ACORN and the Roman Church: A Sermon on Hypocrisy

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the 42nd anniversary of his assassination

This is a tough subject for an Easter morning, even if you aren’t religious. It isn’t that people haven’t done a lot of thinking about our unfortunate double standards, they have. It’s just that — to me at least — almost all of it seems incomplete. I suppose I ought to read more post-modernists, since they seem to be the current experts in the morphology of meanings unmoored from their original foundations.

My difficulty with post-modernism up to now has been its confidence, bordering on arrogance, that it’s found a sure way through the veil. (It doesn’t help, either, that some of the conclusions of individual pomos seem to me to be true but irrelevant — and that’s putting it as kindly as I can.) In any event, when I look at two parallel stories like the sad vilification and destruction of ACORN, and the Church’s even sadder defense of priestly pedophilia, where the noun in each case is portrayed as being so much more important than the verb, I find myself scratching my head. Why isn’t it obvious to many more people that there’s a double standard lurking in the difference between the conclusions drawn about ACORN, and those about the Roman Church hierarchy?

The simplest answer, I suppose, is that a cultural institution often defines its own limits, and its own distinctiveness, by what it chooses to lie about. Unless the concept of a single God is defended, if necessary at the point of a sword, the Church is just one more merchant of abstractions. If His rules aren’t held to be inviolable, no matter how often they’re violated, the Church is just another costume drama. Likewise, if a society doesn’t defend its own cultural institutions, no matter how iffy their original provenance, it ceases to be what it is. (The Church, The South, The Senate.) People are well aware of this, which is why attacks even on corrupt institutions make them extremely nervous, and rightly so. Why should they be expected to welcome the threat of chaos into their beliefs, let alone into their lives?

If there was anything unique about the United States early on, it was the promise that here our government wouldn’t invest in propping up institutions simply because its people were familiar with them, but would instead invest in the stewardship of change, would do its best to create and defend a space in which institutions which developed nasty habits — such as using our children as unpaid prostitutes — could be done away with more or less quietly and replaced with something more suitable.

Needless to say, that project never came to complete fruition, and probably never could have, given human nature, but we did have a pretty good run at it. Even today, many of our simplest souls still consider themselves the masters of their own destiny to an extent which would be inconceivable anywhere else in the world.

ACORN got the axe because it was new, and because it exposed the founding lie of a more established institution — our government. And what lie was that? I hear someone asking. The one about democracy, the one about the truths we hold to be self-evident. That lie. The Church didn’t get the axe because anyone who actually had an axe had been welcomed into the fold long ago.

I suspect that this time, if we’re patient and humble, we may finally get to see the Holy Contradictions implode. The Church has been around a long time, longer than any of us, which may make it as hard as ever for anyone to declaw its predators, but that unhappy fact shouldn’t stop us from trying. Whether the Church has finally worn out its welcome or not, there’s no reason for any of us outside its doors to be polite. On the contrary.

I’d put it this way. If Jesus died for our sins, so did Martin Luther King. On this Easter Sunday, I think that a reverence for the truth should compel us to admit that of the two institutions in question, ACORN in recent days has done a far better job of honoring their sacrifice than the Roman Church has done.

(An earlier, and somewhat more typo-ridden version of this post was first published as a comment on this OpenLeft Diary by Paul Rosenberg.)