Norman Lear, American Politics, and Spiritual Liberalism in the Age of Reagan

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
L. Benjamin Rolsky, Drew University
In his 2005 monograph Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, American religious historian Leigh Schmidt identifies a “Spiritual Left” within the intertwined histories of American liberalism, evangelicalism, and spirituality. The coming together of “political progressivism, socioeconomic justice, and mystical interiority” served as the primary engine for its historic rise with Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi serving as the movement’s patron saints.

Schmidt’s story is arguably one of recovery in both historiographic and political registers since studies of conservative evangelicalism have dominated the field since the early 1980s. As such, research on religious liberalism reveals an “alternative vista” from which to evaluate American civic life and its guiding principle of religious freedom. Historians have benefitted greatly from Schmidt’s work in this area, but it is his political motivations that concern us here. In particular, Schmidt’s notion of a Spiritual Left deserves greater attention in light of two gaps in the current literature: studies of liberal progressive politics and subject material from the post-World War II era.

My paper argues that the most appropriate historical context for Schmidt’s formulation is 1980s America. More specifically, his identification of the Spiritual Left, alongside his usage of “the Religious Right,” reflects ongoing liberal mobilization against conservative political and religious interests in the public sphere dating to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I argue that Schmidt’s categories find their paradigmatic usage not within ecumenical Protestantism, but within the entertainment industry of Hollywood and the individual writings of television producer Norman Lear. I contend that Lear’s activism and writings best represent the interests and principles of the Spiritual Left during this period. A series of letters exchanged between Lear and Reagan not only demonstrates Lear’s contributions to the Spiritual Left, but also his involvement in the development of America’s culture wars.

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