simple. Whether he is deserving of blame or is in fact blameless doesn't make a difference. If Obama wants to talk he can take a walk down the street. So the argument the GOP doesn't want to talk is also a ruse.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  10. ddpp

    Mr Prothero writes " humility has moved to the periphery.." Interesting. We humans are the most intelligent species. We forecast issues ahead of time and find fixes intelligently. Someone said we will run out of oil in 25 years from now, and here we go....started exploring alternate energy sources, so we are still driving cars, heating houses. But we have not find a solution to our problem churches, temples, mosques, synagogues are pointing out for centuries, we are becoming less and less human everyday in our life.......and like author points out nicely "humility has moved to the periphery"

    September 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. Keith Nisbet

    Beautifully expressed. Clarity and sanity in the midst of chaos and stupidity.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • fly on the wall

      10-4. You nailed it, but you are preaching to the choir I fear, if both sides could communicate better it would be an opportunity to really grow, those that know that, know that such as yourself. Unfortunately I only see a lot of blind hatred now being put on someone who is not vile or worthy of such treatment. Human goals are not achieved in the end by taking what you want by stepping on others, the biggest strides are when we all work together. Even though I am neither party I have to say the overwhelming hatred and bitterness of the GOP really stands out to me now, definitely they do not see it as hatred or denial in the current situation. Good post.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  12. bianca

    That was eloquently put...

    September 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  13. apstar

    Godd article and even somewhat profound. Clint Eastwood "arguing" with an imaginary President Obama in an empty chair symbolizes perfectly the GOP dogma: Talk to and deal with people as if they do not exist, do not give them the opportunity for rebuttal, and avoid meeting them face-to-face.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  14. lantenec

    Yeah, these are all quaint, lovely sentiments but... the truth is still that he is a complete failure as a president. His ideas/ideology were destined to fail by their very nature. Wrong ideas that contradict the nature of reality always do fail.

    September 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Brian

      When the GOP speaks about his "failures", what exactly are they speaking about? It is true the deficit is larger, but the deficit has grown under every president for the last 30 years. Since he took office, GDP has gone up, unemployment has gone down, he captured Bin Laden, got us out of Iraq, and our economy in general has improved from almost complete catastrophe Bush left it in. So honestly, what exactly are these "failures" specifically? I am trying to create an argument, I am just curios because no one ever mentions anything specific.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • greg

      Eastwood has struck to the core of Liberals in typical dirty harry fashion, You can find over 40 editorials in every major liberal biased news outlet as they try to justify this Icon of Americana striking at there messiah, How can this be a man who comes from the heart of hollywood do something like this, Well its because Obama's facade is cracking, for what ever reason the typical comedian attacks every president has suffered has never struck Obama, Comedians see a president as easy prey for laughs but for whatever reason cant seem to strike at Obama, And thats just plain strange, because we all like to laugh at our leaders, we have done it all our lives, So Dirty harry takes a swing at Obama and the Liberal world is thrown aback, This Opinion piece here is another attempt to blunt the message, Its pitiful actually, Eastwood got up there and poked fun at the president. Get over it!

      September 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • fly on the wall

      Maybe you should read the article over again and think a little harder, like maybe a hundred or so times so it sinks in. You missed the point with hatred and blame, start over. I am not going to step into dysfunctional loop when you only come with blame and denial. Get some perspective and keep trying without thought of party but of the common good not defined by party.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  15. NorthVanCan

    Religion is best understood from the out side looking in. Once you have been turned into a believer it is all but imposable to see clearly and be critical of the god complex. That might help explain the painfully slow "progress" in the third world.
    Lets hope the internet frees humanity from ignorance before we destroy the world and our selfs.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • greg

      Well the examples of godless goverments and countrys have been no better then the one's who believe, You see its not mans belief in god that is dangerous, its man that is dangerous. Atheists have come up with this delusion that if we only get rid of God we can find Utopia, As is there are no evil atheists or power hungery non believers. Someday you might succeed in watering down Christianity to the point its just a word, But your not going to pull it off with the Muslims, There making more headway in America then the Atheists and are a direct threat to a Atheists freedom to not believe, Yet yall ignore them and focus only on Christians, Why is that, could it be the Muslims, and Atheists are fighting for the same team and dont even know it.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Dave

    Indonesia practices sharia law
    Look what happened to Shapelle Corby, poor girl
    Never vacation there

    September 1, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  17. Catherine

    Sorry – but I'm so over thinking of Obama as DIVINE and hopefully the rest of the country will think so too in November. Clint was right, if you can't do the job, you've got to be let go.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • NorthVanCan

      That would be why the GOP should be thrown into the trash bin of history for ever. Clint got it right, he was just in the wrong place and time to give the speech. Old age is my best guess.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  18. blinky

    Thank you for this sensible article, a plea for tolerance and humility.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. Dear Mr Prothero

    Can you get a new photo to go with your essays?
    The one you always use makes you look like a serial killer!!
    Thanks, Your Audience

    September 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  20. Bob

    I think the point should not be lost: if you do a bad job, you're fired. That's what happens to bad employees. It's really that simple, and it's impossible to make a case for Obama doing anything beyond a timid, miserable job.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Ricky

      Actually I think we can make the case that President Obama has done a terrific job. I'm voting for him again.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Sharon

      That point is not the point of this piece. It's very well written. If Obama has failed and should be fired, then at least run against him on the reasons for that and NOT against what YOU want to tell everybody he has done. This article is well written, and makes a valid point. Religion and State should be separate for these reasons. Run against someone stating the FACTS about their term and the exact plan you have to counteract what is needing to be fixed. Today people are so busy slamming others they don't even have to have a good plan!

      September 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • ConfucianScholar

      Barry is a failure from every angle, his promises didn't pan out and now we have to ask the hope he was talking about was hope FOR WHAT?! He should have the decency of not going for reelection and put Hillary instead. Anyways, he will lose like he has been losing since his first day in office.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • jon

      The economy went down under republican administartion of Bush not Obama. It is the republicans and their irresponsible reckless policies involving deregulation and privatization that contributed the fall of economy in Bush years... Mr Meathead Rommany has not given any details of what and how is reduce the deficit without ioncreasing taxes, privatization and deregulation is itself not going to do that. Blaming Obama is the easiest thing to do, and that's exactly what the republicans are doing. It is pitiful and shameless.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • greg

      When a man has done a terrific job and deserves applause, you dont have to search for it, you dont have to have it explained to you, Its there for all to see, Thats not the case with Obama, We are no better off then we were 4 years ago and theres nothing to make us believe this man can do any better by giving him 4 more years. He himself said if he couldnt improve America in 4 years he had to go, No hes reneged on that as well.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • millions of voters

      I actually think Obama has done a great job considering the mess and decaying shambles he inherited. He has mine and millions of votes that do not base their vote on party lines but what the real situation was and is without slander and lies. Bob you are full of hate it seems, get outside and mix with people, all kinds of people and learn a little about the world. Good luck I hope your life gets a little happier for you.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.