Moral reform movements led by ministers: RIP.

The Reverend Martin Luther King led a society-wide moral movement for equality. That wouldn’t be possible today.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, a few hours early.

It’s common today to talk about race relations generally, but my own work gives me more insight into a narrower question: King’s politics, and the social context that made them work. He was a huge, complex figure, etc., etc., but, put simply: King used his moral authority as a minister to shame many mainstream Americans into changing their fundamental beliefs and practices. Put even more simply, nobody could do that now: ministers no longer have moral authority, and lack a mainstream political role.

Now that you’ve spewed out your coffee: I don’t mean that religion had more power in politics in the 50s and 60s than now (though the argument could be made: the reason there was no religious Right was that all its positions now were laws then), nor of course that major politicians talked more about Jesus then. I mean that there used to be something respectable about being a religious leader. Back when we had an Establishment, priests, ministers and rabbis were its designated spokesmen [sic, let’s face it] on moral matters. Few dared to say openly that a respected man [sic] of the cloth, speaking seriously on a moral issue, was simply blowing smoke.

King played on that like a virtuoso. He rarely claimed that God gave him authority to make public policy on racial matters. He preached to his congregations, but mostly he used his social authority as a minister to make secular arguments on racial matters. If it’s hard to imagine what this could have looked like, consider how we treat former generals talking about Iraq. A general’s claim can certainly be wrong, and of course generals disagree, but a general has both presumptive authority on military matters and presumptive moral status as someone who has a certain character. Well, ministers used to be looked at the same way: Americans took both their moral opinions and their character seriously, though both were subject to rebuttal. King’s preacherly mien increased rather than decreased his general authority on moral matters.

We don’t respect clergy like that anymore. As “mainline” denominations have weakened, and polarized politically, and free-lance evangelicals gained strength, a public statement by a preacher has come to convince those of the same religion and politics — but not the rest of society. (Polls on whether people want clergy to “speak up on political and social questions” often obscure this: if every voter wants her own religious authority to speak up on her own side, and would consider changing religious affiliations for political reasons, this means that clergy lack social power.)

The Civil Rights Act would probably have happened with or without religion, but real changes in the acceptability of personal racial prejudice required — as King stressed constantly — a change in conscience, not just in law. While muttered, submerged racism and structural racial inequality are still with us, those who think nothing fundamental has changed simply don’t know much about the Jim Crow era and the racial attitudes — let alone the structures — that respectable white people and their leaders, North and South, defended openly back then.

The role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its guilt-induced allies in changing those attitudes cannot be overstated. Does anyone think that white racism would have become taboo so quickly if the leaders of the Civil Rights movement had been Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (the Thurgood Marshalls wringing their hands from the side, with little personal or charismatic following)?

It’s a common vice of liberals to think that all good things go together. But in most of life, and in this case, big improvements come with some costs. On the whole, the clergy’s loss of influence has been a stupendous gain. Without this decline, the story of sexual freedom, gay rights, and legal abortion (for now, anyway) would have been very different. But so would the story of Civil Rights. Those who want a new Civil Rights movement will have to grapple with the lack of leaders immediately respected by both Blacks and Whites. Once, the role of minister provided an unexpected bridge. No longer.

The problem is more general. A society with no uncontroversial moral authorities will find it easier to justify personal liberty than to tell anyone why he should (slightly) limit his liberty to promote the moral value of equality.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

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