Interview: Anti-Christian-Right Crusader Norman Lear on Becoming a 'Born-Again American'

Television director and liberal activist Lear wants the left to reclaim the religious conversation.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Norman Lear, the television producer behind such hit shows as All in the Family and Sanford and Son, founded the anti-Christian-right movement in 1980 when he launched People for the American Way. His new campaign, Born Again American, borrows evangelical language in trying to promote civic engagement and political involvement. Lear talked to me about People for the American Way's religious roots, President Obama's new Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and his own spiritual journey:

How do you feel about President Obama launching a White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which was seen as a coup for religious conservatives when George W. Bush opened it?

It needs to operate with a blinking yellow light, so the money is given evenly to all religious efforts. And the whole question that came up in the Bush administration of discriminating in employment—all of that has to be done away with. You cannot discriminate. But Obama's executive order lets the Bush hiring policy stand, at least for the time being. Until further legal review, religious groups can take religious background into account when hiring with federal funds.

You mean, they didn't, they did not specifically say they would not brook any discrimination? Right.

That's why I say yellow flashing light of caution. And I assume that's coming. I would fight it if it isn't coming. 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.

So, People for the American Way has roots in the religious community? It's sometimes portrayed as a secular group fighting the role of religion in politics and policymaking.

What it did was help with the understanding that among the evangelical Christian community, everybody was not represented by the likes of Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggart or Jerry Falwell, that the movement was much wider than that. But it also recognized people of every other faith and people of no faith. The story of the resurgent religious left has received so much attention since the 2004 election. Is it a positive development?

I think it's a very positive development. That's what Born Again American is about: Hey, wait a second, the best conversation going is what ' s it all about ultimately , what are we doing here? I want in. I recognize it as the most profound conversation. I also think that we grow horizontally and we grow vertically. We're on two journeys. The horizontal journey is learning. The vertical journey is going deep into oneself and into the meaning of life. You reach a place where that turns out to be the most profound journey. And we're all on it, whether we are people of this faith, that faith, no faith.

Are you a religious person?

It's almost like somebody else could be more objective about that. As I care about my humanity and the humanity of others, I think so. But somebody else would be a better judge of that. The way I think of it is, call me what you will but know me by my deeds. If you feel I'm leading a life that a religious person would lead, then I guess I'm religious. The Born Again American campaign borrows evangelical language. Why?

The intention was to say, "Wait a second. Nobody owns these feelings. And they belong here, too, for those of us who feel that way. But spread the wealth of feeling." 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. Haven't groups like People for the American Way created a secular image for the left, the one that campaigns like Born Again American are trying to shed?

I don't know if it gave that as much as it inspired the effort to make it that. That's what the right has succeeded in, to say that the left are godless. Well, they are if they don't believe in God, which is every American's right. But there's a portion of people on the left [who aren't godless], and it is just as big as the portion on the other side.

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