Thinking In Public

June 24, 2020

The Strange Tale of American Television and the Religious Left: A Conversation with Author Benjamin Rolsky

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Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front-line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct professor in the history and anthropology department at Monmouth University and a lecturer in the religion department at Rutgers University. Professor Rolsky began his studies at Arizona State University, went on to earn his doctor of philosophy in American religious studies at Drew University. In addition to his teaching, Professor Rolsky's research focuses on the intersection of religion, politics, and popular culture. His first major book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond was published by Columbia University Press, and we're going to talk about that book today. Benjamin Rolsky, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Thank you very much for having me. Been really looking forward to this.

Albert Mohler:

So when I read a book like your book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, I can see so many points of entry into this question. But how did you trip up on this as a scholar? How did you determine that this project would be your preoccupation for a considerable amount of time?

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, it's an autobiographical story. I was raised really on 1970 television. I certainly wasn't old enough, obviously to have seen any of it. But in my house, growing up, we watched things like Mary Tyler Moore fairly often. We watched All in the Family, of course, M*A*S*H, Taxi, those sorts of things. So I was always shaped in some capacity by sort of programming of the period, and I've always been fascinated in television and television history and how friends are portrayed, friendship networks are portrayed. Back in the '70s, there was always some sort of moral center, it seems like, like a Hawkeye Pierce or a Mary or Alex or something from Taxi. So I've always been fascinated by this medium in particular, the 1970s.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So as I was making my way through graduate school or my PhD program up at Drew University here in Jersey, I maybe would sort of come in and out of my head often or every once in a while doing coursework, classes, exams, that kind of thing. One day I really stumbled upon a couple of texts from the '80s that had Lear, Ms. Julia Norman Lear, had blurbs on the back of the texts. So I think there was a book that came out in the early '80s called The Bible Vote by Peggy Shriver, I think, those associated with the union at the time. I started putting pieces together, connecting the dots.

Benjamin Rolsky:

I think the final straw was finding out the origins of People For the American Way, which was nonprofit and interfaith. It involved people like Theodore Hesburgh, Martin Marty from back in the '70s and that 70s, 80s transitional period. It just in some ways began to write itself, which is kind of wonderful, and I decided to sort of take a look at Lear and sort of catalog across the board and see what I could do with it. Luckily, people are engaging it, or they're interested in, and I really couldn't be happier.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I can see the tie to television and appreciate that from your own youth. But what's interesting to me is how theological your interest became in this project. And I think that's a distinctive addition to the scholarly literature in this area. But let me back up just a little bit further and say that for many listening, some of these names will be unfamiliar to them. I'm older than you. So I was a teenager when a lot of this was happening, and I could sense there was something, even as a teenager. I could sense that there was something, a foot as a major change in American culture as reflected in even sitcoms. It's a long way to jump from Ozzie and Harriet to All in the Family.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yes, it is..

Albert Mohler:

Some things obviously happened. Yet the theological angle behind it is also a fascination to me because I lived this as well, as a theological conservative in America. Norman Lear identified conservative Christianity is the great impediment to social progress, and had a theological agenda. Yet so many in the secular academia frankly would have no interest in that. How did that dimension come to interest you?

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, right. So as you're saying, theologically, Lears certainly participating in a broad kind of civil religious imagination broadly considered. He flew in the second world war, supported things like Protestants and Catholics and Jews kind of trading around the country and trying to create some support for more sort of civically minded cause in defense of America and democracy. But I actually just taught a course on the counterculture here at Monmouth. To me, the programming in the early '70s is something called relevance programming. That word was in the air theologically. If you look at some of the material or articles from the period, you have a number of different things happening seismically. Things are taking off for charismatic, evangelical, and fundamentalist communities. On the other hand, it's a little bit of a drop-off. The debate about that kind of falling off is still ongoing.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So for someone like Lear, theologically, he fits into an idea of television isn't just something that lights up a box. It's not just a bunch of lights. It's not just this thing that you look at. It had a didactic purpose. So not unlike the gospel on behalf of say civil rights in the 1960s. Lear uses television to project onto sort of America. It's more civic vision or his own vision of how he thought America should operate in many ways. So really, for the sake of discussion, if out of this period, we have something called the electronic church for all intents and purposes, we have the electronic classroom with something like Norman Lear’s  All in the Family. So to me, that's how I sort of located him in the period and that drive to make popular culture relevant, to make religion relevant, to make theology relevant.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Obviously, we're coming out of the death of God kind of theology in the early to mid '60s. He's not per se involved in that. He's identifying as a Jewish person, in addition. That's where sort of the interfaith sort of aspect comes into play. Grew up listening to Father Coughlin in the '20s and '30s. He grew up in New Haven hearing about the quotas about Jewish people at Yale. So for him, to be Jewish in a certain way is to kind of remember that, is to hold on-

Albert Mohler:

Sure.

Benjamin Rolsky:

... such that in the '70s when... Can't remember who it was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time quoted correctly or not says, "God does not hear the prayer of a Jew." For someone like Lear, that struck a chord. So oftentimes that's why he sees or he saw... Well, he sees. He's 97 now, so still sees conservatism or at least a certain understanding of conservatism, a branding of conservatism as an obstacle. Because oftentimes he's hearing resonances from the '20s and '30s, that's his upbringing. So he's making television relevant, like you said.

Benjamin Rolsky:

The most watched show, the '60s is the Beverly Hillbillies. It's not All in the Family. Obviously, that's in the early '70s. So he's trying to make TV apply to what's happening. So he couldn't get any bigger pleasure than hearing people talk about his show the day after in the office around the water cooler. So if we can say that that's a theological value of sorts, this kind of relevance idea, that's kind of what I went with and what I grounded a lot of the interpretation off.

Albert Mohler:

So there's a bit of history here. I want to move to Lear television and that big change. But let me go backwards just a bit. You're kind of uniquely situated in an ironic way to think about that. In the mid 1950s, a professor at Drew University, as a matter of fact, where you did your doctorate Will Herberg wrote a famous book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew. I never knew him, but I certainly knew of his work. If you look at American culture in the 1950s, you got the background of the Cold War, the aftermath of the Second World War, cultural cohesiveness, a newly assertive kind of official civil religion, which is not theologically specific, but it's just generalized. There's kind of a mainstream faith of a godly America over against a godless Soviet union. You've got Dwight Eisenhower. Every great religion needs a faith. I don't particularly care which faith it is, to paraphrase him.

Albert Mohler:

Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew identified what Herberg saw, who was a big believer in both theology in a serious way, but also in civil religion is necessary. He branded that Protestant, Catholic, Jew as if to say there is this mainstream now, and we're all a part of the same project. If you're not a part of that project, then either to the left or the right, you're probably dangerous. That left a lot of conservative Protestants out of his definition of Protestant. Yet by the time you get to the 1960s, it's clear that mainline Protestantism is numerically in retreat, and conservative evangelicalism is growing. That has to be a part of what set the context for all this.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Absolutely, it is. Yeah. I mean, I wish I had gone back to the '50s to contextualize it in that way. I delved back into Robert Bellah's, the sociologist who basically coined the phrase in the late '60s. I delve back into that text. We periodically have to delve into it for different courses and different topics and such. But even then, and I didn't realize it, when I delve back into it, Bellah is still using a certain straw man in some capacity to render what civil religion is. In some capacity, it's a little bit suffocating in some capacity. Whether you go back to me or whether you go back to Bellah, I think in some instances, I think the phrase is... I don't know if he says John Birch types or nationalist types or something like that. But the very idea itself of civil religion can be read as a little bit constraining, like you said, a little bit more about perhaps a pluralist project that might actually not be all that pluralist per se.

Benjamin Rolsky:

When we're talking about civil religion, the important bit to me is the civil part, because then we get into how liberal democracies define religion, and oftentimes, they're civil, and those that are not tend to be a little bit looked at a skew. So sure, I mean, built into those larger pluralist kind of projects are a very kind of limited mainline Protestant vision that might not be the most expansive. So yeah. I mean, I think even now, work is still unpacking this idea of pluralism or religious pluralism or even civil religion or even the idea can be idolatrous. Civil religion was-

Albert Mohler:

Oh, absolutely. Right.

Benjamin Rolsky:

... considered to be sort of the thing that undergirded Vietnam and undergirded any number of kind of nationalists sort of vision. So yeah. I didn't realize that. Though, even in Bellah's own articulation, there's this kind of specter of the conservative. In addition, the editors are writing about this. Daniel Bell's writing about this and any number of collections on the new right. So yeah. That's what I hope my second book hopefully takes up is sort of the history of sort of conservatism and how it's reacting to some of these changes and how it ultimately kind of emerges victorious in many ways. I've been thinking a lot. I'm not sure we live in the world of King per se. We might live in the world of Reagan perhaps. It's something that I continue to think about.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. Probably to some degree in both. I came of age at a time when conservatism is just beginning to regain its institutional legitimacy and its intellectual cohesiveness with William Frank Buckley Jr. and the whole crowd around national review. But before that, it had been a long time in the wilderness. I think one of the things people wouldn't recognize today when we've got digital media and everybody can be a publisher and everybody can be a producer, the means of cultural production to use that term were just incredibly tightly held, so much so that I was telling someone the other day conservative voices in American religion sometimes had to act illegally, I think of Carl McIntire. I guess he didn't act illegally, but he had to have a pirate radio off the coast of the United States out in international waters just to broadcast-

Benjamin Rolsky:

Quite literally.

Albert Mohler:

... yeah, back to the United States. Now that seems inconceivable. But those would be called not only fundamentalists, but conservative evangelicals had just no access to the communications media much at all.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. I get into that a little bit. Some colleagues of mine are writing about talk radio as far, as a venue that was claimed. But in many ways, yeah. I mean, I get into a chapter. I get into that in a chapter where I look at the origins of the FCC and the origins of this idea of the public interest and then sort of what that means. I mean, even in my own research on the back end of the book for the variety show, I love liberty. I talk a little bit about how someone like Jerry Falwell reached out to Norman Lear, and he said, "Can I be part of this?" Lear said something like, "Well, we don't want any lectures." Or like, "We don't want any speeches per se."

Benjamin Rolsky:

So yeah, I think that story is relatively common in the sense of if anyone's been entrepreneurial, I suppose it's been the conservative for those very reasons that you say, which goes back to, say the twenties and thirties and the SCC is getting off the ground, and it has to sort of regulate, I suppose, or legislate with Coughlin in mind. It's a little bit abrasive. It's a little bit confrontational and the SCC trying to figure out how to build in a notion of kind of good religion or this idea of a kind of, well, maybe try faith for the sake of the discussion, even though it's a little bit afterwards, but some liberal kind of progressive idea of programming, such that you had sustaining time and the time that you have to pay for it.

Benjamin Rolsky:

The history of that is a number of scholars and historians and academics is that, yeah, conservatives oftentimes had to pay for all of that, which is oftentimes why I think the marketing is so much better. The branding is so much better. The work is so much better for the second book I'm reading. For the second book I’m reading, it's not necessarily intimately connected, but texts that Richard Viguerie wrote in the '70s and just how hard and just how even something like direct mail becomes an alternative channel that conservative is just-

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Benjamin Rolsky:

... sort of jumping upon. That's really the second book maybe, really taking the page out of Barry Goldwater's book, Viguerie coming in and saying, "We can do a lot with this." That in many ways kind of rewrites the country in some capacity.

Albert Mohler:

Right. Having lived through a lot of that, people miss things that are really important, such as the fact that if you go back to 1964 in that period, Phyllis Schlafly who would establish the Eagle Forum, she's one of those who figures out her mailing list is actually the source of power. That mailing list is the way to communicate with people. She finds that out when others ask her for it. That's when she figures out, "That's really where the power is. It's in that mailing list."

Albert Mohler:

But going back to the Protestant Catholic Jew, Will Herberg civil religion, the only thing I'd press back on what you said is that I think there's a little bit more rationality or at least, how can I say, agency in the FCC and the powers that be trying to restrict the airwaves and broadcast avenues to those considered safe for this modern democratic experiment and mainline Protestantism, more liberal Protestantism was seen as absolutely safe an establishment. But one of the things I see few people point to is that if you look at the religious composition of the United States Congress at that time, it's overwhelmingly mainline Protestant.

Albert Mohler:

If you were to check today's this Congress versus say Congress from 1966, one of the most astounding things is the fact that Episcopalians are basically in the driver's seat. Then, not now. I think most evangelicals just don't recognize. There weren't that many evangelicals in Congress, as a matter of fact during that period. So the mainline was mainline for more than one reason.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. No. I think that's fair. I kind of talk a little bit about how Lear participates in that, either quite literally or maybe implicitly and sometimes inherently. I think he benefits from that from a particular kind of power and influence. Yeah. Maybe the word, maybe you were looking for something like intentionality, maybe, a little bit more kind of purpose to sort of circumscribe who is going to be acceptable and who's not. In many ways, that's what the study of religion's all about is kind of how either liberal democracy or individuals themselves identify what's good religion and bad religion. Ideally, in the classroom, we're working to unpack those things, contextualize those things and show how those things get leveraged in the public square.

Albert Mohler:

Right. One of the things that is rather a standard and understandably, and I say as a theologian, in theological terms, is that the stronger the theological truth claims, the more sinister or threatening they may appear to the powers that be simply because they demand a higher allegiance. So you can certainly see that. That's why I think a very interesting test case in all of this is the Catholic auxiliary bishop, Fulton Sheen. Because I think they saw him as very much a part of the mainstream until his anticommunism became so transparent that I think he actually scared the people who had given him the airwaves in the first place.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. I mean, I could see that, especially, well, imagine if that were today, how fast that would happen. We've gone from 24-hour news, the sort of instantaneous news .

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Benjamin Rolsky:

But yeah. I mean, it doesn't take much for the wins to kind of turn and to be seen in very different ways.

Albert Mohler:

Now, thinking about Norman Lear, there's a fast forward in our conversation now to television, let's say not in the '70s, but in the '60s because the timeline has to be, I think the electronic church emerging after you've already got All in the Family and Maude and all the rest because basically you don't have that until the '70s. But in the '60s, Norman Lear and others in a certain colleagueship with him, they saw the sitcom as an opportunity to transform America in ways that they saw absolutely necessary for a project of human liberation. I'll just put it that way. But that would not be obvious if you look at television in the early '60s. What made it obvious to them? What did they get that others did not see?

Benjamin Rolsky:

So the opportunity is the content coming together with the commercial interest because to get anything on TV is expensive and difficult. The show itself went through all of the three networks that were on at the time. We kind of forget that. There weren't that many networks on. It really wasn't that much TV to even watch. So talk about reception, talk about how many people are watching. So if anything, it was the coming together of commercial and content because Lear was kind of fed up with a certain type of programming, with the kind of Bewitched and Mister Ed and Beverly Hillbillies. He just sort of coming after the comment of maybe in the '50s or '60s that television was a vast wasteland. I don't remember who said that, but Lear, that's in the back of his. Lear sees opportunity to combine this kind of new interest to what's happening on the ground to be hip, to be in the know, all that kind of stuff.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Then the networks, even though it had to go through all three of them before it landed anywhere, they thought, "Okay. Well, we have a little bit of a commercial interest here as well because we can make a little bit of money by programming to younger demographic individuals, those who live in the cities, those who want to be in the know, those who want to be up to date on what's going on. So in many ways, if a program, because the show like All in the Family obviously was groundbreaking for any number of different reasons, but it was really because he had to do battle with standards and practices for the first episode for just the very first one just because of what was implied when... It's so funny because in the pilot, Archie and Edith are at church. I think it's one of the more maybe sort of underestimated moments.

Benjamin Rolsky:

But when Archie comes back, he's complaining about the pastor. He's complaining about what the pastor is saying and how it's not very relevant, and it's just kind of out of touch and all this kind of stuff. So Lear had to even do a battle with standards and practices just over what was implied, what are Mike and Gloria doing upstairs as Archie and Edith are away at church. So it took a little bit of sort of working that out in the early days. But ultimately, it was groundbreaking content that the network saw an opportunity to branch out to perhaps meet new demographics.

Albert Mohler:

So did it work that way? I mean, you said something very interesting that I didn't expect. You said that the network saw an opportunity to make some money off of reaching a younger viewership. I'm just really curious about this. Is that what happened? It reached a vast viewership. But is it rightly characterized as young?

Benjamin Rolsky:

No. Yeah. So obviously, it's one of the most well-known programs. I mean, hundreds of millions of people are watching. It has chairs in the Smithsonian. But as far as the rationale, the debates within the circles, within the network rooms and the boardrooms, they obviously at the time didn't know it was going to become one of America's most iconic shows in the history of television. No one could ever see that. I mean, nothing like Archie Bunker had ever graced American televisions really ever. I mean, Lear's argument is that there are people like that every day. I think there's still people like that every day. So I think you also said that Lear didn't say anything that wasn't already being set on playgrounds around the country.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So yes. Eventually, as far as the legacy, as far as the takeaway, it was a tremendous kind of success. But the rationale, the kind of argument to make it happen ultimately, at least at first, was that the network saw an opportunity at least on the finances, and it kind of came together. But yeah. I mean over time, it took over the imagination. I mean, ABC is doing reenactments of it still. So Lear is still in some part of the imagination at some capacity, even at '97.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. An amazing figure. One of the most important figures in modern America as a matter of fact. But the reason I raised the youth question is, so I grew up in an extremely conservative context, extremely, so extremely that the question was, can you watch any television? So All in the Family emerges. Of course, with the flushing toilet and the innuendo that raised eyebrows, all this. It was just astounding. Then the portrayal of Archie Bunker as by Carroll O'Connor and of course, Jean Stapleton with Edith and the whole thing. But here's the amazing thing. Conservatives watched All in the Family and loved it. They didn't know of everything about it.

Albert Mohler:

But one of the greatest ironies in all of this is that conservatives lined up to watch All in the Family. Even when they're aggravated by it, far more aggravated, by the way by the series, Maude than All in the Family.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. I can understand.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. Yeah. And at the spinoff through Archie's sister-in-law, and Bea Arthur playing Maude because that show was just a step further addressing abortion and so many issues just head-on and in a way that frankly wasn't so funny. I should say Carroll O'Connor is just one of the great comic television actors of all time. His face was able to communicate more than most people with words.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well said.

Albert Mohler:

The ensemble was an amazing cast with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers and all the rest. You just look at this, and you go, "This was one of those rare moments." But I've often thought, and I do know Martin Marty. I don't know Norman Lear. But talking with Martin Marty, we actually talked about this one time. This is one of those amazing things. Conservatives have a sense of humor about themselves. I mean, frankly, it was one of the rare portrayals of a kind of a populist every man-

Benjamin Rolsky:

Exactly.

Albert Mohler:

... that was at the center of the program. That's something I didn't see you address directly. But Carroll O'Connor was the center of that program. You would have people like that who might be the neighbor, the crotchety uncle, or whatever. But at the center of the program, that was something new, and Archie Bunker in spite of himself was lovable.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. There's so much there. Let me see if I can even get at a lot of that. Yeah. So being at the center. So the fact that multiple people from various sides of the aisle and spectrum can understand something simultaneously in two different ways I think speaks to the function of satire. I think the question is, were we laughing with him, or were we laughing at him? Here's the thing. I mean, excuse me, ultimately, he is human. He is humanized. He has very human moments, especially when he gets trapped in the elevator and someone has birth, and it's just this most unbelievable thing. We know all in family is the stage. I'm trying to address the things you were saying and the face, Archie's face. I mean, that's from the stage. All these individuals are veterans of the stage in many ways versus the sitcom, the kind of built sets and all of that.

Albert Mohler:

Good point.

Benjamin Rolsky:

An amazing cast. Carroll O'Connor gets called out in the streets. People yell at him, "Go, Archie. Go, Archie." He's not the most conservative individual. So it's..

Albert Mohler:

You could say that more strongly, but yes, absolutely.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. So no. I mean, yeah. I mean, even I quote him in the book, O'Connor and others, and the idea of Archie was that you weren't supposed to be like him. The idea was that America in some capacity was attempting to move past him.

Albert Mohler:

But I think conservatives understood that. I do.

Benjamin Rolsky:

No, and-

Albert Mohler:

I think they did. I'm saying I think conservatives understood that. So I'm trying to state this carefully and kind of confessionally here just in terms of my own lifetime. I saw a massive change in the language expressions, humor of conservatives in America about the same time. So in other words, I think there were just a lot of especially young... I was in elementary school when it started. But in high school, when it ended, I hear a lot of young conservatives who could see an Archie Bunker, our grandfather or father, but said, "I'm never going to use that humor. I would never do."

Albert Mohler:

In other words, I think conservatives need to recognize there was a moral messaging in All in the Family that just about every conservative I know right now would say is absolutely right. Might not have in 1967 but I think undoubtedly would in 2020. So I think the show probably operated on more multiple layers than any of us can understand.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. I think so too. I show my students the show, and they can't really understand it at all. Shows either have to be dramatic, or they have to be funny. With Norman's programming, you were crying and laughing simultaneously. Some of the kids were a little uncomfortable, some of the students like, how do I understand that? I mean, am I supposed to laugh? Am I supposed to cry? Why are people yelling at each other? Why is it such a high volume? So much of it is autobiographical. So much of All in the Family and Maude is just Norman writing from his life. I mean, his dad came up with all the catchphrases for the show.

Albert Mohler:

Wow.

Benjamin Rolsky:

You know, meathead, laziest white boy I'd ever met. His dad was King Lear. So I mean, yeah, even with Maude, I mean, Lear wrote so much of himself into Maude. Maude is the closest televisual representation of Lear's personal-

Albert Mohler:

Very interesting.

Benjamin Rolsky:

... aspiration that he's put on TV, at least that's what he writes.

Albert Mohler:

Americans in general and certainly American Christians specifically know that popular culture matters. But we often are unaware of what is behind those television programs, that popular music, what's behind the books and the publishing industry. All of that is largely at a remove from where we get to look. Benjamin Rolsky helps us to see behind the screen, so to speak when we're talking about some of the most important and influential television programs and people behind them of the 1970s and beyond.

Albert Mohler:

So I can remember specific moments in All in the Family. I can remember one moment, and of course I was seeing it live. There weren't any other ways to see it. I saw it live. I'm not going to use the discourse from the program. But he's in an argument with Meathead, his son in law, as was so often the case. The son-in-law is offended by Archie's use of an ethnic slur. Yet he uses a different ethnic slur than what Archie used. Archie in anger responds to me, says, "You don't know this," and he starts going through a list of different peoples and the ethnic slurs identified with them. Then I can remember seeing that, and thinking, "I've never heard anybody talk that way. I'm glad I've never heard anybody talk that way."

Albert Mohler:

But looking back at it, I'll bet you, that was the last time anybody talked that way on television. I can't document that. But I'll just say it was a sea change. It's one of those moments where, okay, it's been said out loud, nobody's ever going to do that again.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, yeah. My reading of that is I go back and forth between, in the early '70s, you have Sanford and Son, but by the early 80s, you have The Cosby Show. So in some capacity, it's like a reaction over and against how we're portraying people of color. So by the time you get to Cosby, like everyone has a PhD.

Albert Mohler:

That would be criticized severely now.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. No, and that's why representation is such a difficult thing to get. I mean, even when you're talking about the "Pentecostal" or the Elmer Gantries or any of these things over the years, or to think that you can represent a particular thing in some sort of platonic perfectness is sort of a challenge.

Albert Mohler:

Sure. There's so much more I'd like to talk about there but  two things I really want to get to. One is earlier in your book, you talk about the FCC. You talk about the fact that... But before Norman Lear and others kind of saw their work as necessary, the FCC, and let's just say the powers that be had pretty clearly decided that they wanted to present kind of tame mainstream more liberal religion on television. Then you do have the fact that... I'll be honest. I think Norman Lear and others like him, they were preaching through their sitcoms. So there was a lot of preaching. Television had a point. I guess there's no such thing as a neutral medium. Lear and his associates understood that. They were unapologetically non-neutral.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Unapologetically non-neutral all the while, claiming some sort of neutrality at the same time. It's somewhat tough. Right. So in some capacity, a civil religious space I think, where he's occupying from is not an empty kind of space. It's kind of a Protestant mainline kind of space that creates a lot of that. Even within the FCC, yeah. I can't remember, but the distinctions between who paid for time and who got it for free, those who got it for free were oftentimes Presbyterians or Episcopalians or something like that, the hour of this, the hour of that. It was pretty, yeah, middle of the road.

Albert Mohler:

Extremely.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So yeah. Yeah. No. I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and I think even the radio is supposed to be executed in the name of the public interest. So I always was curious about what that meant. So I went back into the literature and into the documents, and it goes back teens, 20, 30 different court cases trying to identify really what is the public interest. What you kind of learn is that it's not all that far removed from say the public good or something like public broadcasting or something like that.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Benjamin Rolsky:

But felt into that, obviously, are certain commitments, obviously, or certain investments and what religion means, what spirituality means, what education means, what raising children means. I mean, I wrote a piece on the faith background of Mister Rogers. In many ways, Lear or Rogers is the children's programming arm of relevance of what Lear is doing. Lear is on the sitcom and prime time, and Rogers is doing his thing with the fledgling kind of burgeoning nascent PBS. So you have this moment of kind of relevance, which in sort of actualities and protected by this idea of the public interest, which is kind of has certain mainline protestant sort of ideas of religion built into it. It's all kind of amplifying itself at the same time.

Albert Mohler:

So what happened in most situations is that, and I'll just speak for evangelicals and those defined as fundamentalists. What they had to do was either have Carl McIntire's pirate radio off the coast, or you had to settle for about three different things. One was extremely low power stations that you basically had to know existed in order to hear them and restricted. Or you were in the extremely off-clock hours in the middle of the night or something like that. Or you had to buy the time. That's where you zero in on that to the electronic church. They learned to buy time, and they learned to be good at it. Interestingly, in my own lifetime, I've seen numerous rounds of conservatives ask the question, why don't we do it Norman Lear did with, say comedy or drama or whatever?

Benjamin Rolsky:

Really?

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. But the answer is because we're not good at it. I don't mean that in terms of expertise, although that's probably true too. But I mean it in terms... Because the expertise turns out very good in other aspects. But when it comes to telling a story, I mean, comedy has kind of got to transgress, and by definition, we're not very good at transgressing I guess kind of the whole point.

Benjamin Rolsky:

That's funny. Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

So is kind of like the Billy Graham associations youth movies. They never were funny. They could be funny. So they were always serious. But looking at the way you tell the story, we've got to fast forward to People For the American Way because, again, this is not abstract for me.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah, I get that.

Albert Mohler:

When I was in college and in seminary, People For the American Way was one of the, say two or three most divisive controversial developments. It quickly became us versus them. So as you explain Norman Lear, how did Norman Lear come to found and to lead with such missionary zeal an organization known as People For the American Way, and why did he even call it that?

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yes, that’s nicely said. It kind of speaks to whatever these culture wars are. I mean, we're kind of getting off the ground as we move from the '60s into the '70s. We get Vietnam. We get Watergate. We get a gradual kind of disillusion with public institutions, and we get Carter and the born again kind of experience. Lear is watching all of that. He's an interested commentator. He's always had just a knack for this kind of subject matter. In the early '80s, he purchased Robert Frost's home. Since then, he always takes this kind of group of luminaries up there, and they have these kind of seminars. It's almost like the Lear seminars on faith or belief or something like that.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So of course, Marty and people like Bill Moyers and others would talk and chat. So you know Lear has a certain investment in the public and what that means. So when the networks try to institute Family Viewing Hour in their early to mid '70s he sues the heck out of them based on the First Amendment, based on censorship. We program in the public interest. You can't do this. So he's already rehearsing certain things that he'll then try to direct court towards explicitly kind of conservatives.

Benjamin Rolsky:

But at the same time, he's even watching Falwell. He's being reported about in stories with Falwell. They almost become two sides of the same coin. So of course, you get the Moral Majority, which takes off, what, the mid to late '70s. I mean, if anything a lot of progressive activism is reactive. Maybe in the '60s, it wasn't necessarily reactive. But I think since the '70s onwards, it's been kind of reactive, meaning reacting to a more kind of conservative impulse or conservative moment or movement or something.

Albert Mohler:

I still don't quite understand it as to how Lear became so personally involved. So I knew Jerry Falwell well and spoke for him and knew him long enough that I could see even certain developments in his way of engaging these issues. I didn't know him when he started the Moral Majority. I was too young. But the Old-Time Gospel Hour, and you go down the list of these, what Norman Lear would call electronic church, but these televised ministries. No one really saw them as a political threat when they emerged in the 1970s. Jerry Falwell was basically preaching the gospel, calling people to Christ and preaching the message, starting Liberty University to train young warriors for Christ as... So that's what he was about.

Albert Mohler:

All that changed. In one sense, one catalyst at least was Roe v. Wade. All of a sudden now, you do have the rise of the electronic church as a conservative force. By the way, not universally. I mean, you didn't have Robert Schuller very involved in any of these causes. But nonetheless, a lot of them were. But it's still hard for me to imagine how operating in Norman Lear's world, seeing Jerry Falwell and saying, "I need to know more about him." Somehow there's a catalyst I'm missing somewhere.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, it's less I want to know more and a little bit I'm kind of repulsed by. I don't think that's too far removed. I mean, moral authoritarians. I have some of Lear's writings, where he kind of is saying, "These aren't necessarily the people from scopes. These people know how to use computers. These people know how to use computers or television. They know how to reach a really wide audience." So part of it is the specter of Coughlin. Part of it is the kind of memories of quotas.

Albert Mohler:

Well, when you mentioned Father Coughlin, for some listening, explain who he was.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, basically, and I can never figure out if it's Coglin or Coughlin. But he's basically a Catholic radio preacher who at least in time starts going after FDR. He becomes somewhat anti-Semitic. He's saying things that aren't necessarily the best over public airwaves, which is why the FCC starts to kind of create a lot of these ideas of what the public interest is, and how do we sort of regulate the airwaves in a little bit of a better way. So what happened is Lear has a lot of this in the background. Here's the catalyst. Like others, perhaps I think he's watching Jimmy Swaggart. He's watching something late night because All in the Family is the progenitor for Right Watch in many ways, an organization that keeps tabs on conservative groups.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So Lear is watching. I think Swaggart asks his congregation for the removal of a Supreme Court Justice you know or something like that. Lear just goes bonkers to a certain extent. He sees that as a fundamental violation. He decides he first wanted to put a movie together. I think the movie was going to be called religion or something, is going to have two characters. One character gets caught up in electronic church. The other character has to rescue that character. Obviously, there's a built in message there.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So he's saying something about televangelists. He's saying something about the electronic church. He's saying something about money. He said something about the tax exempt statuses of these churches. So he sees this moment, and it catalyzing him in many ways. He wants to do a movie, but instead, it takes too long, and he does PSA, and the PSAs are run locally. They're on different places, Washington D.C. And it's a famous PSA. It's someone who's in a forklift, and he's in a hardhat. He steps out, and he says, "A lot of preachers today are telling us how to vote. They're telling us what to vote for. My wife, she agrees with everything the preacher says. So she's 100%. Christian. My son, he maybe doesn't. So he's less a Christian."

Benjamin Rolsky:

So Lear basically starts to make this argument, and People For the American Way start to say that, how on earth do, in this case, conservative pastors and preachers, how can they say these things? These are fundamental violations of church and state. In a tit for tat kind of way, if one is a moral majority, then Lear decides, "Okay. Well, we're going to create People For the American Way." Obviously, each one is kind of exclusionary in its own sort of renderings. But the American Way itself is also part of the story. The American way is also tri-faith. It's also Protestant, Catholic, Jew. It also has a story that reinforces what Lear wants to do all the while.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So when he starts having meetings with Hesburgh and Marty because that's when the real work starts is that he has to get all of their opinions. He goes to see all these fancy professors at different places and starts writing position papers and starts writing mission statements and TSAs broad now. They start to include Goldie Hawn, Muhammad Ali, clever messages about, what music do you like, or how do you like your eggs? The commercial's usually differences of opinion. That's the American way. Because for Lear, he sees the other side, and he doesn't see any difference of opinion. He sees someone bludgeoning the public square to try and privatize it.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So for him, the catalyst I think is swagger to seeing this sort of fundamental violation in his own mind about the separation of church and state and what people can say, even if it is simply preaching the gospel. But even still, Lear's watching Jerry Falwell’s I Love America rallies and in many ways is inspired to do I Love Liberty, which happens after Reagan gets elected. So they're intimately connected, but that's familiar that Lear is kind of working with, especially as Reagan is ascending, and he becomes the poster child for conservative evangelical America, which I think takes a bit of work, a bit of manufacturing.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Make America Great Again, that's something that was invented in many ways to make Reagan possible. So Lear, he's trying to combat that in the best way he can, and he knows how to do that through television.

Albert Mohler:

Now, I Love Liberty, which became the great project of Norman Lear. People For the American Way was supposed to be this great catalyst to awaken America to the danger of the new Christian right. I saw it at the time, and I thought it was pretty slick but wasn't sure what effect it would have.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Exactly.

Albert Mohler:

I saw it just a few years ago, and it appeared to me then to be the preachiest thing I'd ever seen on television.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Even Marty will admit that if you ask him. He'll admit that one of the sketches was one of the most knee-jerk kind of whatever you want to say, and he admits that. I have in the book somewhere. So he acknowledges that right from the get-go.

Albert Mohler:

Dr. Marty at the same time, the University of Chicago, and I've been very thankful for a friendship with him. We're in different theological worlds, but a gracious relationship. He is a kindly show me around his home and his working libraries. He's a very gracious man, very gracious man.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Absolutely.

Albert Mohler:

But he and colleagues at the University of Chicago started what was called The Fundamentalism Project at about the same time.

Benjamin Rolsky:

That they did. Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

So I always feel like I'm a little bit of a lab rat whenever I'm in conversation with some of the folks in Chicago because-

Benjamin Rolsky:

That's fair. That's fair.

Albert Mohler:

But I don't define myself as a fundamentalist but as an evangelical, but to them, I'm definitely a fundamentalist. So they saw fundamentalism as this worldwide phenomenon sociologically. What always offended me by that, offends too strong a word, was what constitutes myself identity is theological, not so much you know sociological. Oddly enough, I think Martin Marty was the one person who got that because he does understand theology. He really does. I think he did understand that. So I was a little bit surprised when I came to find out later how involved he had been even in writing much of I Love Liberty. So it was an amazing moment in time, just when you had the confluence of the most famous divinity professor at University of Chicago and Norman Lear and then also frankly major political figures because I mean, you had fascinating, I mean, I believe Gerald Ford appeared on it as a former president.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Well, here's the thing. So I mean, the question is, do you want to have addresses, or do you want to have a prime time television show. That's what I think about. Ultimately, the ones with the mailing lists have moved the country. It's not necessarily the ones with the shows. I mean, that's kind of the thing to take away from all of this. But I mean, he had Barry Goldwater in the special but not unlike Archie Bunker and not unlike other characters who are maybe conservative and libertarian and tend to be the kind of comic relief. Barry Goldwater, perhaps on the most important figures in the second half of the 20th century comes out, and he's basically the butt of a joke. He comes out, and he says something like, "Well, I think there's a huge parade." It was this unbelievable thing, super patriotic, and he comes out and says, "And I thought that was going to be patriotic or something like that."

Benjamin Rolsky:

But that's how it was pitched because it had to be pitched to the network to be bipartisan. So that means you had to have... Johnson's wife I think, Ford-

Albert Mohler:

Lady Bird.

Benjamin Rolsky:

That's right. Then you had Goldwater appear. But people at the time were writing about how it was a little bit sketchy, how ABC gave People for the American Way money to sort of produce it. People at the time were writing in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times about, what is this exactly? Is this advocacy? Is this programming? Is this entertainment. What exactly is this? Yeah. I mean, Marty, he wrote a sketch that had Christopher Reeve in it, and he was a priest, and he was arguing with Walter Matthau about living next to your neighbor, and I'm not living next to no Catholic. I mean, it was the most unbelievable thing. But all of it is didactic. I probably should have said that from the onset. Lear's programming is didactic. It's not programming for its own sake. That's just like a flashing television screen. Didactic in the sense of it's educational, it's purposeful, it's meant to give you something to think about as you finish watching it.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Now, whether that did any good with I Love Liberty is kind of up for grabs. You could have enjoyed Robin Williams doing standup as the American flag. I think that would be very apropos perhaps in addressing everything that's sort of going on. You had Gregory Hines doing an amazing musical number and dance number, and then you had Burt Lancaster I think recite the words of Justice Learned Hand who was a big inspiration for Norman Lear. I mean, that's where Lear's spirit of liberty comes from. It says spirit up spirit up. I play with that. It's not this Pentecostal spirit. It's not the spirit that descends. It's the spirit of liberty. It's the spirit of fairness. It's the spirit of justice, something along those lines. But spirit's obviously a multivalent term. But I play around with that kind of cross pollination because of the fact that so many people were expressing themselves in those terms, yet they're occupying radically different political positions in a very tumultuous time in American history.

Albert Mohler:

So fast forward to 2020, is there a religious left that you... Clearly, in fact, in one of the closing sections of your book, you talk about politics of spiritual liberalism. Is there such a thing on the political scene today?

Benjamin Rolsky:

I think there is. But I think it's become a little untethered from some of the things that helped to get off the ground. Well, a number of books are coming out in addition to mine that are sort of exploiting this. It sort of depends on where you look and how you define it. I mean, obviously, if you're if you're progressive writing it, the first thing you're going to say is, "Well, there is, and it's nothing like the religious right, and blah, blah, blah," and all that kind of stuff, which is fine. It's not a systematized. It's not as sort of top-down. I think in many ways, the organizing, the direct mailing, the unifying message from top to bottom, that I think is so effective on the right when it comes organizing anything.

Benjamin Rolsky:

I think there is. But I think it's sort of trying to find itself in a world where protests still matter. Obviously, we're seeing a lot of it. But at the same time, I don't know if the symbology and the symbolism of kind of progressive prophetic utterances are really being understood in the way that they want them to be understood. So a lot of that, and I'm thinking about this literally as I'm sort of finishing up a piece, a lot of it depended on the pastor being out in front. We talk about the '60s. If conservatives have been good at anything, it's been re appropriating and deploying what progressives put into the world.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So in the '60s, we had King. By the '70s, we get someone like Falwell. So to me, there's been such a kind of capturing of the public script of religion in America by conservatives because they've worked very, very hard, whether that's Buckley or Rusher or Viguerie or Phillips or any of the New Right individuals in the '70s. I think in many ways, the left has played on a terrain that's not of their own defining and choosing. As such, I think they have to find a little bit more grounding in a public imagination that's molded a bit more by the Milton Friedmans and the Reagans than they are any kind of countercultural sort of social ethic out of the '60s.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So part of it is you're sort of yelling into the mob but oftentimes not really being heard because part of it is the cacophony of media today. I think conservationism is much better with them but the messaging of getting something out there that people understand, something centralized, something that's digestible. So I think there is. It's disparate. It's kind of amorphous, definitely reactive. I think there's potential there. But I also think I'm very constructive and pretty critical in my own writing just because I see potential, but then I see a movement that's perhaps a little untethered from some of the things that it's trying to do.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. One of the great questions to me as a theologian looking at public culture and having to use a term like secularization as a way of describing the loss of the binding authority of theism in the culture, the left is far more secular by definition and by self-definition, and that's as religious or spiritual left becomes far more tenuous. So I when I'm asked about that, I say, "Just look at the shift. You mentioned Dr. King. Just look at the shift from the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s to Black Lives Matter." Black Lives Matter as a movement explicitly is established without clergy at the center, whereas almost all the moral authority in the Civil Rights Movement was the Reverend King, the Reverend Abernathy. It was the reverend.

Benjamin Rolsky:

That’s true yeah.

Albert Mohler:

Now, that's just no longer the case.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. I mean, I just saw an article actually just came out on kind of the religious sensibilities of sort of Black Lives Matter and protests and stuff right now, and I haven't looked at it yet. But yeah. I mean, I think you're exactly right, and I think the left is sort of or the religious left sort of stuck in that imagination a little bit. I mean, not to say that William Barber can't do a number of different things. But at the same time, we might have to reimagine or imagine different equations, different formulas if it's just a matter of having sort of a pastor out front. Is it as simple as that? I don't know. I think it's sort of been commodified. So I think it's trying to find its footing and some traction. But I think at the same time, it's having some difficulty, and I think we saw obviously with Mayor Pete it kind of popped up here and there. I think the narrative about progressives being somewhat disingenuous about a lot of that merrily comes off like that.

Benjamin Rolsky:

I think conservatism works very hard at making progressive seem kind of fat-handed and somewhat stumbling when it comes to questions of religion. But at the same time, like you say, there are a number of self-identified secular individuals, atheists, agnostics, the nuns. So obviously, progressivism sees that as a strength. But how to bring that symphony together and who the conductor is going to be can be a little difficult because it pushes against centralization. So then who's going to bring some centrality to that message? I think they're trying to find that right now.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. I often point to another dichotomy, not just looking at the Civil Rights Movement versus Black Lives Matter. I also say when you look at the right and the Left in America, and I don't say that as one who's uninvolved. But when you look at the conservative liberal divide in the United States, the pattern that I see is this, amongst others, is that liberals have to say, "I'm less religious than it might look." And conservatives have to say, "I'm more religious than it might look." To give reassurance to their own people. In other words, it's a very different dynamic.

Albert Mohler:

As you close your book on page 174, you write. “The study has argued that since the beginning of the 1960s, the United States and its citizens have engaged one another in prolonged cultural warfare over the most fundamental assumptions about the relationship between religion, the state, and the protection of the public good. If we know anything from looking at the realities of our own day, that's an ongoing debate.”

Benjamin Rolsky:

Very much. And it's one that I don't know where the end is. I think people write in this time that politics become a little bit more intimate, assuming they weren't before, but in the sense of, at one point, we were arguing about maybe GDP or about foreign policy, domestic policy, something like that. In the '60s and '70s, we get this kind of generation of something called the social issue. That was what relevance was about. We had to be relevant. People at the time had to be relevant to these social issues. So at the time, that was civil rights. But about less than 10 years later, it's the unborn fetus is a social issue.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Obviously, it broadened out to guns, to homosexuality, to abortion to any of the number of sort of "hot button" sort of issues that we see today. I talked to a number of conservatives sort of off and on, and I'm beginning to get the sense that... I mean, even when William Buckley had Falwell on the firing line, I think that Buckley was very suspect to Falwell. I mean, for a lot of conservatives Falwell was sort of you know sort of odd. He was being called anti-Semitic. It's an amazing episode. Buckley goes at Falwell relentlessly because I think deep down, conservatism, at least in some pockets, get a little kind of antsy over bringing in someone like Falwell or bringing in say the Birchers in the '50s and '60s and those sorts of decisions.

Benjamin Rolsky:

So in many ways, I think the parties are kind of trying to figure themselves out. I think if one side has kind of experience a moment of political exhaustion, the other side has to deal with, "Well, how does Trump represent anything conservatives?" Does that even make any sense, especially as more moderate conservatives are coming out and being vocal. If some are worried about progressivism, at the same time, we also need to be worried about conservatism, where it's going, what it's made of and what its future holds. So I wish I could tell the future a little bit better. But I mean, I'm not sure if it gets any better before it gets any worse, say whatever that phrase is. But yeah. It's a little bit complex.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I'm just going to go out on a limb here and say whatever that turns out to be, there'll be plenty of material for you to write another book. So that will go on. Benjamin Rolsky, it's been a really important conversation. I've enjoyed it. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Benjamin Rolsky:

Yeah. Thank you very much for having me.

Albert Mohler:

One of the interesting questions in the year 2020 is whether or not there is a religious left, and furthermore if there is one, where is it to be found? Is it very large? Is it significant? That's in the background of the fact that if you turn to the 1960s and '70s, maybe even into the '80s, there certainly was a religious left. What would surprise many Americans, including American evangelicals is to know that the religious left defined in just those terms was really in the driver's seat of so much of American culture. It had the official entablature of the United States government, a safe form of Protestantism that could basically provide civil religion a glue that would hold society together but would not hold to any particular moral teachings or any prickly doctrines.

Albert Mohler:

But of course, the religious left in conflict with the religious right during the time of the 1980s set the stage for debates that continue even until now. It's hard for most Americans to remember a time when the religious left really was the public face of religion in so far as popular entertainment, government the news industry, and all the rest were basically concerned. Benjamin Rolsky's analysis of that background is not only fascinating it's really important, and it's also important because he looks at the artifacts of popular culture, such as those television programs of iconic status such as All in the Family. But he also looks at the mind, the individual behind those programs, most importantly, Norman Lear, whose outsized influence in American television gave him the confidence that he could have an outsized influence in American culture, even in American religion. It turned out that his reach really did not extend that far. But that's not to take anything away from the culture-framing, culture-forming power of television. All in the Family, it turned out, really did help to effect change in the United States.

Albert Mohler:

It's important in the year 2020 that we look back about four decades maybe even just a little bit more to recognize how that happened and what it means. Of course, even as we are speaking in the year 2020, gone is the day when there were three major television networks that basically owned the cultural waterfront when it came to sitcoms and dramas, anything on broadcast television. You watched it when they broadcast it, and you watched what they would broadcast and produce, or you saw basically nothing. In the age of ubiquitous information and streaming media, that seems now to be almost impossible to remember. But Benjamin Rolsky's book helps us to remember and also helps us to think about the meaning of this cultural conflict not only in the 1970s, but in our own times and even as it sets the stage for the future beyond.

Albert Mohler:

Or perhaps to put it another way, if you look at the young people on American college and university campuses these days, it's very unlikely that they ever watched Archie Bunker on television. But the world they inhabit, the world they now know on those campuses was transformed indeed long ago by the cultural movement that also produced the sitcom brought to us by Norman Lear, All in the Family with Archie Bunker. Finally, it also reminds us of the power of narrative, the power of television, the power of story because, of course, Archie Bunker isn't a real person, not the Archie Bunker that was the character on All in the Family.

Albert Mohler:

But here's the interesting thing. It can be argued that Archie Bunker, who wasn't real, had a much larger influence on American culture than most of the rest of us who are real. That was the power of television then, and we dare not diminish or try to minimize it even now. That's why Christians have to think about these things and think seriously, and that's why we had this conversation today on Thinking in Public.

Albert Mohler:

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public. If you enjoyed today's episode, you can find more than 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boys College, go to boyscollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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