The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left

Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond

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L. Benjamin Rolsky
  • New York: 
    Columbia University Press
    , November
     2019.
     272 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231193634.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Having consumed numerous books, essays, films, and documentaries about the “Christian Right” for nearly two-decades, I have long been frustrated with the one-sided focus on the conservative-to-fundamentalist spectrum of Christian-led cultural politics in the United States (and beyond). Benjamin Rolsky’s book The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left offers an important reorientation toward the varied interests and influences of a liberal-left “religious” sensibility on American public life, and what this can tell us about the historical and ideological underpinnings of the ongoing culture wars.

Despite the open-endedness of the book’s title, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left is focused on the pioneering influence of TV writer and producer Norman Lear, whose influential programming dominated the 1970s, and was a cipher for post-war “spiritual politics.” Drawing on the fields of history and American religions, along with the subfields of culture wars studies and American religious liberalism, Rolsky combines the tools of historical narrative and ideological analysis to turn a critical lens on the Spiritual or Religious Left. Among his major arguments is that the so-called Christian Right was in many ways a reaction to (and perhaps even a creation of) the Religious Left, and that the turn toward “the personal” in American politics was in no small measure influenced by the legacy of Norman Lear.

Chapter 1 provides important background on the life and work of Lear, demonstrating how his grounding in a “theatrical Jewish tradition,” and coming of age in an era that aimed to embody “American civil religion,” where the separation of church and state, civility, pluralism, and tolerance reigned supreme, were adapted by Lear into the realm of popular culture through his “relevance programming.” This includes not only Lear-produced shows like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, but also his advocacy organization People for the American Way (ca. 1981), and his variety show I Love Liberty (1982). Contrary to the commonly held notion that religious liberalism sees itself as existing outside of institutional spaces, Rolsky demonstrates its integral role in politicizing a specific brand of public religion over and against the “Christian Right.”

Chapter 2 turns to All in the Family, which I was surprised to hear was the most-watched TV show in the United States for five years running. Rolsky views this program as an embodiment of Lear’s “theatrical religious liberalism,” which contributed to the formation of these televisual sensibilities that have become standard today. One interesting thesis in this chapter deals with the concept of the “New Class,” which was proposed by neo-conservative thinkers like Irving Kristol to describe a shift in power in the post-war period toward those who are best able to capture the “knowledge industry.” The character Meathead in All in the Family is described as an embodiment of this idea, whereas his father-in-law Archie Bunker is representative of an old-school bigotry that many believed was headed for the “dustbin of history.” For Rolsky, there is a strong case to be made that it was Lear and not the likes of Jerry Falwell who first politicized “the family” as a wedge issue.

Chapter 3 expands upon these questions by focusing on the political backlash toward Lear’s “relevance programming” and the controversies it stirred, as with the (in)famous abortion episode from the show Maude. More importantly, this chapter highlights how prime time television in the 1970s became central in the cultural wars, drawing the ire not only of the “Christian Right,” but also the scrutiny of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for potential violations of the Fairness Doctrine. What is perhaps most interesting for scholars of religion, however, is the claim that the influence of Lear’s “spiritual politics” extended beyond Hollywood productions to mainline Protestantism itself, as seen with the National Council of Churches and the publication Christian Century.

Chapter 4 turns to Lear’s advocacy organization People for the American Way (PFAW), which Rolsky describes as the “institutional culmination of Lear’s spiritual liberalism” (108). PFAW produced TV spots, publications, and position papers on topics such as prayer in public schools, how best to regulate the airwaves, and debates over the teaching of evolution in school. Rolsky highlights how Lear himself authored any number of position papers through PFAW and was deeply informed by his relationship with religion scholar Martin Marty, who drew upon John Rawls’s ideal of “public reason” as a necessary bulwark against the rise of the “electronic church” and growing influence of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Falwell. Rather than take sides in this conflict, Rolsky is primarily interested in demonstrating how Lear tended to simplify the diversity of his conservative opponents, much like those who made up the “Moral Majority” did against their liberal adversaries.  

Chapter 5 looks at Lear’s 1982 variety show I Love Liberty as an attempt to combat Falwell’s “I Love America rallies, which tied American nationalism to traditional morality. It is the aftermath of I Love Liberty that marks for Rolksy the decline of the Religious Left. This is partly explained through the form that this brand of politics developed—"theatrical liberalism spoke through the language of rights and religion instead of the language of action and obligation” (162). For Rolsky, the liberal turn to politics in the form of culture wars, and away from action through organizing that characterized the 1960s, combined with its seeming disdain for the white working classes, was a key variable in contributing to the rise of the “Christian Right,” which has only grown stronger to this day.

All in all, Rolsky’s book provides an invaluable genealogy of some of the major culture forces that gave rise to contemporary “spiritual politics” in the US, thus challenging the idea the American “civil religion” and liberal secularization was ever a neutral project. The only critique I have of this wide-ranging and deeply researched book is that it didn’t dig deeper into other figures on the “Religious Left” . . . though perhaps that is best left for a sequel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matt Sheedy is visiting assistant professor in North American studies at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

L. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University.

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