Norman Lear: Hollywood's last religious liberal

Lear was the last member of a dying breed — and now his legacy is being squandered

Published December 17, 2023 1:33PM (EST)

Producer Norman Lear (JC Olivera/Getty Images)
Producer Norman Lear (JC Olivera/Getty Images)

The emergence of Donald Trump into the national spotlight has led to yet another “evangelical scare” in America’s short religious history. Like past scares, which first unfolded around the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and his proverbial rise to power by way of the newly discovered “evangelical,” this one has found a home among Hollywood’s best and brightest. 

This coming February, actor and producer Rob Reiner will be at the center of discussions having to do with American politics and evangelical religion because his movie, “God & Country: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” is set to release. Based largely on journalist Katherine Stewart’s Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Christian Nationalism, Reiner’s treatment of American Christianity and its recent history in the US have led many to believe that Christianity is “in crisis,” and is in need of thorough resuscitation.

This is not the first time a member of Hollywood has decided to go after American conservatism and its various religious supporters. Not only is this a great way of making oneself politically irrelevant to most everyday Americans, but it also creates resentment, and distrust of the political system itself. Reiner is not the first person to leverage Hollywood and its various wares against those who threaten to obliterate it. Far from it. In fact, such a tradition of social criticism goes back at least to the television programming of fellow Hollywood producer, writer, and theorist of the right, Norman Milton Lear, who passed away earlier this month. It took Reiner only two days after Lear’s passing to post his message about his movie on X, formerly known as Twitter. The video currently has over 5.6 million views. The timing of such a posting suggests that Reiner contemplated when he and his team would release their trailer, and decided that Lear’s passing would be a good time to do so. It also suggests Reiner’s desire to assume the throne of Lear’s social criticism. Not only is this incredibly crass and lacking in empathy and understanding, but it also fundamentally misunderstands the project Lear established himself more than half a century ago in his television and non-profit work. 

We need your help to stay independent

While I have been critical of this project, looking back now, Lear was the religious left’s last, best hope to combat the ascendance of Ronald Reagan and modern conservatism. He tried his absolute best to address Reagan and the “Christian Nation movement”  that he saw gathering on the horizon. Since 2016, the study of the American right has devolved into a chaotic and arbitrary mess of academic insight and journalistic provocation. Scholars, pundits, and commentators across the political spectrum have spent the last eight years attempting to explain the rise of one Donald J. Trump to little to no avail. In many respects, Lear was the unadulterated leader of the Religious Left. In another sense, he was the last member of a dying breed: the religious liberal. However we define the wars of culture that have consumed our public life down to the literal present, it must include the various ways in which cultural production itself has become a sight of enormous power and influence to sway public opinion since the 1970s. Lear’s programming and non-profit activism epitomized this power.

“The symbols of public culture are always mediated in the social world by a variety of social institutions,” argued sociologist James Davison Hunter in his seminal 1991 publication Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. “It is, therefore, in the context of institutional structures that cultural conflict becomes crystallized.” In the face of a rising conservative ascendancy, Lear decided he wanted to write and produce a movie called Religion. “As their crusades to spread fear and division became more blatant,” remarked Lear in his autobiography, “so did my desire to sabotage their efforts through ridicule.” And ridicule he did. In many respects, Lear first invented and then perfected such an approach to social change as one of the religious left’s most apt social theorists of the right. The problem was that he eventually confused cultural influence with political power, thus fundamentally misunderstanding how politics function within the public square. 

“I’d begun making notes for a screenplay titled Religion, with the intent to satirize these fundamentalist TV ministries as savagely…as Paddy Chayefsky mocked television itself in the film Network.” Universal Pictures ordered a screenplay of the idea. Shortly thereafter, Lear met with comedians Richard Pryor and Robin Williams in hopes of producing a compelling story. They decided on two men entering the ministry solely for tax purposes. One man finds God, while the other “becomes a political tool of right-wing billionaires” as Lear describes it in his autobiography. While the latter pastor only gets his “fifteen minutes of fame,” such renown lands him, according to Lear, on the cover of Time.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Lear would ultimately scrap the movie idea for a faster, more hard-hitting form of communication that fit the calamitous times: the PSA. “The need to alert people immediately to the danger at hand was pressing and I realized I could create a public service announcement and get it on the air in a matter of weeks. That is what I did.” Thus was born the very first advertisement for People for the American Way,” one of the most, if not the most, influential interfaith non-profits of the religious left.

PFAW was also born out of reactionary analyses to conservative protestants and their political aspirations. Lear’s decision to go with the PSA only after he saw Jimmy Swaggart on TV asking his viewers to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice. At that moment, Lear had had enough. And he decided to do something about it based on his not-inconsiderable experience as a religious minority in America- one who had grown up within earshot of the quotas that guided the entrance of Jewish students into Yale. In many respects, Lear was one of the most significant figures in the recent religious past because he tracked the rise of the right for so long — but alas to little avail. What has come of right-wing monitoring organizations? Why the need to fact-check and adjudicate? Why the need to ridicule? I love satire as much as anyone, but to the extent that it’s used as part of a larger cultural tactic to enact social change not only renders it virtually meaningless in the world of politics, but it also comes off as smug, and entitled. 

According to the director of God & Country, Dan Partland, the issues couldn’t be clearer. “To be clear, Christianity is not the problem. Having one’s faith inform one’s political beliefs is not the problem. The problem is the intertwining of a Christian identity with a political identity such that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.” As usual, those who do not actually specialize in such things, like the First Amendment and its adjudication, are sloppy in their analyses. Including the academics associated with Reiner: a celebrity’s row if there ever was one. If anything, Lear was closer to diagnosing the problem MORE THAN FORTY YEARS AGO in his very first PFAW PSA. “My problem is I know my boy is as good a Christian as me. My wife? She’s better. So maybe there’s something wrong when people, even preachers, suggest other people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political views. That’s not the American Way.” 

By L. Benjamin Rolsky

MORE FROM L. Benjamin Rolsky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Christian Nationalism Commentary Norman Lear Religion Rob Reiner