Profiles in cowardice

By Tom Ehrich
Posted May 10, 2012

[Religion News Service] My host and I were talking politics, as people do in east Tennessee.

She told me about her friend Howard Baker, the three-term Republican senator (1967-1985), who governed in the Senate as minority leader and then majority leader by mastering the art of compromise.

Known as the “Great Conciliator,” Baker knew how to stay near the center and broker deals that both Republicans and Democrats could support.

Nowadays, pragmatic politicians like the 86-year-old Baker are aghast at what they consider extremist obstructionism in Congress, fomented mostly, to their regret, by the Grand Old Party that they call home.

The center has been vacated, he said, and rendered uninhabitable. The right wing controlling the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower has nothing but scorn for the opposition party and has no intention of cooperating in order to govern. Better to crash the state than to compromise.

Right-wing Christians who egg on extremist Republicans and provide their pseudo-intellectual rationale are similarly scornful of other views. God, they seem to believe, is entirely and uncompromisingly on their side.

What now? That is the question we should all be asking.

Can a nation survive radical extremism at its helm? Suddenly, scenarios like elections being canceled because Democrats might win, and internment camps being set up to incarcerate protesters like the Occupy movement as “domestic terrorists,” no longer seem conspiratorial paranoia.

When those in power hold all others in total disregard and value aggrandizing their power more highly than maintaining an effective democracy, a nation grounded in laws, rights, compromise and mutual respect is imperiled.

Instead, we find power flowing to bullies with money to spend, religion to exploit and gun nuts to unleash.

Am I overreacting? I certainly hope so. I hope the signs I am seeing don’t add up to this doomsday scenario. I hope wiser and cooler heads prevail. I hope a rising tide of vigilante violence, hateful campaigns and criminalizing the “other” wake us up.

But I am less optimistic than I was. I see too much “magical thinking” — as in, maybe this whole mess will just go away, maybe leading candidates will pull back from the extreme edge. I see too little discernment of the destruction that extremist politicians are doing, and the anti-democratic torrent of big money serving big money.

I find too many progressive church leaders worried about institutional survival and still fighting old battles about property and rules, while democracy itself comes under assault and millions of lives are being cast adrift.

I see centrists in the Southern Baptist Convention turning inward, rather than standing up to extremist bullies in their ranks. In an echo of what is happening in Islam, I see reasonable leaders in conservative denominations deciding that politics is too toxic right now and maybe this ugliness will just sort itself out.

Extremists on one side open the door to extremists on the other side, of course. Witness the apparent ascendency of anti-police rage and crash-the-establishment showiness in the Occupy movement. Will progressives have the courage to stand against extremism on their side of the aisle and to call an otherwise reasonable movement back to its roots?

The missing ingredient, it seems, is courage. Extremism wins the early battles by making people afraid, and then it turns to hatred and scapegoating. I wish we heard more from the Howard Bakers of this world.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Comments (7)

  1. John Williams says:

    When even reasonable thinking Southern Baptists (practically an oxymoron) fear the Tea Party and Extremists Nutbags, you know you’re witnessing an American Taliban growing right before your very eyes. Is there anyone with the courage to lead a crusade to destroy this anti-American movement?

  2. Dan Shockley says:

    Good article until you got to the false equivalency part. Unlike people on the right, who rage against those who disagree with them and take political actions they oppose, the anti-police anger is from being beaten, harassed, imprisoned in cruel conditions falsely, and seeing fellow citizens murdered with impunity. Furthermore, the perception you state sounds like something that came from the mainstream media, not what’s actually happening. Most in the Occupy Movement remain dedicated to non-violent protest. They also are aware that the attacks by the police are part of a cynical tactic by the powerful to foment intra-class anger. Occupiers try to keep their focus on the real culprits, but it is hard for them to 100% ignore the police when they are being shoved around, beaten, or dragged away for exercising their First Amendment rights.

    True courage here would not be criticizing them for not always behavior, but standing beside them in solidarity as they fight for all of our freedoms. The more people they beside them, the more successful non-violent will be, and the less the police will be able to suppress Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

    As you argued, it is time for courageous action. You are in NY, so I hope to see you in the streets with those who are also concerned about the way the rich and powerful are corrupting our democracy.

  3. V. Tupper Morehead, MD, MDiv, TSSF says:

    “We must love them both”those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for Truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
    –St. Thomas Aquinas

  4. Thomas Andrew says:

    “Unlike people on the right, who rage against those who disagree with them…”

    Such an interesting observation because, from my perspective, this is far more true of the left than the right. No doubt there are alway exceptions on both sides but, while conservatives will not doubt ridicule liberal opinion for its clear error, true threats to free speech (People’s Rights Amendment) seem to come from the left. Mr. William’s opinion reveal more “rage” that most of what I read from conservatives.

  5. Bart Mildenbursk says:

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am, that the TEC would publish hate speech like this. This is a new low.

  6. Extremists Nutbags, John Williams? American Taliban? A crusade to destroy this anti-American movement? It’s great to see that you’re keeping things civil and that you haven’t let your rhetoric get away from you.

  7. Doug Desper says:

    It would not be a Rev. Ehrich article without some angst about conservatives, Republicans, or “the right” – and conversely often hastily affirming the myriad that confirm themselves as “Occupy” (whether they be genuine, union-paid agitators, anarchists, assaulters, feces throwers, arsonists, etc. doesn’t seem to matter). No critique of the real, visible, live-televised police & public- reported incidents of pure hatred and disregard from many in the Occupy Movement – but instead a predictable critique of some mysterious, faceless “gun nuts” out there. Rev. Ehrich’s comments about the Occupy Movement include the hope that it can be brought back to its reasonable roots. I’m 100% confident that from the start several unions and the Tides Foundation organizations paid agitators to show up and protest, and that the movement – from the start – turned ugly and attractive to anarchists who found a welcoming home. It didn’t devolve into unreasonableness – it was conceived as such.
    If ever there was an intolerant progressive-led institution worried about survival it is our beleagured Church in its current hierarchical mind-set. Our policies and priorities often disregard the 2008 Faith Communities survey of 783 Episcopal parishes which clearly demonstrated what the Church itself (apart from leaders and commenters) thought was important. For example: At a time when the Survey listed 62% of congregations emphasizing efforts towards their Church School, the new General Convention budget decimates the priority of Christian education. The survey demonstrates that 68% of the Church considers themseves to be moderate to very conservative in theology, and yet our policies, agendas, and official proclamations seek to find a narrow liberal/progressive cause at nearly every opportunity, including now beginning to redefine marriage for what it has never been. General Convention will happily rubber-stamp that pressure-group agenda despite the knowledge of what its own Church identifies ourselves as. And (this is nearly sickening) if you don’t agree with that agenda, you can just leave – and deposit the fruits of your labors at your church behind for no one to follow behind to use.
    On only one point do I agree with Rev. Ehrich: “The missing ingredient, it seems, is courage”.

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