The Rise and Fall of the Televised Public Square

The Rise and Fall of the Televised Public Square:

A Response to Episode 327 “The Public Square and the Heart of the Culture Wars” with Benji Rolsky

by James M. Patterson, Ave Maria University

In his recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dr. Benji Rolsky offers a view of Norman Lear as a television producer and activist who used mass media entertainment to advance progressive messages about racial justice, opposition to American imperialism, and other important issues of the 1970s. Rolsky connects Lear’s hits like All in the Family and The Jeffersons to the broader efforts of progressives to establish a national public square in which citizens confront difficult social issues with the faith that the outcome will always favor a more equitable outcome among all, or nearly all, of those participating.

According to Rolsky, Lear’s programs were popular contributions to the American national public square in that their popularity spanned the country and thereby provided a high-minded if lower-brow story each week. Lear’s initial success found a building conservative backlash among fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants. Prominent pastors like Rev. Jerry Falwell objected to Lear’s efforts as “clearly anti-Christian.” Falwell’s Moral Majority and Lear’s People for the American Way squared off against each other for much of the 1980s. Lear wanted to keep lit the progressive flame that had flickered after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Falwell defended Reagan as part of a new constituency of religious conservatives fed up with radical social change.

“The Bible ain’t fairy tales, there, Meathead, right from the beginning, when God made the world in seven days,” Archie Bunker explains to his wife, daughter, and son-in-law in this clip from All in the Family.

To that end, as I argued in Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, Falwell planned for conservative Christians to develop their own parallel cultural institutions beyond the churches, and Falwell led the way by founding what today is called Liberty University, television and radio programs, home movies, and the like. These efforts were meant to compete with Lear’s and others in the mainstream media, and those Falwell called for would emphasize the importance of faith and more traditional forms of family formation and sexual ethics. These efforts had limited success when compared to Lear’s. One reason for this is scale. Smaller church-based operations lacked the budget and talent to produce alternatives that could match the mainstream. For example, Christian pop artists either remained obscure (and a little corny), like DC Talk, or went mainstream and left their Christian alternative label behind, such as Amy Grant’s 1991 album Heart in Motion.

Falwell was not alone in his attitude about the leftward drift in mass media. His response was shared widely among not only fundamentalist Protestants but among more conservative Americans, in general. The Culture War, as Rolsky points out, was a conflict of competing visions for the country. Rolsky could have pointed out that these competing visions were not between a positive, secular public square and a negative, religious opposition. Rather, as James Davison Hunter explained over twenty years ago, they are both competing positive visions. Not merely seeking to push out secular, progressive types, religious peoples argue for the need to include religious foundations for public life. In their view, public reason is simply insufficient because it lacks the divine authority and moral limits necessary for achieving common ground for political discussion. This was not always a conservative position. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grounded his call for racial justice and social democracy in the “Hebraic-Christian tradition,” and he used this language precisely to reach out to Americans beyond his coalition. Religion was a way to build bridges, not burn them. By the late 1970s, however, American religion was sufficiently in doubt that the entertainment industry saw its inclusion as risky. Indeed, the jitteriness over religion in American television was an old one. Television executives at CBS questioned whether it was necessary to include a reading from the gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Once religion became a partisan issue, however, its inclusion risked alienating audiences. By attacking Lear in an explicitly ideological and partisan fashion, Falwell ironically made representation of religion in mainstream media even less likely rather than more.

Above, Linus reads the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired on CBS in 1965.

Rolsky laments the decline of the televised public square that could reach tens of millions of viewers and provide for them a regular, entertaining source for a coherent, secular, diverse vision of public deliberation. Its swan song, he observes, came with the program Parks and Recreation, in which Leslie Knope dragged the spiky libertarian Ron Swanson, fast-talking Tom Haverford, and disinterested Ann Perkins into a publicly spirited community dedicated to improving the social welfare of residents in Pawnee, Indiana. The show was, in a way, a template for the presidential aspiration of former senator of New York Hillary Clinton, as Amy Poehler, who played Knope, had previously been the resident Saturday Night Live Clinton impressionist. Coincidentally, Parks and Recreation ended its final season in 2015, just as Clinton was beginning to ramp up her second bid for the Democratic nomination for president. Her long campaign against the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, was a surprising sign of fractured politics only outdone by the utterly splintered 2016 Republican presidential nomination battle that yielded, of all people, Donald J. Trump as its victor.

Trump’s victory is the ironic outcome of a public square premised on television, which is why I ultimately do not share Rolsky’s lament for the fracturing of the media landscape. Trump prevailed over his GOP rivals precisely because he had made himself a national name during that very same period that Lear and Falwell fought over television standards. Indeed, Trump became well known in part because of a very popular 1980s program, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Trump, after flailing through bankruptcies and failed ventures, may not have been quite as rich but remained marginally famous, appearing in small parts throughout the 1990s and finally rejuvenating his flagging brand in 2004 by becoming a reality game show host on The Apprentice. Trump hosted the show until 2015. Indeed, Parks and Recreation ended its final season a mere four days before Trump’s final season on The Apprentice.

Even if I do not share Rolsky’s lament, I do agree that the splintered media landscape has produced a cacophony of voices that are not likely to consolidate into the same kind of secular, national public square in the near future. As video and audio distribution has become less expensive, data on markets has become easier to acquire, and the selection of media content has proliferated, content providers have found it easier to micro-target audiences and monetize their ventures. Even at the corporate media level, the change has occurred. Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj documented this change in multiple media in their 2014 book The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. A recently published study by Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States confirms, refines, and updates the results the Berry and Sobieraj study. For all the conservative lampooning of left wing students demand for “safe spaces,” these scholars observe that media consumption habits prove that people of all political and religious backgrounds choose media content that serves up heaping helpings of confirmation bias and thereby insulates their audience from contrary messages. As strange as it might seem, Mark Levin, with his radio show, can transform a conservative American’s car into a safe space in a similar way to university administrators disinviting alt-right speakers from college campus. It would seem Falwell was ahead of his time.

To conclude, the X factor in all of this is what social media and internet service providers will do in the future. For the time being, these companies have proved reluctant to act except in the most extreme cases, such as the de-platforming of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Republican senator from Missouri Josh Hawley has indicated that he would like to consider rescinding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would transform social media from platforms into publishers and therefore open them up to liability for content users publish and even be subject to content regulations under the FCC. If Hawley succeeds, there would no doubt be a rush to limit access of ordinary users, surveil content, and move toward a broader audience by appealing to whatever common denominators may be left in our polarized country. Only then could the next Norman Lear take the stage or, as it were, start the livestream.

Further Reading

Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration

Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

Matthew Avery Sutton, Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents

James Poulos, “Imagine All the People: How Fantasies of the TV Era Created the Disaster of Social Media”

Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 27 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

Please be aware that the previous Opportunities Digest contained two mistakes in the posting of the 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which may have confused some readers. A corrected version of the listing is found below. 

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Calls for papers

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Deadline: December 7, 2015

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Conference: Construction and disruption: The power of religion in the public sphere

July 12–14, 2016

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: December 11, 2015

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May 27–29, 2016

Mersin Congress and Exhibitions Centre, Turkey

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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April 6–8, 2016

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Journal: Gamevironments

Topics: Gamevironments, Games, Religion, and Culture

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Conference: Collective Worship and Religious Observance in Schools

University of Leicester, UK

November 13, 2015

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Conference: Allaitement entre Humans et Animaux: Représentations et Pratiques de l’Antique à Aujourd’hui

November 12–14, 2015

Université de Genève, Switzerland

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Winter School: Interrelational Selves and Individualization

January 5–9, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

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November 12–14, 2015

University of Zürich, Switzerland

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The Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network

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Lancaster University, UK

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The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.


Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.