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Watching the rise of the religious left on 1970s TV

A vintage television. Photo by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Liberal-leaning faith movements are getting a lot of play these days, with everyone from pundits to presidential candidates predicting the rise of a potential religious left.

L. Benjamin Rolsky, an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University and scholar of American religious history, looks at the history of the religious left from an unusual perspective in his forthcoming book, “The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond.” For Rolsky, it was in the 1970s, with the rise of televangelism on one side and shows such as “All in the Family” on the other, that the divide in American civic religious discourse was cemented.

Rolsky talked to Religion News Service about his book, discussing the influence of media moguls such as Norman Lear and how their messages still echo within the modern religious left.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to produce an academic work on the religious left by looking at television?

I happened to be shaped and raised by a lot of ’70s television. I got into looking at family television as a way of telling a history of the left over 50 or 60 years, trying to understand the question of what’s “good religion” or “bad religion.”

You write a lot in your book about Norman Lear, the television writer and producer of 1970s sitcoms such as “All in the Family” and “Good Times.” He also founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1979 to counter the religious right. Why focus on him?

I’m naturally drawn to examples in American religious history that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as belonging to a bigger narrative like the religious left. That goes back to the work of people looking at someone like Oprah, and how Oprah reflects larger ebbs and flows and currents of what’s going on within spirituality, or religion, or capitalism and consumerism.

Norman Lear in 2014. Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, Creative Commons

I wanted to look at someone who had a great deal of cultural influence, since cultural influence is what a lot of liberal religious activists are after. Lear speaks to those visions and goals and aspirations. First Amendment rights are very important. He also defended freedom of speech when he sued the networks and the Federal Communications Commission for something called the “family viewing hour.”

And his nonprofit organization is the epitome of what I would say is an old-school interfaith organization of Protestant-Catholic-Jew origin. It very much tapped into civil religious language and the idea of civil religion as a way of understanding proper behavior — or improper behavior.

So Lear is paradigmatic of any number of the arguments that are made on the left.

So how did Lear’s influence trickle down to the religious left?

I think Lear, in some ways, was the best thing they had going. He’s the one carrying the banner, this kind of classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew — tri-faith America — articulation of public life.

So if you watch “All in the Family,” do you go out and organize? No. I don’t think anyone would say that. But I think the aspirations of the show were very much like that. You watch a bigot (in the show’s protagonist, Archie Bunker), so you’re not as bigoted yourself. It’s an educational, didactic vision of using satire to help people realize that they can maybe change their behavior for the better.

He is also quoted as having (influence on) organizations like the National Council of Churches.

His nonprofit, though, was a reaction to the religious right. So was the 1970s-era religious left purely a reaction to the rise of the religious right?

Typically the word reactionary is associated with conservative movements, (but) I don’t think it hurts to see the religious left in the late ’70s and ’80s as reactionary (or reactive). It’s the restructuring of American religion into these kind of two polar opposites, emerging as coded liberals and conservatives, the culture wars.

So (the religious left) can be understood as, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to try and figure out a proper response to this.’ I don’t think liberal religious individuals were used to defending the importance of their own arguments and their own agendas, which is what conservatives have been doing for a very long time.

Do you see echoes of that history in the modern religious left?

“The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond.” Courtesy image

I think of that New York Times headline, “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.” That’s really true in the sense that Lear had all this going and he creates this organization, but then it just just kind of falls flat.

I think the religious left has been — to use a religious metaphor — in the wilderness arguably ever since. In 1970s, (Sojourners founder) Jim Wallis is writing all these books, trying to articulate this vision. Where did that go? Where did the Chicago Declaration go, with the more progressive evangelicals coming together? Why didn’t that have any traction in the public imagination?

How do we get from Martin Luther King to Jerry Falwell as the public personas of religion and public life? There’s nothing natural about any of that.

The political left or religious left has just not been very good at translating a prophetic vision into a pragmatic plan or action. Why would you need to defend something like civil rights? Why would you need to defend something that has that kind of moral calculus to it, that kind of moral grounding to it?

Do you think the current presidential candidates are addressing that?

I think in some capacity it’s still the struggle to find a vocabulary. If you’re just trying to “talk” more about religion or something, in many ways you’re just kind of still operating on the terrain that was defined by conservatives to begin with.

But do you see this moment as something a little different?

Author L. Benjamin Rolsky. Photo by Caroline DeFelice

The fact that children are being held (in immigrant detention camps), this might be a moment for the left to really articulate itself when it comes to the tonalities of Christianity, of Judaism, of spirituality, of whatever kind of tradition you’re pulling from. Which is perhaps why we’re seeing the (William) Barbers and the Wallises and others come out of the woodwork.

It seems as if the modern-day religious left is more diverse than in the 1970s. It includes voices that are not just Christian and Jewish. Do you think that diversity has altered its core argument?

I don’t know how much more “diverse” it actually has gotten. I think one of the criticisms of the religious left is that typically it focuses on white people. The religious left likes to think of itself as talking the talk and walking the walk, (but) I don’t actually know how much of that is actually carried out.

That’s where I get constructive and critical: The left likes to think of itself as more representative, as more diverse, but then you actually burrow down, you actually see a lot of white people. So I don’t actually know. This cosmopolitan, spiritual-but-not-religious sensibility is very affluent. Lear is extremely rich. I think in some capacity that’s part of the analysis that has to be discussed a little bit more, the level of affluence.

What other questions are left out of conversations about the religious left?

Well, to what extent is (the current situation) due to things liberal-progressives have done to ourselves? How long have we been hearing (about the right): “They have hijacked religion, they are the ones at fault”? That criticism excuses those who are articulating it from any type of self-reflection.

What kind of product will come out of this particular moment of calamity and catastrophe when it comes to human life as understood from the religious left? This is certainly another moment for that, and we’ll just see what happens.

That’s what I’m getting at when it comes to the rise and fall. I just don’t think we’ve really wrestled with the implications of the fallout of the 70s and all the crazy stuff that happened. I think we certainly need to understand the rise, and I think we’ve heard a lot about rises. But I think we need to spend a little bit more time on the fall.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

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