Mel Gibson's "spittle-spangled" audio assaults on his girlfriend were "instant Web and cable-TV sensations," says Frank Rich in The New York Times. But the movie star's public implosion tells a bigger story, too. Back in 2004, following the release of his film The Passion of the Christ, Gibson was a "powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism." The fact that he has no defenders today shows that the religious right has suffered nearly as preciptous a fall as its Hollywood standard bearer:

It seems preposterous in retrospect that a film as bigoted and noxious as "The Passion" had so many reverent defenders in high places in 2004... Today you never hear conservatives mention their embrace of "The Passion" back then — if they mention Gibson at all. (Fox News has barely covered the new tapes.) But it isn't just Gibson who has been discredited. Even as he self-immolated, so did many of the moral paragons who had rallied around him as a culture-war martyr.

The cultural wave that crested with "The Passion" was far bigger than Gibson. He was simply a symptom and beneficiary of a moment when the old religious right and its political and media shills were riding high. In 2010, the American ayatollahs' ranks have been depleted by death (Jerry Falwell), retirement (James Dobson) and rent boys (too many to name). What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades [including] the potentially lethal antihomosexuality laws in Uganda...

The death throes of Mel Gibson's career feel less like another Hollywood scandal than the last gasps of an American era.

Read the full article in The New York Times.