Lear on the Left – A Conversation with L. Benjamin Rolsky

rolskyL. Benjamin Rolsky is Adjunct Instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. His The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, charts the influence of producer, writer, and activist Norman Lear on the development of a religious forerunner—and eventually, counterpart—to Jerry Falwell’s Christian Right.

ECM: Your title suggests a sweeping movement history, but the book is mostly about Norman Lear. In what sense is this one public figure representative of a larger Religious Left?

LBR: Indeed it does, but it also depends on how we define “the religious left” moving forward in both academic and popular studies of American political life. Luckily, Columbia recognized the timeliness of the subject matter and suggested a title that reflected the growing interest in all things Religious Left. This book is a revised version of my dissertation, which examined the work of Norman Lear in the television industry and his not inconsiderable role in organizing the liberal religious resistance to the America represented in the Reagan presidency. The book tracks the rise and fall of the religious left through Lear’s television programming, non-profit activism, and theatrical performances in the public square. It argues that Lear is representative of the most significant characteristics of the Religious Left as I understand it, including defenses of the first amendment, religious diversity, and public reason as the civic bedrock of the public good.

In this sense, my interests are less in the “religious” figures that shaped ideas of either the Christian left or the Christian right in the 1970s, and more in how religious liberalism itself cultivated the conditions of its own eclipse by more conservative religio-political forces. In this sense, Lear’s degree of influence on the Religious Left during the early 1980s certainly spoke to his ability to lead as well as his willingness to think pragmatically, but it also pointed to the mainline’s utter lack of success in making its vision of America and its public life palatable to the masses in a conservative age. Despite their proximity, the victories of the 1960s were but a distant memory by the time Carter and Reagan had recast American politics in a born again key.

ECM: How would you characterize Lear’s personal religious practice, and how did it animate his politics?

LBR: Lear’s personal religious practice animated his politics in so far as it made possible the framing of his various television programs as didactic. Compared to the “electronic church” of the late 1970s, Lear arguably used the American sitcom genre as the backdrop for his “electronic classroom.” This form of communication possessed a civil religious understanding of the public square such that its most influential inhabitants would be mainline in denomination and progressive in theological sensibility. Not unlike their early 20th century forebears of the social gospel, religious liberals like Lear saw society in obligatory terms, having forged the public square itself out of sheer determination and a form of civic vigilance. In this sense, Lear’s personal practice informed his decision to frame debates and arguments in the name of the public interest instead of positing the one and only moral option. While the latter’s polarizing nature was built for the realm of politics and conservatives social actors therein, belief in such a level of certainty has never been the strength of the religious left—quite the opposite in fact.

ECM: Lear is perhaps most famous for his work on All in the Family, which you identify as a comment on the cultural politics of the early 1970s. Why is the cultural emphasis important, and how did it inform the still nascent culture wars?

LBR: As I argue in the text, the cultural emphasis is important because we arguably cannot understand the nature of religio-political encounter during this period, or even our own, without such a framework. The Culture Wars are nothing if not the utter and complete contestation of culture itself—from what it comprises, to who determines such categorical certainty. The events of the 1960s single handedly recalibrated the nature of American political life according to a cultural register. This meant that the personal had become the political in the sense that the typical subjects of political discourse began to reflect less what the GDP should be, and more with what unfolded in the privacy of one’s own home.

Stagflation certainly still lay ahead in these regards, but on the whole the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s ushered into American public life a concern with and a deployment of various forms and definitions of culture, popular and otherwise. In other words, the cacophony known as the public sphere found a peculiar coherency around issues pertaining to the body, and its subsequent regulation in courts of law and public opinion. Lear’s All in the Family literally embodied this type of politically charged programming in the name of the public interest.

ECM: You suggest at one point that Lear may have politicized the family even before Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, since he cast the home as an arena for political contestation. Is depicting political debate within the family equivalent to politicizing the family itself?

LBR: Great question. By composing primetime programming based on a notion of the American “family,” Lear was explicitly contributing to its construction as a burgeoning organizing logic in American public life. To me, politicizing describes a series of decisions that produce a particular product: in this case, a television sitcom based on an American family. If the right would go on to use “the family” in the 1970s to mobilize a not insignificant base of voters around a series of social issues, then Lear’s depiction represented a similar attempt to represent the idealized version of a family, American style, through All in the Family and its provocative programming. In other words, Lear politicized the family by depicting moral and political debate through its intricacies and discriminatory idiosyncrasies. At the same time, I would argue that the characters didn’t illustrate the class antagonisms of the period simply by accident or happenstance. Lear didn’t tell his audience what to think about a particular issue, I contend—he told them how to think.

ECM: In what sense did Lear’s work endorse a vision for deliberative democracy, and how did that vision get him in trouble with the FCC?

LBR: In my estimation, Lear’s thinking about the public square, and what was allowable within its bounds, is somewhat limited. This is a reflection of both his own theorizing when it comes to the relationship between religion and politics, and the notion of deliberative democracy itself. For the sake of discussion, deliberative democracy and liberal democracy are going to function as synonymous terms in the sense that both arguably depend on a form of public reason in order to understand and thus delineate the place of religion in American politics. Both deliberative and liberal forms of democratic governance share a fatal conceptual flaw because the notion of public reason requires universally accepted presuppositions for one’s various political arguments.

While such universality is often the byproduct of pluralist thinking and thus religious thinking, namely mainline and/or progressive, it is presented as universal in application and mythic origin. Lear actually took advantage of the FCC’s investment in the idea of television programming “in the public interest” to defend All in the Family when “The Family Viewing Hour” threatened the show’s airing due to its controversial content. Lear argued in a lawsuit (along with individuals like Larry Gelbart of MASH) that such a policy was a form of censorship, thereby violating his First Amendment rights. More often than not, Lear was the beneficiary of how the FCC regulated the airwaves because his programming was “in the public interest,” while the performances of Falwell and others were typically rendered sectarian or polemical in nature almost instantaneously.

ECM: What prompted his shift from television writing to political organizing via People for the American Way?

LBR: By the late-1970s, Lear had established himself as one of America’s premier television writers and producers. He was also known as a very active member in the Hollywood community when it came to First Amendment rights and American politics in general. As mentioned earlier, he had to defend his own programming over and against the networks as well as the FCC through the courts.

This moment was a complicated one for Lear because it also gave birth to what became known pejoratively as “the electronic church” or “the electric church.” Lear’s attention had been drawn to such figures before. He had grown up listening to the likes of Father Charles Coughlin as a child in New Haven, CT. But this time around the stridency of the calls by “televangelists” to “pray for the removal of Supreme Court Justices” had reached a fever pitch. Upon hearing evangelist Jimmy Swaggert utter such words one afternoon, Lear began to consider more instantaneous ways of communicating with the American people. The public service announcement suited his needs nicely because each was short, but also took advantage of his connections in television. Instead of writing a movie about his concerns, Lear instead called upon his friends in Hollywood (including Muhammed Ali and Goldin Hawn) to star in a series of commercials for his then nascent People for the American Way (PFAW). The PSAs were short and funny, and they featured actors arguing about how to eat eggs or what music was best to listen to. Regardless of topic, the end result was the same for both Lear and PFAW. The freedom to disagree—that’s the American Way.

ECM: How successfully did his variety show, I Love Liberty, respond to Falwell’s touring show, I Love America? And how singly responsible is Lear for making conservative Christians hate Hollywood?

I think that Lear’s I Love Liberty was a very successful response to Falwell’s theatrics, although I’m not so sure how successful the show itself was in communicating a persuasive message against Reagan conservatism. The parallel that I use between Falwell and Lear is meant to illustrate the imbricated nature of cultural warfare at the time and arguably still in our present moment. Lear’s ultimate target may have been more the America that Reagan represented than Falwell himself or any of his rallies, but in a more general sense I Love Liberty was an attempt to reclaim a patriotic language and vocabulary from the Right (and Falwell) as Lear understood it. The Right “hijacked religion,” and it was up to Lear to come up with a way to fight back upon unstable rhetorical and discursive ground. In response to this late 1970s activism by Lear, Falwell ended up labeling him “the number one enemy of the family in America.” Lear’s crusade was certainly responsible for such a hatred of Hollywood, but I’m not sure if his singly responsible. He may, however, be its greatest and most depraved representative depending who you asked at the time.

ECM: How did Lear and his compatriots “fall” in the end? And what does their experience teach us about the future of religious leftism in America?

There are many places to begin with this question. In short, Lear’s success in American culture came at the expense of his and others’ ability to affect the literal power structure of the country that conservatives were gunning for through Reagan’s ascent to the Oval Office.

In other words, a form of nearly ubiquitous cultural influence, as witnessed in Lear’s programming as well as through the social justice activism of the previous decade, came at the expense of the ability to communicate with mass audiences—especially those who looked and sounded like Archie Bunker. Combined with the deployment of the “Southern Strategy” by conservative strategist Kevin Phillips on behalf of a reborn Republican Party, liberals like Lear lost the ability (and possibly the desire) to persuade those who were becoming disillusioned with Democratic leadership and its inability to speak to working class interests and sensibilities.

Archie’s role in this process cannot be overstated. His anger represented the resentment of countless workers the country over who were struggling to pay their bills. Lear’s decision to use Bunker as his main character on All in the Family forever solidified his place in the annals of television history, but such entertainment came at the expense of his and others’ ability to connect and communicate with those like Archie. While beloved, Archie and his views were ultimately destined for the dustbin of history. Why else but a bigot on TV? Not to agree with the bigot, but to make an example of him for all to see through a nod and satirical wink. Those who “laughed at” at him got the joke. Those who “laughed with” were still entertained, but they failed to see Lear’s larger message: change.

Today, the religious left has seemingly returned at the turn of the tide. Not unlike the early 1980s, a Hollywood entertainer occupies the White House. We are also amidst a global revolution pitting the powerful against the powerless. The words of Prime Minister Thatcher ring truer today than they perhaps ever have: “There is no such thing as society…no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” If the religious left is to have a persuasive voice in public deliberation once again, it is going to have to come up with a more robust vision of the public good that can encompass a broader assortment of members across race, gender, and most importantly class.

When did we last hear a Democratic candidate talk about labor? Or union wages? It must also begin to tap more deeply into the rich rhetorical resources of the social gospel in order to stem the tide of neoliberal freedom in the marketplace. We live in an age of constant media exposure. The TV made much of Civil Rights possible; how will the left wield social media in a similar fashion? We wait in earnest.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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