Pundits and politicians are hurling around the term false prophets, making one wonder if the term is the newest way to smear an opponent with a negative religious image. Are all our opponents false prophets? What really is a false prophet?
Seeking to deflect criticism from Sen. Barack Obama’s 20-year relationship with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne asked: “Do white right-wing preachers have it easier than black left-wing preachers? Is there a double standard?”
He concluded, “Now the question is whether we will be just as tough on false prophets who happen to be white and right-wing.”
Advocating for a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) referred to “the false prophets like a Hugo Chavez, who would like to build a socialist network ”an anti-American, anti-Yankee sort of attitude.”
Writing in the Harrisonburg, Va., Daily News Record, about Eastern Mennonite University’s “Royal Flush” art exhibit, businessman David W. Lee charged that the ceramic urinal “insinuated we should urinate upon America’s elected leaders.”
He called that offensive and said that “the individuals and institutions that support and allow such displays ¦are not Mennonites. They are more like false prophets leading our children astray.”
Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Detroit’s embattled mayor: “The hard fact is that Mr. Kilpatrick was a false prophet under whom the city wasn’t going to come back ”and not just because of his vices, but his virtues as well.”
At the Dallas Morning News, Paul Meyer called Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, “a fugitive false prophet.”
Bob Webster, editor of WEBCommentary, called global warming “a false theory” and Al Gore a “false prophet.”
With so many false prophets abroad in the land, what is a false prophet from a Christian vantage point?
The 108-year-old International Pentecostal Holiness Church issued a recent paper to its 4.2 million members which warned about false prophets.
“We ¦recognize that false apostles appeared in the apostolic church as well as in the church history, and that we must remain alert to the continuing danger of these emissaries of Satan,” said the document, which identified false apostles as “carnal men [who] usurped the role for their own glory.”
Evangelical theologian Elaine Storkey told British Baptists: “Don’t listen to the false prophets; don’t listen to the dreams they dream; don’t listen if they are proclaiming anything but the good news that comes from God. False hope is anything that doesn’t have its grounding in the plans and purposes of God.”
Storkey said that false prophets “offer easy answers, easy solutions, complacency and self-indulgence.”
Working on the biblical text of Jeremiah 29:11 and referencing global poverty, she said, “The false prophets have prophesied continual growth and rising consumption. But the earth cannot sustain these levels of consumption and these levels of growth.”
Pentecostals and evangelicals offer a clear note about false prophets ”prophets seek their own glory, offer easy answers and encourage self-indulgence.
So from a Christian vantage point, what is a true prophet?
Tomorrow’s editorial will take a swing at defining the nature of an authentic prophet in the biblical tradition.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.