[King] was a huge, complex figure, . . . 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.I'm not sure I agree with the statement that "ministers no longer have moral authority." One of my college roomates is now a minister, and he has as much "moral authority" as anyone I know. However, I would submit that his authority comes not from his role as a minister, but rather his choice to become (and be accepted as) a minister stems from his strength of character.
The being said, I think the larger point holds in that the public face of religion in America is too often Ralph Reed, or Pat Robertson, or Creflo Dollar. Back to King:
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.I think the bolded quote probably tells a good deal of the story as to why ministers have lost some mainstream clout. Read the whole thing.
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.)
(Lest you assume that I don't think religious figures can be forces for good, I would point to the aspirations of those slightly humbler than the 'leaders' I named above. See here and here for examples.)