Norman Lear was the the writer and producer behind television hits All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times and Maude. He’s also a successful liberal activist behind People for the American Way, a group he founded in the early 1980s to fight the influence of the Christian Right.
He has a new campaign going right now, called “Born Again American,” to promote more political involvement. It has a civil religion hymn with video that you can watch on the web site here.
Dan Gilgoff, religion writer at U.S. News & World Report, interviewed Lear about the new campaign. I thought it worth looking at here because I rather liked Gilgoff’s questions, which focused on President Barack Obama’s new Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, People for the American Way’s own religious roots and Lear’s religious views.
Looking at news reports surrounding the launch of People for the American Way in 1980, I was surprised to learn of the number of religious leaders involved. After all, the group was–and is–intended to counter the influence of religious conservatives.
I didn’t sit down to start an organization. People for the American Way was kind of a happening, spontaneous combustion. I did a television spot with a working stiff in a pizza factory looking into the camera, saying his wife and his kids sit around a table disagreeing about politics all the time. And now here come a group of ministers on radio and television telling them they’re good Christians or bad Christians, depending on their political point of view. The ministers agree with this guy, but his family–who he knows are good Christians, with his wife the best in the family–are in disagreement. So, he winds up saying, “So, don’t tell me, even if you are a minister, that we are good Christians or bad Christians depending on our political point of view. That’s not the American way.”
I did that in a fit of passion and then I looked at it and I said, “Oh God, Norman, you have three strikes against you: you’re a product of the Hollywood community, you’re wealthy, and you’re Jewish. And you’re coming after the Moral Majority, the religious right.” I had a nodding acquaintance with Father Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame, and I showed it to him. He thought it was wonderful and he sent me to some other mainline church leaders, and they all said, “You’re coming from the right place.” And they signed on.
Lear didn’t mention the Rev. Martin Marty, the Lutheran religious scholar who consulted with him early on. The one and only Doug LeBlanc pointed out Marty’s terribly interesting essay — written during the Reagan administration for The Christian Century– about Lear’s spirituality.
With all the stories of the “new” religious left, it’s good to remember that so much political activism on the left has been fueled by believers and religious adherents. There’s nothing new about this and it’s really a testament to the short memory span of reporters.
Anyway, Gilgoff asks Lear why the campaign uses evangelical language and then about one stanza of the theme song:
Some of the lines of the song “Born Again American,” like one that says, “My Bible and my Bill of Rights /my creed’s equality” suggests that there shouldn’t be a complete separation of church and state.
There should be a separation. Come into the discussion, that’s what the song is about. We’ve had over two and a half million hits for the full song on the website and it’s 100 percent viral. So, it’s sparking something. On a subject that belongs to all of us but that has for a number of years been the province, the stained-glass rhetoric of the religious right. And if we wanted in, the rest of us, we had no way in.
Gilgoff also asks how the new religious language fits with the group’s image as fighting for the secular left. Just some interesting questions, even if Lear isn’t altogether that interesting in some of his responses.