The Author’s Corner with L. Benjamin Rolsky

the rise and fall of the religious leftL. 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.

JF: Thanks!

Peter Wehner Interviews Tim Keller at *The Atlantic*

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Two evangelical Christians talk about faith, reason, and politics at, of all places, The Atlantic.   The Christian Right claims that the “secular media” does not respect people of faith, but stories like this remind me that such media outlets are more open to discussing issues of Christian faith than they were two decades ago.

Here is a taste of Wehner‘s piece on his conversation with Keller:

I asked Keller about the relationship of the Church, and in particular evangelicalism, to politics. The upshot of Keller’s position is that whereas individual Christians should be engaged in the political realm, the Bible makes it impossible as a Church to hitch your wagon to one political party, especially in these times. “For Christians just to completely hook up with one party or another is really idolatry,” Keller said. “It’s also reducing the Gospel to a political agenda.” (He pointed me to an address by Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, called “The Political Captivity of the Faithful,” with which he concurs.)

Keller noted that this danger isn’t new. As is his wont, he cited a book to help me more fully understand his argument—H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism, which holds that denominationalism is primarily a social phenomenon that tends to be captured by different political and social classes. Keller observed that because Christianity properly understood is not a legalistic religion—“there is no New Testament Book of Leviticus,” he told me—it can be a part of almost any culture. In that sense, it’s a fairly flexible faith. “Christians are always more incarnate in the culture—and the danger of that is that they get captured by it. That’s always been a problem,” he said. There’s ever the danger of “cultural and political captivity.”

When I pressed the point further, Keller admitted he believes that “most Christians are just nowhere nearly as deeply immersed in the scripture and in theology as they are in their respective social-media bubbles and News Feed bubbles. To be honest, I think the ‘woke’ evangelicals are just much more influenced by MSNBC and liberal Twitter. The conservative Christians are much more influenced by Fox News and their particular loops. And they’re [both] living in those things eight to 10 hours a day. They go to church once a week, and they’re just not immersed in the kind of biblical theological study that would nuance that stuff.” Too often, he believes, there’s no relationship between a proper Christian ethic and the way it translates into political and cultural engagement. It’s not the doctrine that’s at fault, Keller would argue; it’s the way people are taught and interpret it. It’s a failure of imagination and hermeneutics.

Read the entire piece here.

The Influence of Christian Media

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Jason Bivins, a Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State, reflects on the power of Christian media to shape American evangelicalism.  Here is a taste of his op-ed syndicated at The Conversation:

The power of these programs is more than simply the stories covered or guests interviewed – it is their social impact on religious beliefs.

Christian news is effective in conveying its views because it repeats claims that viewers already believe, and provides them with particular emotional experiences that are described as facts. This way of viewing the world has moved closer to the center of conservative politics since the 1980s, a period of time when the Christian right acquired more influence in American politics.

Consider how in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan began to be depicted as God’s agent on Earth. In the 1990s, the growth of multinational corporations and trade deals was decried as part of a demonic “new world order.” And today, when Islamophobia is on the rise, Christian television channels depict and celebrate President Trump as the fighter-in-chief, who defends Christians despite his personal faults.

The growing regularity of such examples has significant implications for American politics.

By presenting itself as authoritative, trustworthy journalism, Christian news reassures viewers that they do not need to consult mainstream media in order to be informed. More dangerously, it authorizes a particular, often conspiratorial way of viewing the world. It denounces neutrality or accountability to multiple constituencies as burdensome or even hostile to Christian faith.

Sadly, tens of millions of its viewers are left without a sense of two of democracy’s most necessary foundations: the value of multiple viewpoints and shared political participation.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Has Given More Interviews to the Christian Broadcasting Network Than to CNN, ABC or NBC

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Trump shakes hands with Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network

Ruth Graham has a great piece at Politico Magazine on the love affair between Donald Trump and Christian broadcasting.  Here is a taste:

When “Huckabee” made its debut on TBN last fall, it immediately became the network’s highest-rated show, with more than a million viewers for a typical episode. Unlike every other show the network has produced, it is overtly political and squarely focused on current events. It has a variety component, with musical guests and comedians, and Huckabee occasionally breaks out his own bass guitar on stage. But in its six months on the air, Huckabee has also interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump-defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, anti-abortion activist Serrin Foster and former Senator Joe Lieberman. The very first guest on his very first show, last October, was President Trump.

A generation ago—even a few years ago—this would have been unthinkable. Christian TV was largely the province of preachers, musicians, faith healers and a series of televangelism scandals. Politicians were leery of getting too close. To establishment evangelicals, not to mention the rest of America, Christian TV was hokey at best, and disreputable at worst.

But in the past two years, largely out of view of the coastal media and the Washington establishment, a transformation has taken place. As Christian networks have become more comfortable with politics, the Trump administration has turned them into a new pipeline for its message. Trump has forged a particularly tight marriage of convenience with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which since early in the 2016 campaign has offered consistent friendly coverage and been granted remarkable access in return. Trump personally has appeared 11 times on CBN since his campaign began; in 2017 alone, he gave more interviews to CBN than to CNN, ABC or CBS. Trump’s Cabinet members, staffers and surrogates also appear regularly. TBN has embraced politics more gingerly—it is still not a news-gathering organization—but Trump has made inroads there, too, starting with his kickoff interview on “Huckabee.”

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump, a politician, is now shaping the agenda of conservative evangelical television.  Another example of how politics and culture influence and shape the character American evangelicalism.  Trump should be getting credit as an unofficial producer for these shows.

The Resurrection and The Washington Post

Did anyone read the recent article at The Washington Post by Liberty University professor Gary Habermas entitled “Five Reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?”  Habermas offers several standard arguments for the resurrection of Jesus.  As expected, the article has provoked many Washington Post readers.  It currently has 591 comments and by the time you read this it will probably have many more.

Since I am a Christian, I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is what Easter is all about.  But what interests me is the fact that The Washington Post decided to run this piece.  Would a major national newspaper have printed this kind of article twenty, or even ten, years ago?  Would The New York Times run such a piece today?  What does all of this say about religion and the so-called mainstream media?

Thoughts?