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.
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.
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Source: Religion News Service