Why I Am a Born Again American
Remarks by Norman Lear
at the Take Back America Conference
March 19, 2008
Thank you, Iara Peng. Iara speaks of my mentoring her and I’m proud of anything I have done in that regard. But what is awesome about my relationship with Iara is how much that relationship nourishes me. How many are we here, 1500, 2000 people? I’m sure there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that that young woman is a star.
She was a star the day I met her and it’s been the kick of kicks watching her get discovered. Young People For the American Way, generating and nurturing young progressives in colleges across the country was her brainchild and is her singular triumph.
Thanks, too, once again to Bob Borosage and Roger Hickey and the Campaign for America’s Future for inviting me here and for last night. I talked about my mother last night — and she’s been on my mind since. Maybe it’s because of the laugh she earned me. Want another mother story? It wouldn’t matter if you’d said no.
Many years ago, I invited my mother out to California and she came for two weeks. She was approaching 80 then and I wanted to show her as good a time as I could. She went to tapings of ALL IN THE FAMILY, MAUDE, THE JEFFERSONS and GOOD TIMES, she had lunch with the casts, they had a party for her on the set of MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN. I had a party for her at home with most of the cast members and every friend I had in Hollywood. I wasn’t in the habit of going to premieres but I took my mom to two of them. At one premiere she met Lauren Bacall and Groucho Marx. I told her Groucho didn’t like to be touched so don’t hug him. Of course she did and over her shoulder he said, “Tell this hooker I haven’t got a dime on me!”
Anyway, I did everything to make my mother’s visit as entertaining and memorable as I could. When she was going back to Bridgeport and I was taking her to the airport she thanked me, “But,” she said, “When I get back to Bridgeport if you hear that I told a little white lie I don’t want it to bother you.” “Mom,” I pleaded. “Promise me?” She said. “I promise you, I promise you,” I said. “What little white lie?” “Well, she said, “Who has to know that I didn’t get to Las Vegas?”
I concluded my remarks last night by talking about having had a BORN AGAIN AMERICAN experience. It is the best way I can describe what tugged at me in 1980, when I stepped away at the peak of its success from the television company that my partners and I had built, to travel the country raising funds and recruiting supporters for the newly conceived PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY, to counter the burgeoning threat from the religious right.
I use the phrase BORN AGAIN AMERICAN for another reason. Robert Bellah has pointed out that any functioning society needs two great myths to propel it forward — a shared national myth and a shared religious myth. Often overlooked in the United States, in Bellah’s words, is an elaborate, well-entrenched civil religion that exists alongside of, and clearly differentiated from our churches, and synagogues. This civil religion has a religious dimension that has the seriousness and integrity of any other religion, and requires the same care and understanding.
The phrase “civil religion” is not intended to encourage a form of national self-worship. Just the opposite. The nation wants to be subordinate to its ethical principles as presented in its founding documents – documents that guarantee freedom, due process, equal opportunity and equal justice under the law, ideals the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to secure.
It’s been seven years since the killer combo I referred to last night, THE NEO-CONS, THEO-CONS AND BIG BUSINESS, succeeded in getting us to vote in an administration that could not be more contemptuous of these principles. As my friend Marty Kaplan has written, this may be the most brazenly lawless administration in history. No other president has found such joy in spitting on our system of checks and balances, defying the will of the Congress through presidential signing statements, torturing prisoners as well as evidence, refusing to let Executive Branch employees testify, and forbidding their Justice Department from enforcing contempt citations.
And our third, co-equal branch of government, the Congress? Where has it been? So fearful, so freaked out by the possibility they’d be called bad names — terrorist appeasers, Osama enablers, Jihad simps — our reps have simply rolled over time and again and let that gang of Neo Cons and Bible-thumping bullies have their way with them. I think of this inability to be sufficiently aroused by such attacks on America’s core principles as a massive case of electile dysfunction.
So how do we sum up the state America finds itself in? Two words. Entirely inappropriate, perhaps, but I will contribute $1,000 to the organization represented by any person in this room who thinks that he or she can produce a more accurate two-word description: Deep shit. We are in deep shit, folks.
Of course we can overcome. And we will. I wouldn’t want to wake up any morning I didn’t believe that. But everything in me screams that the mess we are in as a result of the past seven years will not be cleaned up by more of the same.
The right has had its day. It’s up to us now. Time for us to stand up strong and proud on our liberal – alright, call them progressive legs — and breath new life into our democracy.
But it can’t be same old, same old. We’ve got to find new and better ways to talk about patriotism, our love of country, and God. By we, I mean us, not just our mainline church leaders. And we’ve got to reinvent citizen action for the Internet age. In addition to the desire, today everyone needs the tools and power to truly participate in our democracy. But isn’t that what the Founders intended when they wished “the people” to be the masters of their own government? And isn’t it what the will of the universe must have intended when the Internet came about?
We can all Remix America now. “Remix America?” [point to screen, remix video plays of Lear with religious right figures from the 1980s] Consider that a tease for the conclusion of these remarks.
For now, you could be wondering just who is this creature who may not sound like he’s ever even seen a Bible? Yet thinks he can talk freely about God to a bunch of free thinking progressives? And about patriotism to a crowd of 1,500 or so who probably don’t own a dozen flag lapel pins between them?
My love of country started at my grandfather’s knee.
He was my mother’s father — you remember her — I lived with him for three years, starting when I was nine years old. He was a tall, straight, crusty old bastard who came to this country when he was 26-years-old, found a job, worked his heart out, and in the immigrant tradition of the day, sent for his wife and daughter, my mother. He was a tough old guy who had just one great soft spot: his America.
He’d take me to parades and there were lots of them then. The Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, lots of parades, and we’d stand at the corner, my hand held tight in his and as the flag went by and the martial music played his hand would tighten and I’d look up at him to see inevitably the tear running down his cheek — and to the extent love of country and privileges of citizenship matter to me, I know I have that old man to thank.
Of course, now I am my own old man. Not that I feel it. I get a kick out of my age. Just getting out of a chair and crossing the room can get me applause. And I can’t believe how wise I’ve become. My “Good Mornings” are now thought to hold deep meaning. The problem is, sometimes I catch myself believing it.
But the impact on my life of my grandfather’s love of the American promise couldn’t be clearer. Picture this: I’m eleven-years-old, lying in bed late at night with a crystal radio set and headphones secretly listening to the FDR-bashing rants and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio sermons reached millions weekly. And why? Because I had already developed what turned out to be a life-long sensitivity to religious intolerance and the intrusion of any one religion in the public square where all religions are welcome and no one of them favored.
Cut to high school.
There was an American Legion Oratorical Contest in 1939, my senior year. It called for a ten-minute speech on some aspect of the Constitution. I entered. The focus of my speech was my dedication to the First Amendment, and under it Father Coughlin’s right to be heard, as ugly and unsettling as I may have found it. I won the Connecticut championship and a scholarship to Emerson College in Boston.
One Sunday in my freshman year at Emerson, word came that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I wanted to enlist immediately but my parents insisted I remain in college. With an urge to do something, I set up a stand at Emerson to sell war stamps and bonds and one day an executive in a department dedicated to marketing the war effort in Washington — I’ll never know how I happen to remember his name, but it was Milburn McCarthy, Jr. — phoned me and congratulated me on having started the first Collegiate Defense Stamp Bureau.
I didn’t know I had done that but I accepted the honor and, under Mr. McCarthy’s auspices, Collegiate Defense Stamp Bureaus began to proliferate. And then a big radio show of the day, The March of Time, read about it when a Boston newspaper hailed it as an act of patriotism, and the show brought me to New York to tell the story on air.
But then at the last minute, they canceled my appearance when a little boy with infantile paralysis was captured in a memorable photograph kissing President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. The boy replaced me on the show and I received a pat and a hug from Milburn McCarthy, Jr.
Later that year I broke the parental yoke and enlisted in the United States Air Force. I have not spoken of it often, never publicly, but I served in a B-17 flying fortress with the 15th Air Force out of Foggia, Italy. We flew 52 missions and dropped bombs 35 times over German targets.
At the train station when I left for the war, my grandfather held me a long moment and cried. When I walked into his apartment after the war he saw me for a split-second as I entered, choked up, disappeared into his bedroom and it was a good half-hour before he would come out, eyes red, face swollen, and take me in his arms. Over my shoulder I heard him say softly, “America, God Bless America.”
There is a straight line between the eleven-year-old boy listening to Father Coughlin on his crystal set to the apprehension I felt in 1980 when, alarmed by the vile religious and political intolerance of the TV preachers, I experienced what I now describe as a BORN-AGAIN AMERICAN moment, and dropped everything in my life.
As I plunged into the vortex of politics and religion, I found myself congenitally inclined to espouse a positive, inclusive sense of patriotism and religion. Patriotism does not just belong to those who flaunt it. It belongs to all of us. As does God. Our civil religion does not belong to fundamentalist Christians alone — or even to mainline religions. It belongs to everyone, including the non-religious and those still searching.
That was easier said than done when I produced the TV spot that got PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY going. I realized after I’d made it that I was going after the religious right with two strikes against me. I was a product of the Hollywood community and I was Jewish. So I flew to South Bend, Indiana, and met with Father Theodore Hesburgh, then President of Notre Dame, whom I had come to know. He encouraged me to do more, and so I set out to see other mainline church leaders across the country, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian and Jewish leaders, several of whom graced our first board.
Driven by the same spirit of inclusiveness in 1982, we produced a two-hour special for ABC entitled, I LOVE LIBERTY. From Kenny Rogers to Christopher Reeve and Walter Matthau, to Robin Williams and Mary Tyler Moore, it was a star-studded two-hour TV show taped at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in front of a crowd of 20,000 people. But what I savored most was that Barry Goldwater agreed to appear on the same stage with Jane Fonda, and vice-versa. The John Wayne Estate let us have footage of Mr. Wayne — and he attested along with the others that he would fight any fight for the right of people with whom he vehemently disagreed, to speak their piece. To further prove the show would indeed be nonpartisan, Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson agreed to serve as Co-Chairs. That’s my idea of America!
Not Richard Nixon’s idea evidently. He is heard to say on the White House tapes that, while he thought Archie Bunker funny, he resented that the producers were making fun of a good man. And of course later I made Nixon’s Enemies List.
What would Richard E. Nixon, as Archie called him, have thought of my becoming the proud owner of a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence that was printed the night of July 4,1776? My wife Lyn and I purchased it at Sotheby’s and put it on the road for everyone to view. It is the nation’s birth certificate, and we felt it belonged to everyone. We started a new organization, DECLARE YOURSELF, to exhibit the document as part of a larger effort to encourage young people to register to vote. In 2004, we registered 1,200,200 online.
The Declaration has traveled everywhere. I have watched families standing in lines around the block for as many as ninety minutes, to spend just a few seconds with that document. As my kids would say, it was awesome, a spiritual experience — a born-again-as-an-American experience, watching others, some with tears in their eyes, having a similar experience.
And that brings me to the “God” part of the God and patriotism equation. They both draw their power from appealing to that deeper side of us, the part of our souls that yearns for a connection to something larger and more enduring than ourselves, the part that makes us human.
The real crime committed by the Neocon-Theocon-Big Business alliance has been to hijack all that good stuff as tools for expanding their political power. Well before the Reagan revolution, Irving Kristol, one of the godfathers of the modern Republican Party, astutely recognized the huge partisan advantage that could be had by exploiting religion. As he put it: “I really thought that religion has a role in redeeming the country,” he said, “and liberals are not prepared to give religion a role. Conservatives are, but don’t know how to do it.”
Well, with the help of the Reverends Falwell, Swaggart, Robertson et al, they quickly learned how to do it, which eventually propelled George W. Bush into the presidency, twice. His most enduring legacy may be the “normalization” of religious demagoguery.
How could we, we rational, wonky progressives have let this go on so long, while totally absenting ourselves from a more serious discussion of religion and the sacred? How could we have been in philosopher Jacob Needleman’s phrase, so metaphysically repressed? When we weren’t consigning spiritual matters to Oprah or the far corners of the blogosphere, we were avoiding the topic by pigeonholing it as a matter of church/state separation.
I don’t believe that’s who we are, not down deep where we live. Just because we are reasonable, open-minded people, people who, in John F. Kennedy’s words, look ahead, not behind; who welcome new ideas without rigid reaction; who care about the welfare of the people — their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and liberties. Just because we are people for the American way doesn’t mean we lack religious identities. The percentage of true believers among us ranks with the national average — and we stand behind no one, Dr. Dobson, in our multiple dedications to the Almighty, to a Supreme Being, to God. The only thing that separates us from you, Pat Robertson, is that we will fight for anyone’s freedom to be a secularist or materialist or atheist and still be a full-fledged American.
Now, I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I love and am proud of my people and our culture. I could not be prouder of what, in our long history, we have brought to the world. There was a book written about Edith Bunker called, “Edith the Good.” The author’s thesis was that, although she never spoke of it per se, Edith’s every reflexive reaction to any situation was what the producers thought Jesus’ reaction might be.
The author was correct. Everything in me tells me that the world would be an exquisite place to live if all of humanity reacted to every encounter with another human as we all imagine Jesus would. I call that “mama-loshen.” That is a Yiddish word meaning straight talk mixed with common sense. Actually it goes deeper than that. “Mama-loshen” is the understanding that comes when one’s common sense derives as much from the soul as the mind. The Sermon on the Mount is simple mama-loshen. And anything that ain’t mama-loshen doesn’t square with my religious sensibilities. Of course there are those who will feel I’m altogether off base talking about this. My words lack scripture, theology and ecclesiastic authority. I’m no rabbi or minister or imam.
But I feel what I feel. I can only express it my way, and isn’t that true of each of us? Sitting in the same pew, reading from the same sacred text, I submit that each of our compacts with the Almighty is so personal and so mysterious that like no two snowflakes and no two thumbprints, no two relationships to God are alike.
I can’t bite into a ripe peach, a just-ready piece of Crenshaw melon, or a great ear of corn without thinking “Thank you.” As a young man when I smoked my first cigar I recall turning to a friend and saying, “You know, if there was no other reason to believe in God, it would be Havana Leaf.”
I have always felt God’s presence in laughter, too. Sitting in the back of an audience when we were taping one of our shows, watching 300 strangers rising in their seats as one, and coming forward, then falling back as people do when they are laughing from the belly, I have had a feeling of such exquisite togetherness only the Creator’s presence could explain it. And I’ve fallen in love with a total stranger several aisles and many rows away at the sound of his or her distinct laugh.
And of course I’ve experienced that presence in the faces of my wife, my children, my grandkids — and every time throughout my working life when I’ve gone to bed with a second act problem and awakened in the morning with a solution.
A question that always occurs to me when I think about this: Do most people have an image in their mind when they hear the word “God?” I don’t. Unless maybe it’s “Thank you” spelled out.
Now, there was a time when I wouldn’t go near this topic, absent a strong relationship to some synagogue, some church, without grounding in a specific religious text and structure. Maybe before this journey ends, I’ll actually join a synagogue, but for now I am simply a groper — and because I am not a member of a specific congregation, I think of myself as an unaffiliated groper. In the light of recent headlines, friends have advised me to change groper to seeker.
Our lives begin and end in mystery, and until we have a better picture of the beginning or the end, to some extent it would seem we are all seekers. We are all nourished in our search for meaning by the same well of wonder.
I think of that well as a river — say a river running 1,500 miles — where the climate changes along its course causing the the trees and vegetation along the banks to change also. Yet, it’s all being fed by the waters of the same river.
It’s that river, call it a river of reverence, that unites and nurtures all of our religions, and even those of us who are outsiders to religion, yet groping for ultimate meaning.
Damn, I love this stuff! We liberals and progressives just cannot continue to allow this territory to be pre-empted by those who insist that their distinctive theology gives them a greater right to be heard. We must be able to participate and make clear what we, too, regard as sacred in the universe, on earth, and in our daily lives.
Our civilization depends upon it. Lewis Mumford, the great scholar and historian, studying the fall of Rome, said that “Rome fell not because of political or economic ineptitude or even because of the barbarian invasions. It collapsed through a leaching away of meaning and a loss of faith, a barbarization from within.”
With all the greed, deception and corruption occurring today in American politics, business, banking, medicine and health care, that is arguably what is happening — a barbarization from within.
Politics and legislation alone are not going to stem it. The external regeneration we require has to begin with a regeneration from within. We in this room and every kindred progressive soul must find the resolve to resurrect this nation, to call forth proudly, our deeper love of country and its natural companion, our sense of the sacred!
Born Again as Americans. And whether they call us liberals or progressives, or bleeding hearts — our bumper stickers, our t-shirts should read, “Label us as you will, but know us by our deeds!”
Know us by our deeds. Since we call ourselves progressives, we might think of engaging tomorrow progressively. With industrialized civilization threatening the planet; with six billion human beings searching for new ways to survive; and with the my-God-is-better-than-your-God aspect of religion more menacing than ever, the planet and its inhabitants cry out for progressive leadership.
George Bernard Shaw believed that it was the will of the universe to move inexorably to perfection. I believe that. And it follows that if that is the will of the universe, the universe will supply the understanding and the tools to engage the dilemmas of our time.
And it has, if we are open to the answers that are right before us: The miraculous gains on all fronts in the sciences, and the wondrous new technologies such as the Internet. The Internet — as democratic an institution as ever conceived. Not, or not as yet, the private property of a group of international media conglomerates.
Contrast that with conventional media, in which 91% of political talk radio on the stations owned by the top 5 commercial station owners, is conservative. Only 9% is progressive. And 92% of the same radio stations, 236 out of 257, do not broadcast a single minute of progressive talk radio programming. While we progressives have to fight our way back on the radio spectrum, it is the Internet, open to all, that is ours to claim and protect as a commons.
Earlier, I used the phrase “Remix America.” It’s coming online soon, a project of DECLARE YOURSELF and YOUNG PEOPLE FOR. Remix America will allow Americans everywhere to use the new digital technologies and the distributed power of collaboration and participation to help them re-imagine America.
Lincoln spoke of a “rebirth of freedom” in his Gettysburg address. You will find the entire Address at REMIXAMERICA.ORG. Take just that phrase, take that and a bit more if you will, take the whole speech — but wait. Up there you’ll also find JFK at his inaugural, along with Eisenhower’s Farewell address, a speech by Barbara Jordan, Readings of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta by well known actors, remarks on America by everyone from Muhammad Ali to Stephen Colbert.
There will be over 200 such pieces up there in what we call THE AMERICAN PLAYLIST. Toss in some music by Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copland, The Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, David Byrne and dozens more. You’ll find all the tools you need to do the remixing and the editing; the power of an entire post-production studio with an amazing digital library of creative assets, free, on every person’s computer.
Want to know what progressive is in the new century? It’s about moving communication power like this from the skyscrapers of big conglomerates and putting it into the hands and laptops of ordinary citizens. Cicero called participation in power, true freedom. That’s what progressive is, that’s what Remix America is.
I see a viral explosion of Born Again Americans, Americans of all ages and ethnicities, conditions and backgrounds, awakening to their power as free citizens in a free society. I see them doing it in 3-to-4 minute bursts, mixing and mashing their stories and hopes and dreams with the words, images and music from the American Playlist — a touch of John Locke here, a slice of the Magna Carta there — to give us all a glimpse of the America that they wish for.
An introduction to Remix America.Org is up there now. The full site will be available soon. When the site is ready you may wish to remix my remarks — and the video of my appearance here today. Perhaps you want to edit me down. I’d do that, for sure! Or mix me with Nine Inch Nails. Or add in my mother, I have a ton of footage for you. And if that’s what you want to do, who am I to say?
Remix America is one progressive initiative. All of you will have others. But let’s not be afraid to go forward, fully realizing who we are as progressives, and not fearing the demagoguery of scoundrels and charlatans, but declaring our own spirituality as the firm, sentimental patriots we are.
Let our moral imperative be to engage the mystery — to acknowledge a power that is greater than us — and to apply ourselves, personally and passionately, to the challenge of resurrecting our beloved nation, with liberty and justice for all. And we here collected do mean all.
To that purpose I declare myself a BORN AGAIN AMERICAN.