Many of you may recognize the words of this title from history. The full quote is, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” It was made by Attorney Joseph Welch and directed to Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, as you may recall from your vast knowledge of history, led a charge to rid the Federal Government (and Hollywood) of Communists.
On June 9, 1954, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Welch confronted the Senator about his relentless tactics in his fervent pursuit of a young man named Roy Cohn. Welch’s question implying McCarthy’s lack of decency was followed by applause from those watching the proceedings. It has long been considered a turning point in the McCarthy hearings.
Shortly after that incident, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy by an overwhelming majority of 67-22. He died three years later at the age of forty-eight, but his name infamously lives on in the term “McCarthyism.” McCarthyism, as a general expression, came to be used to loosely describe the actions of someone who makes unsubstantiated accusations and attacks an adversary’s character or patriotism.
As an observer of today’s political scene, I’ve come to the place where I’d really like to be able to step into Joseph Welch’s shoes. By that, I mean I’d like to be in a position to ask our current day politicians, “Have you no sense of decency?” And to take it a step further, I’d like my question to become a turning point toward a return to the decency to which I refer.
It appears we have come to the place where McCarthyism has become the norm. In fact, the very term, McCarthyism, has lost its meaning. If everyone is McCarthy, then no one is McCarthy. If everyone is tossing around unsubstantiated accusations and committing character assassinations, then we have truly lost our sense of decency.
Unfortunately, I’m not in a good position to effectively ask that question. I’ll ask it anyway, but I don’t think the necessary people will pay any attention to me. I will be largely ignored or unheard. But maybe if enough of us begin to ask that question of our politicians, they will begin to listen.
Before John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the expected Messiah. Jesus sent John his reply, which was basically a cryptic, “Yes.” After they left, Jesus said, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:33-34) In other words, “You can’t seem to satisfy anyone these days.”
As long as people are willing to think the worst of others, we will have this situation. That is particularly true if we’re willing to act out our basest inclinations. Shall we bow our heads in prayer?
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently resides in Aldie, VA.]