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. This interview is based on his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?
LBR: During my PhD program at Drew University, I stumbled upon the work of the non-profit organization People for the American Way. I knew that the organization was founded by television icon Norman Lear, a figure I was interested in already as a possible dissertation subject, but I had little to no idea of its origins. I later found out that it was formed in direct opposition to the “electronic church” and the televangelists who occupied them. To Lear and others, including Martin Marty and Father Theodore Hesburg, such evangelistic methods violated the very tenants of the faith the television preachers supposedly stood for. I also happened to stumble upon some primary material from The Christian Century and Christianity Today that included Lear in surprisingly provocative ways. In many respects, Lear lead the charge into the public square, and many mainline and evangelical church leaders knew it.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?
LBR: I argue that television icon Norman Lear’s career in American media represents the most important characteristics of the Religious Left in both negative and positive senses. Dominant cultural influence ultimately came at the expense of political and electoral successes as progressives continue to find their rhetorical footing in the age of alternative facts and fake news.
JF: Why do we need to read The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?
LBR: I think scholars of religion and American religious historians would benefit from reading this text because it both periodizes and theorizes the Culture Wars. It does so by foregrounding media in its tale of televisual conflict played out in primetime. It also applies an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine liberal and conservative actors and social movements in relation to one another. In these ways, interpreters of the recent past would better understand how cultural warfare has characterized American public life since the 1960s.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LBR: I was drawn to history as a high school student in Cave Creek, Arizona. I was encouraged by my AP History teacher, L. Mark Sweeney, to think about pursuing American history on the college level. He was also the first one to use my name and work alongside “an ivy.” From there, I worked on American history and religious studies as a double major at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. I then went on to do coursework at the Claremont School of Theology as well as Yale Divinity School in American religious history, politics, and public life. My present work as a historian is very much in the vein of a “history of the present,” or at least the recent past, in my attempts to better understand how liberal and conservative politics have shaped the last half century of American religious life.
JF: What is your next project?
LBR: My next project is going to explore the ways in which conservative political interests took advantage of the latest marketing and advertising consultants in the 1970s to remake both the GOP and the nation at large. They did so through a fundamental restructuring of American conservatism itself as William F. Buckely and Firing Line were replaced in the conservative mind by the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.