Moving on Up — and Out: On L. Benjamin Rolsky’s “The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left”

By John ComptonNovember 22, 2020

Moving on Up — and Out: On L. Benjamin Rolsky’s “The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left”

The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left by L. Benjamin Rolsky

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1980, the television writer and producer Norman Lear grew alarmed as an army of conservative preachers and religious groups, led by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, entered the political arena in support of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. What bothered Lear was not that Falwell and his allies in the “Religious Right” favored Reagan over Jimmy Carter but that they denied the humanity of their opponents, casting them as agents of the Devil. His anxiety peaked around the time of Reagan’s victory when the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart began publicly praying for the “removal” — presumably via death or serious illness — of a sitting Supreme Court justice. As he later explained, Swaggart’s sermon “was the last straw for me — I had to do something.”

And so Lear began assembling a broad coalition of left-leaning religious groups to counter the hate-filled rhetoric. Within a few months, a long list of spiritual leaders and organizations had answered the call, including the National Council of Churches (NCC), the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), Notre Dame University President Father Theodore Hesburgh, and Jimmy Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). By early 1981, Lear and his allies had formed an umbrella organization, People for the American Way, which would soon be flooding the airwaves with public service announcements celebrating religious diversity and counseling toleration for diverse viewpoints on public issues.

If this episode is unfamiliar, it may be because, as L. Benjamin Rolsky puts it in The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left, the history of the “Religious Left” has been largely erased from “our collective, historiographic view.” By this, he means that accounts of the post-1960s “culture wars” are almost always told from the perspective of right-wing religious zealots, such as Falwell and Swaggart, or else from the point of view of their militantly secular opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the porn mogul Larry Flynt. That the emergence of the Religious Right triggered a significant backlash from churchgoing liberals is rarely acknowledged, let alone examined in any depth. Rolsky’s book, which puts the spiritual concerns and strategic choices of left-leaning religious figures front and center, is therefore a welcome addition to the literature.

Yet anyone expecting a comprehensive history of progressive religious activism in the modern United States will be disappointed. Its title notwithstanding, this is essentially a study of one man: Norman Lear, now 98 years old. Moreover, the decision to cast Lear, who was raised in a secular Jewish milieu and who has never claimed to be conventionally religious, as the central figure in a book about the “Religious Left” is curious, to say the least. In what sense, the reader may ask, is this a book about religion?

Rolsky’s answer is that Lear simply was the “unofficial spokesperson” of the Reagan-era Religious Left, whether or not he wanted the job. This claim may seem absurd, but it is important to remember that the mainline Protestant denominations — the traditional torchbearers of liberal Christianity in the United States — were by the 1980s in an advanced state of decay. Most had been hemorrhaging money and members since the late 1960s and were thus in no position to mount a serious counteroffensive against the Religious Right. Left-leaning interfaith groups like the NCCJ, which operated with skeletal staffs and shoestring budgets, were similarly ill-suited to the task.

In an otherwise bleak period for religious liberalism, Lear’s wildly popular sitcoms, with their subtle appeals to the “classical (religious) liberal notions of civility, tolerance, and diversity,” offered a beacon of hope. Sensing that Hollywood might succeed where the churches had failed, religious leaders like Hesburgh, Allen, and The Christian Century publisher Martin Marty lavished attention on Lear, and Lear returned the favor.

In addition, Rolsky contends that Lear viewed his career in the entertainment industry as a kind of religious calling. He observes that the young Lear spent countless hours in front of the family radio, where he was exposed to two voices that left lasting impressions. The first belonged to President Franklin Roosevelt, who in his “fireside chats” often used religious symbolism to express concern for the marginalized and economically disadvantaged. The other belonged to the popular “radio priest” Father Coughlin, who blamed Jews for the nation’s ills. From a young age, Lear came to see religion as a force that, depending on how it was packaged, was equally capable of sowing division or cultivating empathy. Hoping to promote the latter tendency, he embarked on a quasi-religious mission as a writer and producer of what Rolsky calls “liberal morality plays” — sitcoms that hooked viewers with carefully crafted punch lines while subtly advancing the liberal point of view on issues ranging from civil rights to women’s liberation.

The strongest sections of Rolsky’s book focus on Lear’s use of religious themes in his sitcoms, including the smash hit All in the Family, which topped the Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976. The show is perhaps best remembered for its cantankerous and bigoted main character, Archie Bunker, and his heated arguments with his atheist son-in-law, “Meathead” (played by Rob Reiner). Yet as Rolsky points out, Lear’s hope was that viewers would identify with Archie’s wife, Edith — a devout churchgoer he once described as “a Sermon on the Mount type of Christian.” Debates over the social meaning of Christianity featured prominently in the series, beginning with a pilot in which Archie explodes in anger after hearing the family minister express support for the Civil Rights movement. Dismissing the sermon as “socialist propaganda,” Archie brags that he didn’t need “no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job.” Edith then steps in to deliver the punch line — “No, [your] uncle got it for [you]” — before going on to defend the minister against Archie’s charges.

Although the formation of People for the American Way happened quickly, Lear had been inching closer to overt political activism over the course of the 1970s. In 1972, his decision to tackle the abortion issue in back-to-back episodes of Maude — a spinoff of All in the Family — embroiled him in controversy as a long list of Catholic organizations lobbied unsuccessful to prevent the story line from airing. In 1975, he helped organize a legal challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Family Viewing Hour” policy — adopted under pressure from conservative religious organizations — which threatened to push All in the Family, Maude, and other popular sitcoms out of primetime. People for the American Way was a natural extension of these efforts, though its ambitions were much broader. Instead of fighting censorship, it aimed to change the tenor of political discourse by rendering the policy positions of the Religious Right anathema to the public.

But what did People for the American Way really accomplish? Curiously, Rolsky fails to discuss its signal achievement, which was to help sink Ronald Reagan’s nomination of the arch-conservative jurist Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Yet his conclusion that the group’s television spots ultimately did little to impede the march of the Religious Right seems correct. Far from being banished from the public square, the right-wing televangelists of the “electronic church” were soon ushered into positions of leadership in the Republican Party, where their successors continue to exert outsize influence over the presidential primary process and judicial nominations. Nor, it goes without saying, has the tenor of public discourse improved in the decades since Swaggart — whose rantings seem relatively tame by comparison to those of the current president — wished ill of a sitting Supreme Court justice.

Rolsky suggests two possible explanations for the failure of People and the American Way and the broader Religious Left. His first, less successful argument is that Lear and his allies unintentionally amplified the exclusionary message of their opponents. The Religious Right, he contends at one point, did not really exist until it was “discursively manufactured” by left-leaning activists, including Lear. Elsewhere he observes that “it was not Jerry Falwell” but rather Lear and like-minded television writers who “first politicized the American family […] [and] subjected it to the political interests of the American party system.” But this framing gets the timing wrong. As historians including R. Marie Griffith, Lisa McGirr, and Daniel K. Williams have shown, conservative churchgoers in places like Orange County, California, and Kanawha County, West Virginia, were organizing to oppose abortion, sex education, and “liberal” textbooks long before Lear entered the political arena.

By contrast, Rolsky’s second explanation for the “fall” of the Religious Left is both plausible and relevant to our present political situation. He writes that Lear and his allies came to view the media and popular entertainment as more important “political space[s] than the streets and marches that [had] defined liberal religious activism” from the Progressive Era to the Civil Rights movement. Wrongly believing that control of the airwaves offered a shortcut to political power, religious liberals took heart from the fact that Lear’s sitcoms, variety shows, and PSAs were garnering rave reviews. All the while, Falwell and the other leaders of the Religious Right were mastering the dark arts of exerting influence in “presidential elections, congressional races, [and] mayoral campaigns.” Unlike Lear, they understood that Nielsen ratings were a poor substitute for the ability to deliver votes on Election Day.

Adding insult to injury, liberals soon lost control of the airwaves as well. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in the mid-1980s unleashed a wave of conservative talk radio shows, cable news channels, and reality television programs that collectively made a mockery of Lear’s conception of broadcast media as a space governed by consensual “social values and norms.” Given a wider array of viewing options, many Americans gravitated toward precisely the type of programming Lear had hoped to suppress, or at least render socially unacceptable. The TV preachers of the 1980s, it turned out, were but the advance guard for a new generation of Father Coughlin–style demagogues, one of whom would use the nation’s newly unregulated media environment to launch a successful bid for the presidency.

Rolsky ends his book with a question that present-day progressive religious activists would do well to ponder: what good is “the ability to speak truth to power,” he asks, if “no one is listening to or cares about such truths?” Today’s Religious Left “may not need to mimic the ruthless tactics of the Right,” he writes, but they do “need to figure out what [they want] through politics, and why, and to what ends.”


John Compton is the chair of the political science department at Chapman University. His most recent book is The End of Empathy: Why White Protestants Stopped Loving Their Neighbors.

LARB Contributor

John Compton is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University and the author of the book The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2014). He holds a PhD from UCLA.


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