David Gregory. Howard Kurtz. Piers Morgan. Chris Matthews. Ezra Klein. Rachel Maddow.
Names that cause many a conservative to spit or cross himself. If you know of them, no explanation is required. If you don't, one exposure is normally all it takes to explain it. But it takes a bit more reflection to get a grasp of why they do what they do -- and why it's folly for representatives of conservative thought to go into their dens to grapple with them.
The key to comprehension is a simple comparison. Unfortunately, owing to the "deactivation of history" (Clarence Carson), ever fewer Americans are equipped with the knowledge required to make it.
The history of religious proselytizing in America is replete with examples of something that's all but vanished from our shores: the traveling lay preacher. Time was, there were quite a number of them. Today there are but a few, and they tend to confine their journeys to a relatively restricted portion of the country which few outsiders are likely to visit.
The lay preacher was normally not an ordained priest or minister. If he bore an honorific, it was usually "Brother." When he arrived in a particular district, his first action was almost always to contact the pastor of the locally dominant Christian sect. This had several purposes, most important among them: 1) assuring the pastor that he would not undermine his authority, and: 2) securing the pastor's assistance in publicizing his upcoming meetings.
The lay preacher's meeting might be held in a tent, or in the local church. It was often heralded to the community with great fanfare, for not only was the meeting an "event;" some such preachers had regional or national reputations, and the community was as likely to turn out just to see and meet him as to hear what he had to say. Parish households would supply the meeting generously with food and drink, and not merely as an inducement to attend: such meetings could go on for many hours, and would, if the preacher felt himself to be "on a roll."
Yet the lay preacher wasn't a trailblazing theologian or a doctrinal authority of his sect. He didn't travel and preach to dispense doctrine. He plied his unique trade for a simpler but equally vital reason: to "whip 'em up." Being an outsider, and therefore not a familiar element of the communities he visited, he possessed an emotional latitude the pastor did not. He could rouse his listeners with impassioned, sometimes extravagant rhetoric that the pastor could not comfortably employ.
The lay preacher's meeting was frequently called by another name: a revival. His function was to bring forward his attendees' religious affections: to tap, amplify, and evoke God-centered emotions that they normally kept confined to their own breasts, if indeed they felt them at all. He made use of aspects of communal worship that would become oppressive if frequently and regularly repeated. Religious clergymen, who must mount to the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, could not allow themselves the spread of techniques the revivalist preacher employed. Mystical ecstasy, after all, can be a bit wearing even on the best of us.
Yet the revivalist preacher was not a clergyman. He was a key element of another aspect of every religion: its clerisy.
Every religion has both a clergy -- the "official" celebrants of the sacraments, whatever they are, and keepers of doctrine -- and a clerisy -- the segment of the lay population that bolsters the religion and its institutions by direct action. The clergy in a given locale is normally a small number of priests or ministers. Clergymen are most visible and approachable before and after an official rite of their church; the rest of the time, they're much less accessible. The clerisy can and often is considerably more numerous than the clergy. Its members are more visible and active day-to-day among the faithful: organizing and doing works of charity; maintaining the parish's buildings and other assets; going about the district and keeping other, less involved parishioners "in touch." The healthiest and most vital parishes and congregations enjoy the attentions of a substantial and energetic clerisy.
One way to view the clerisy is as the parish's enforcers. No, they don't run around with guns, chivvying their neighbors to Sunday services. By their words, deeds, and general prominence in church activity, they keep the less active aware of their religious affiliation and "what it's supposed to mean" in terms of life here on Earth.
In this regard, the Mormon custom of "home teaching" is particularly instructive. Mormons are among the most involved of religious affiliates, partly because all Mormons are enjoined to be and remain active in the promulgation and effectuation of their faith's doctrines. Even after a young Mormon's two mandatory years as a missionary are over, he retains the obligation to participate in "home teaching:" a round of visits to other members of the parish at home, where they discuss aspects of their shared faith. Thus, effectively every member of a Mormon congregation is a member of the clerisy, though some will always be more active than others.
If we view a political affiliation through this lens, we can regard the affiliation's major promulgators of political principles and central policy positions as its clergy, while those activists who serve to "whip 'em up" in the style of a revival preacher, and who act to penalize deviationism or dissent, as its clerisy.
Among us in the Right, the "clergy" might be the major figures in conservative and libertarian political thought. Names such as Murray Rothbard, Richard Weaver, and more recently Richard Epstein and Charles Murray come to mind. Our "clerisy" would comprise our favored commentators: Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson as top echelon, with the Limbaughs, Ann Coulter, Larry Elder and others in subsidiary positions. Conservative and libertarian thought admit of a wide spread of positions, even though the core principles are well agreed-upon. Therefore, there's relatively little "enforcement" going on.
Things are different on the Left. The Left's clerisy, which would surely include all the...persons named at the start of this essay, sees its principal function as punishing deviators and castigating representatives of the opposition. Suppressing deviationism is far more important to the Left, because left-liberalism has no unifying principles of any sort. Leftist policy doctrines are arbitrary pronouncements from On High, addressing this or that specific issue, rather than a set of philosophically and morally consistent positions united in their respect for a common base of higher principles. That makes the Left's clerisy's enforcement function paramount, in sharp contrast to the Right.
How does that fit the observable behavior of the figures named above?
Eric Hoffer, in his landmark work The True Believer, noted the commonalities between the typical mass movement and a fanatical religion: a "compact and unified church" outside which there is no salvation, whose members are shielded from doctrinal pollution by a "fact-proof screen." Facts are obviously toxic to an ideology that asserts causal relations and demands outcomes that violate the laws of Nature. Such an ideology must be protected by a vigorous enforcer cadre. By this logic, persons in the Right who accept invitations to "discuss" public policy with persons such as Gregory, Kurtz, Matthews, et alii are wasting their time.
Think not to engage the Left's clerisy in rational discussion. Enforcers are not permitted to question the doctrines they've been told to enforce.