It was that visionary sage Frank Costanza who once observed, “You got the hen, the chicken and the rooster. The rooster goes with the chicken, so who’s having sex with the hen? Something’s missing!”
Something’s missing alright, Frank. During the Sixties the Left had a power higher than William O. Douglas—hell, it was even higher than Maynard G. Krebs—and that was the clergy. Reverend King, Ralph Abernathy, the Berrigan brothers, the hundreds of forgotten pastors and nuns and seminary students who participated in the Freedom Rides and marches and peace rallies…Together they projected a moral authority which everyone except racist crackers and J. Edgar Hoover—but I repeat myself—felt bound to tiptoe around. The hateful sludge emanating from today’s radio talk-show hosts and elected representatives is troublesome mainly because it’s grown so overt since Obama’s election; people are saying things out loud that would’ve gotten them drummed out of civilized society a mere 20 years ago, but they’re doing it today with impunity. The grade-school pettiness, the obsession with obscenity, and the potential for violence that were bulwarks of the conservative movement during the Clinton years have hardened into something even shriller and more fear-driven than all the Vince Foster conspiracy theories combined. For sheer and utter nonsense the Birther, Tea Party, and Sarah-for-Whatever mobs are the contemporary equivalent of the America Firsters or the John Birch Society, with the crucially important difference that in the 1960s mainstream conservatives actually rejected Birchers as the paranoid, incoherent nut-jobs they were.
But that was back in the day of the Rockefellers and Lodges, when the party’s leaders still resembled human beings; since that time the GOP has resembled one of those charts showing mankind learning to walk upright, except in reverse. Even high-visibility Republicans get away with racial slurs and reality-challenged policy claims because the media’s fragmentation has made it all but impossible to corner them with a spotlight and force them to explain to a wide national audience just what the hell it was they meant when they called for “a great white hope” to challenge Obama. A Congressman caught tweeting racist jokes simply scampers into the friendly confines of Fox News to “clarify” his remarks and that’s the end of the episode. What’s missing are the authoritative moral figures who can spot a euphemism or a dodge when they see one, who don’t turn a deaf ear to vileness, and who have enough standing to put some shame on these yahoos and make it stick. But where are they? Are you telling me that in all of America there’s not even one minister, priest, rabbi, shaman, nun, or—gulp!—archbishop who has both a conscience and a way with words? You mean we don’t have even one Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu, someone who can stand up and explain in simple English why poor people deserve a living wage, and just why it is that Michele Bachmann is going to spend eternity roasting like a hot-dog in the darkest cracks of Hell?
America pays no end of lip-service to God but the truth is we’re one of the least spiritual countries on the planet; as we’re worshiping the paragon of humility and meekness with one hand we’re re-electing Rambo with the other. Our clergy have been all but invisible throughout our Middle Eastern misadventures, and all but silent during the otherwise raucous debate about torture; what we do have is no end of showboats and mountebanks, whether their name is Al Sharpton or Joel Osteen. George Tiller was serving as an usher at his church when he was assassinated by a right-wing lunatic yet America’s religious establishment, far from flocking together to express collective outrage over the fact, instead had exactly boo to say about it. And even though people remain traumatized by what went down in Dealey Plaza nearly 50 years after the fact, today’s gun-nuts carry assault rifles to Obama’s appearances as their pastors openly pray for the President’s death. If that doesn’t rattle your faith in the world, only God knows what will.