Norman Lear's PAW; TAKES A SWIPE AT THE NEW RIGHT

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Norman Lear, father of "All in the family," worries about things that Archie Bunker would say only pointy- headed meatballs worry about: olerance. Diversity. Pluralism. "Pluralism?" Archie would say, "What's dat , some kinda fancy new disease?"

Along with freedom of thought, religion, and expression, in the United States , pluralism is one of the chief concerns of Norman Lear and the organization he began, People for the American Way (PAW).

A funny thing happened to Lear on the way to making a movie. The movie was to be a satire on the ultraconservative political groups that have melded with TV evangelists to form the religious. New Right.But as Lear began to work on the film, he decided the subject was no launching matter.

Recommended: Default

"What happened to me was that in research on this proliferation of TV evangelicals and radio evangelicals I became concerned with where they were taking the country or could take the country with distortion of Scripture. And I was also concerned with the possibility that I could take three years to write and direct that one film and miss the target. And it was too serious to miss the target."

So Lear went out and started PAW, instead. PAW's brochure outlines what the group believes is the central danger: that the religious New Right "is more than just old- fashioned evangelism. It's a well-financed [$150 million raised last year], highly coordinated, computerized campaign not just to preach their faith and their politics -- which they have every right to do -- but an attempt to impose theirm political and moral beliefs on the rest of us."

PAW lists some of the actions it considers troubling: budgeting millions to successfully defeat members of Congress and local legislators it objects to; distributing "moral report cards" to dictate to their followers as to which are "good" Christians among politicians and which are not. "Good" Christians and "good Americans" are defined as only those who share the New Right positions: against the ERA, abortion, teackers' unions, the Department of Education, the Panama Canal treaties, and SALT II, and for increased defense spending and support of Taiwan.

Lear came to Washington to speak for PAW at a time when media attention is riveted on a highly publicized threat to boycott TV sponsors by the Coalition for Better Television (CBTV), a television watchdog of the religious New Right groups. He was here to introduce PAW's new media campaign of public-service announcements. And if you want to raise Norman Lear's hackles, try suggesting that Paw is the liberals' answer to the coalition.

"We didn't come together as People for the American Way to face the Coalition for Better TV," he says crisply. "We came together last July and August because we were concerned about the way we [the US] were drifting with the New Right and the religious New Right. . . . A climate was growing in this country that suggested that people were good Christians or bad Christians, good Americans or bad Americans, depending on some specific political points of view. And we intended to address that.

"Many months later the Rev. [Donald E.] Wildmon [chairman of CBTV] for his own good reasons decided to put together a coalition, and he listed [among supporting members of the coalition] Moral Majority and other groups. . . . We're not in a fight with the coalition. We have a point of view, of course. . . ."

PAW's board of advisers includes ministers from the Lutheran Council, the Baptists, the Episcopal Church, United Presbyterian Church, the presidents of the National Council of Churches of Christ and of the University of Notre Dame, and spokesmen for the American Jewish Committee and B'nai B'rith, as well as Ruth Carter Stapleton (Jimmy's sister), former Sen. Harold Hughes, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, former Rep. Barbara Jordan, editor Norman Cousins, former Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler, and Newton Minow, the former FCC commissioner, who coined the TV phrase "the vast wastelend."

At the end of a busy, media-stuffed day Lear sinks gratefully into a blue-and-rust stiped velvet couch, as though he'd just trekked across half that wasteland. Lear in person is a surprise. He is tall, slender, spiffily dressed. None of that blue-collar chic for the man who gave TV "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," and "Maude." He is wearing a handsomely tailored gray pin striped suit, pale blue shirt, and a navy, pale blue, and crimson striped tie. Lear is California tan, with balding gray hair and royal blue eyes under eyebrows that sometimes shoot up like a drawbridge opening. He is an attractive man with an expression halfway between a tenured college professor and a leprechaun.

There is a trace of his native Hartford, Conn., in his voice as he talks about the climate that troubles him in the country today: "There's no doubt that we all live in a hothouse of sorts, in a climate. And there are thermostats that control that climate everywhere. In my home I have . . . thermostats to control the emotional and sociological environment of my home . . . the schools have controlled climates, principals and teachers, and in a larger sense the Congress and President have accessible thermostats to control climates. And it would seem to me that there is a climate in our country today that makes it possible for a 'Family Protection Act' in Congress to coexist with scores and scores if not hundreds of groups around the country with no name, with no organizational title, who are forcing books off the library shelves, attempting to roll back wife- and child-abuse laws, and to burn some records and music and so forth. That is a climate that comes about slowly, I think, as a result of a very vigorous and energetic group of the religious New Right juxtaposed to the rest of America that's apathetic, lethargic, that's not really doing much of anything.

"So long as there's a very vocal minority of any kind . . . if there was a highly vocal minority on the left, vocal and active and so forth, the country would be veering in that direction and I would be concerned about it. But [with ] these folks on the right, it would be kind of a healthy situation if they were actively pursuing their convictions with action at a time when the rest of us, the rest of America, were doing the same thing. There would be a healthy dialogue and an open conflict. The joy and success of this country is that we arrive at some degree of consensus in which we can all live together. But we don't have consensus ruling. We will have one absolutist point of view ruling if this continues unabated."

During the press conference PAW held to air its new 30- second TV spots for freedom of expression, John Lofton, editor of The Conservative Digest, and a supporter of Moral Majority, debated with Lear over the TV spots. They are public-service announcements in which ordinary citizens as well as celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Muhammad Ali, and Carol Burnett express differing opinions about some of the things people love to argue about: how they like their eggs, sports, music. Carol Burnett says pugnaciously, "Chuck Brown, James Brown, And nobodym will change my mind." The spots end with the tag line: "Freedom of thought; the right to have and express your own opinions. That's the American way."

Lofton, tape recorder in hand, used the press conference as a forum for arguing his position against PAW. "You've got a bunch of commercials on sports, music, and eggs here. Why don't you address yourself to the issues put forth by Moral Majority?" he asked.

"The spots are not about eggs and sports but about freedom of expression. I believe the American people for far wiser than you give them credit for. I think they'll make the connection," Mr. Lear answered.

PAW's first TV spots, aired last fall, were run as commercials for which the organizations paid the independent TV stations running them. The three networks refused to run them, because they said they do not accept paid advertising that threatens to be "controversial." One of those spots focused on a hard-hat steelworker who said he was religious and came from a religious family in which there were differing political views:

"Now here comes a whole bunch of ministers on the radio and TV and in the mail, trying to tell us on a whole bunch of political issues that if we don't agree with them, we're not good Christians -- or we're bad Americans, or we're antifamily . . . ," he says, adding that he, his wife, and his son would all get different moral ratings for their politics from those preachers. "Now there's got to be something wrong when anyone, even if it's a preacher, tells you you're a good Christian or a bad Christian depending on your political point of view. That's notm the American way."

PAW is also sending out speakers to debate Moral Majoritarians in communities across the nation, and is launching citizen action training programs to combat what it views as censorship in libraries and ideological intimidation in schools.

PAW's executive director, Anthony Podesta, notes that "the American Library Association says that libraries in 40 states are under pressure to remove hundreds of titles and authors from our library shelves. Books by Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Malamud, Salinger, and Arthur Miller are the targets of this campaign. In Washington State, the Moral Majoritarians sued to obtain a list from the public libraries of all those who borrowed sex-education materials, that they might expose the borrowers. Five dictionaries were excluded from schools throughout Texas because of protests that they contained dirty words. . . .

"The National Council for Educational Excellence, a Moral Majoritarian group, has issued a national censorship guidebook to show evidence of what they term 'secular humanism.' The guidebook lists a series of words that identify concepts and programs they want to remove from the public schools. Included in this list are academic freedom, analysis, citizenship, creative writing, democracy, values. . . ."

At this point the threatened boycott of TV sponsors by the Coalition for Better TV has not taken place. The coalition has said that informal discussions had persuaded sponsors to drop their advertising backing of TV shows the coalition deemed offensive because of sexual, violent, or "antifamily" themes. TV's biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, which spent $486 million on TV advertising last year, has in the wake of the coalition threat already withdrawn sponsorship from 50 programs it believed contained too much sex and violence. Fred Silverman, former head of NBC, was replaced by the less controversial Grant Tinker, whose MTM Productions created series in the style of "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (which starred his ex-wife).

Lear has pointed out that one of the problems with the TV clout of the religious New Right is that it has the money to buy time on the tube. A hefty amount of that $150 million the religious New Right raised last year went into buying TV time.

He notes that 90 percent of religious shows on TV are evangelical fundamentalist, and that PAW is exploring a way to balance this to bring more mainline religious programming to TV. He says the organization wants to develop its own "electronic ministry," which would deliver a different religious experience each week: Southern Baptist one week, Episcopal the next, Lutheran the next, Jewish the fourth week, etc. He says PAW is now out looking for a sort of religious anchor man, "a charismatic minister that the television viewer will find appealing, one who does not think that humanism represents the anti-Christ, and who will talk to us the way we believe most Americans would like to be talked to, about a loving God, and not one that inspires fear, and about the problems that are gnerally lopped under the word 'humanistic.'" PAW, which now has 25,000 members and $3 million in funds through contributions from individual members and foundations, would buy the TV time for the program to air weekly.

Lear and PAW are considering other approaches, too, to airing the diversities of views they believe are part of a democratic society. Asked if his organization had considered forming a citizens' board that might work with the heads of the networks which are broadcasting over public airwaves, he described a possible plan for more public involvement.

"Action for Children's Television operates that way. They were a very powerful lobby group. They forced their way on the networks. They forced the networks to be attentive.After a little while the networks were happily attentive. . . . They've done that in the healthiest manner, that is totally consistent with the spirit of liberty in this country. They've never threatened boycott. As a matter of fact, they're fighting the coalition because they don't like that word [boycott] and because they've gotten results in their own constructive manner."

Lear, who has recently won both the William O. Douglas First Amendment Award and the National Fellowship Award, is fond of a quotation from Judge Learned Hand that sums up what he believes in:

"The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is a spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even one sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind a lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...