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. Kamil Zawadzki

    Reblogged this on Outspoken.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  2. There. Are. No. Gods!

    This article should be called "The fable of the empty chair" because in both instances that is all it is, a fable.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • You Missed the Point

      that's not the point of the article...

      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.”

      Get it?

      September 2, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • phillygirl

      @you missed the point...You are correct. Words are powerful tools and we should be very mindful of how we choose to use them. It's a slippery slope when we begin to speak for others.

      September 2, 2012 at 3:35 am |
  3. Cassarit

    I can't stand either Romney or Obama. But this article is a bunch of fluffy nonsense.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  4. Kern Huerta

    Good old CNN at it again. You guys just can't take a good licking. You have to spin the no chair act into something positive for obama. Hinduism ?? Really?? You guys are reaching pretty far on this one. This article give me a good gauge of how disconnected you are from reality. Keep up the good work.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • thethirdorder

      Well, considering that Obama did LIVE in Indonesia, it's not entirely inappropriate....

      September 2, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • Ben

      What Eastwood did was called a Strawman. It's a form of Logical Fallacy where you compose a false representation of your opponent and attack THAT rather than interact with your adversary. A common Strawman is as simple as someone saying one thing and you extrapolating FOR THEM to some exploitable position that you can attack. Like someone says they don't believe in God, so you assert that they obviously must also hate all Christians and attack their lack of morals on those grounds.

      "You didn't build that" is also a Strawman. It's been deliberately taken out of context to construct a fake position for the President for conservatives to attack because they can't exploit what the President ACTUALLY says.

      This is a more egregious example than either of those. They literally mustered a fake Obama out of thin air and attacked this figment of their imagination. It's profoundly ignorant and in terms of debating or disagreeing with someone, hugely unethical.

      September 2, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  5. Just call me Lucifer

    All this talk about God is really starting to get to me. I mean, I'm a flippin' god, and I just get blamed for all the crap that goes wrong. Earthquakes? My fault. Tsunami? The red guy did it. I'm powerful for sure... but I'm certainly not "earthquake" powerful. God doesn't do those thing either. You know who does it? Buddha. Yep. He may look all fat and mellow... but that guy can sure be a dick when he wants to be. Sheesh.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  6. Just call me Lucifer

    @Rational Libertarian who said...

    "Hate gets me out of bed in the morning."

    Thats exactly how I feel. Its not just a job... its an adventure.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  7. Alex

    I really enjoyed reading that. Usually I don't care for the religion articles, but this one really hit the nail on the head for me. Thanks.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:01 am |
  8. JBHedgehog

    It's a very interesting contrast of cultures. I do appreciate the new knowledge very much.

    I must take a slight defense of being a sinner. I'm not a sinner...I don't think I ever have been. I think it's odd that a religion must make a participant occupy that point of view before becoming a practicing member of that religion.

    That kind of stinks, actually.

    September 2, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  9. OzarkGranny

    I appreciate your gentle, thoughtful, and humble comments. I'm embarrased by all the hateful words that were expressed in the comments section.

    September 2, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Hate gets me out of bed in the morning.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:44 am |
  10. kenny

    its sooo hilarious how the foxtards migrated to cnn after foxnews shut their craziness down... too crazy for fox should/is the tea party motto... lol ...

    September 2, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  11. kenny

    foxtards get lost...

    September 2, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • JS

      "Lincoln pleaded for a civil politics in both North and South..."

      Glad to see you're taking the author's advice to heart. 😛

      September 2, 2012 at 2:47 am |
  12. craig huffman

    wow, you cant be serious.......really. I hope you do not make your living writing. If you do you had better hope dems win the election so you can keep your lib job. I can't believe you call this reporting.

    September 2, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      How would the Republicans winning affect his employment?

      September 2, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • kenny

      truth hurts... lol

      September 2, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      What truth? That some Balinese empty chair is more important than Eastwood's empty chair?

      September 2, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Elizabeth

      It's an opinion piece, not a news report

      September 2, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • Floretta

      You will note, up top, that this is the Belief Blog, which places it in the "opinion" caegory, not investigative journalism. Take a chill pill, sonny. It's a great big world out there and YOU ae not the center of it.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  13. Ledgem

    Lots of negative remarks on here (as usual), so I figure I'll chime in with something positive: I enjoyed the article. It took an event out of politics and turned it into something of spiritual contemplation. I found it interesting and a bit insightful.

    You all have yourselves a pleasant Labor Day weekend.

    September 2, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  14. mfox

    where do you find this garbage? I'm deleting CNN as my frontpage... going somewhere else.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • Peacetoall

      Good riddance to bad rubbish. Happy trails to you...

      September 2, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  15. me

    good golly, you call this journalism? proof positive that a lil education can be a dangerous thing – maybe 20 or so years from now after the glow of your studies have been marinated into some wisdom and not presented on the front burner for all to awe youll see that this shallow attempt to defend your demigod is immature vomit. its baffling that so many truly intelligent folks are unemployed while there are online 'journalists' that cant spell let alone create a thoughtful piece with any kind of substance...sad.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • tracer

      The free mark works in mysterious ways.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  16. karenjay

    "Today’s political religion puts human beings above God." Interesting, because it is precisely the "savior state" mentality which seems to believe that government is god-or takes the role of God in our lives. Have a problem? The government will take care of you. So-when you put it that way--the empty chair seems befitting of this president.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Don't mistake Eastwood's message for a religious one. He's not a theist.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  17. jay


    September 2, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  18. † Evangelical Christian †

    All religions except Christianity are false, fake and silly

    September 2, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Hopefully you're being facetious.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • cassus

      Every word ever spoken is true in some way. Every problem has a solution. Things are tied together in many more ways than we can presume. Every major religion is constructed on faith and dedication. Discipline and morality. Take what you know to be true from these religions and live your life respectively. Just don't mar a religion without having an observer's point of view.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • Bryan R

      Yes all religions except Christianity are silly. Like woman being created from the rib of a man, every mammal on earth in pairs being kept on a boat, with room to board and food stores enough for all, and a man rising from the dead.

      September 2, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  19. Think1stWillya

    Pretty lame attempt to hide an attack on Republicans.
    No one connected Obama, or Hinduism, or Bali, or Clint, or chairs, or divinity. Except you.
    Hubris exists everywhere. Inside and outside of politics. Inside and outside of religion. They exist together, but are not linked together. Therefore they have nothing to do with each other. It exists in humans. ALL humans. Your article is full of your own.
    Next time just say "I didn't like it because it made someone (in this case, obviously your candidate) look bad" and be done with it.
    Oh...and after the DNC, make sure you point out all the hubris shown there too. I don't think you can.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • JC

      Think 1st- You so perfectly made the author's point, and your own hubris will never let you realize that.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      From a neutral perspective, it's obvious that the hubris from both sides will increase massively until election time. Eastwood is a true American hero, though.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  20. ScottCA


    September 2, 2012 at 12:20 am |
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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.