Religion, Money, and Politics, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Wall and William Fore
Title: Religion, Money, and Politics, Part II
VTR: 3/29/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. As I indicated last week, both of my guests today have joined me individually here at this table before: Dr. James M. Wall, Editor of the distinguished national weekly publication, The Christian Century, and author of such insightful weekly editorials about almost every aspect of our lives, that I always want to probe his thinking much more often than I do here on The Open Mind. And Dr. William F. Fore, Assistant General Secretary for Communication of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, and author of the newly published Television and Religion, a fascinating study of the shaping of faith, values and culture in America.

Both are Methodist Ministers. Both deal very much with the secular world. Both have a profound interest in, and strong convictions about, the interrelationships among three themes each of us was taught (when we were being brought up in an age far different from this one) that we were to avoid in polite company: religion, money and politics.

But events have pressed these maters so hard upon us recently, juxtaposed them so vigorously and perhaps even decisively, that they can’t be ignored, particularly when taken together as they are so often these days, only at the greatest risk to the best of our national traditions, to the very principles of the good society, of the good life. So that I invited these good friends and wise colleagues to join me last week and this week for something of an elaboration upon this unholy trinity: religion, money and politics.

And welcome back again, gentlemen. We began last program with Jim Wall bashing me for presumably bashing ministers, or Evangelical television ministers anyway. But you know, I want to turn to this larger question of television in our lives – you’ve both commented on it extensively in your writings. Bill fore, in his book, writes: “Television is becoming the primary expression of the morals and the meanings, the real religion for most of us”. This means that television is itself becoming a kind of religion. And I again want to know what you mean by that.

Fore: Well, I think that we’ve had a major turning point in our whole cultural history in the last thirty years or so. Prior to that, all cultures really had a religious center of one kind or another related to some belief in a transcendent being that transcended the here and now in some sense or in some way. I think in the last, since the Second World War, perhaps, we’ve moved into a whole new era, which I call the “Technological Era”, where the questions of the old religious question have been replaced by a question of the techniques of things. That is to say, instead of asking, is it right, is it human, what is wrong, and so on, the main question of our new technological age is: Does it work, does it work right? And television has become the handmaiden of that whole technological culture. Television is the prime expression of it and the resonator of its values. And we’ve had a whole new set of values brought upon us – I would not say imposed because we’ve embraced it rather willingly – but television has resonated these values through our society in the last thirty years, to the point now where it has become the prime expression o four…of the myths of our day. By myths, I don’t mean things that people don’t believe in or old stories – I mean those things that tell us who can do what to whom, who has the power, who does not have the power, who can do things and get away with it and not get away with it. And television has provided…is providing now, is cultivating these new myths and telling us really who we are, what our past is, and what our future can be.

Heffner: You said “cultivating”. Would you also say “creating”?

Fore: Well, creating is not such a good word because I don’t think that we have people sitting up in the towers in Manhattan devising moral values to impose on the rest of the people in the United States through television.

Heffner: I didn’t mean that. I meant whether an instrument that depends up on mass, that depends on numbers, whether it must ipso facto be in the creator?

Fore: Well, I use the term in the book, “resonating”, instead of “creating” because I think that tele…people are always asking does television reflect the values of the society, is that all it does? And, of course, that’s what the television people tell us – we just hold a mirror up to yourself. Or does it create the values? I think it does both simultaneously. It is like a searchlight sweeping out there and finding out what things are moving, what things are exciting people. And then it takes those particular actions and those ways of dress, the kinds of hair, manners of speech, the kinds of profanity, all these many, many things that go into this, and it puts them into a mass culture by resonating it, be broadcasting it out, very inexpensively, to people who love this and receive it gladly and thereby it…like in a pipe organ – it resonates those values that the people themselves already are willing to accept.

Heffner: Dr. Wall, are you as much of a basher of mass culture as our colleague here seems to be?

Wall: I would not call that bashing mass culture as I would call it…I would agree with you…as I would say that television allows the largest possible number of people to gather around the campfire, which is the television set, and to share common feelings. And because it is a commercial enterprise, the bottom line is holding their attention and making them like it in order to make them buy the products that the medium is selling.

Heffner: Supposedly not a commercial enterprise, isn’t what you’ve described the epitome of democracy? The epitome of a deep concern, a profound concern for what we, the people, want? Hasn’t television brought us together and enabled us to vote for what it is we want?

Wall: You know, Neil Postman has written a book in which he talks about the way in which television has helped to contribute to the demeaning of the public debate. And he illustrates it by saying that the Lincoln/Douglass debates, when they were held in Illinois, went on three, four, five hours, and that the average citizen, the average citizen sat enthralled at what was being said because they were discussing very serious topics in very complicated fashion. Today, you couldn’t get more than five minutes on the medium of television because the average citizen is not going to sit still for that because the medium itself has begun to corrupt our attention span.

Heffner: Well, you talked about the Lincoln/Douglass debates, taking us back to Illinois where you live now. If one were to think of one of your former governors, Adlai Stevenson, who used television in the campaigns of 1952 and 1956 not quite the way Lincoln and Douglass did, but approximating the way they did. And you remember that wonderful story about Stevenson saying he had gotten a telegram from a viewer after a half hour speech of his on television, “I love Lucy, I like Ike. Drop dead,” because he had taken a half hour of very valuable television time.

Wall: Well, that just proves the point.

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You say it proves the point. Stevenson had enough of a sense of humor to know that he was flying in the face of what a very great many people wanted. So if in the nineteenth century, if in the mid-nineteenth century you were correct, there were many Americans who could embrace that kind of serious, provocative, thoughtful exchange, perhaps these days the Democratic majority can not, will not. Is that possible?

Wall: It will not, and that’s the point that I think we’re making. And I think television has helped to create this. It has helped to create the sense of quick attention, shallow understanding, simple answers…and of course, televangelists have played upon this for their simple answers for complex questions. And the medium has corrupted our elections by the thirty-second spot and we make decisions about presidents and governors and senators on the basis of thirty-second spots that are totally incapable of dealing with the complex issue of…

Heffner: Are we really that easily corrupted, gentlemen?

Fore: Oh, I think over a period of thirty years we are. If you go to England, as you have many times during an election, you see quite a different way that television covers the election process. In the first place, it doesn’t turn it into a circus that goes on for months, as we ado. One of the reasons we do is because it makes money to have that kind of a news coverage. And so we…that is television encourages that. Instead, in England, I think it’s six weeks, I believe, where they then cover all the candidates and the candidates all have their say.

Heffner: well, of course England is a very paternalistic nation and there are many aspects of the British that we have discussed – the British procedures – and rejected, in terms of the kind of elitism, the kind of assumption that we know better than they do.

Fore: I’m not suggesting that we turn all television into a BBC. What I suggest in the book, by the way, is that we have a thorough going, genuine combination of both public and private television because I think that the danger for the corrupting of the public television is that it can become ponderous and paternalistic and boring. But the other dangers, the one that we’re far more subject o in this country, which is that it becomes trivialized and simplified and the public is turned into an audience. You know, there is a great difference between a public and an audience. A public is a group whom…who has many different needs and you try to meet the needs…diverse needs of all of them, including like children and older people. An audience, as far as television is concerned, is the greatest aggregate that they can get under one tent at one time to deliver to a sponsor to sell them something.

Heffner: Don’t you think that there is something almost mystical or magical about the connection between this eye that we’re being watched by now, and all those people – there aren’t many people watching this program, but there are a very many people watching programs – something magical that makes us on this side of the camera do that which the people on the other side of the camera want? And if it is not corruption – and you are quite correct, it’s not the people in the towers in Manhattan – it’s that responsiveness to that chord untouched by a moral imperative.

Wall:You alluded to the practice in England. Let me direct you to another democracy, in Israel, where during their elections – and I’ve been there during the elections – and they will have set aside each evening, prior to the evening newscast, say from 9:30 to 10, thirty minutes of advertisement and they allow each party to have a certain amount of time – five minutes, five minutes and five minutes. But they don’t have to buy the time, but they have to produce the spots. And they have to have serious spots because they’re competing against each other. And the people watch those spots. Why is that? Because there’s vital interest in the politics of that young state. I’m just making you a point – that the people respond because they’re interested in the politics of Israel.

Heffner: You know, Dr. Wall, I had gone back to an editorial that you had written in May 1985 in Christian Century because I had been so touched by it at that time. It’s about Jimmy Carter. You, if I remember correctly, were the leader of the band for jimmy carter in Illinois and his first campaign. And you wrote about him, y0ou said that he believes that one must find a way to serve others. This “mustness”, as you called it, is what in various forms characterizes religious commitment and it is this “mustness”, this compelling sense of call that the public and the media finds incomprehensible. We do know that this kind of commitment is central to religious faith, however. And that it is foreign to a non-religious individualism that operates under the motto, “Where is mine”? Now, wouldn’t you prefer instead of, I shouldn’t use the word “bashing” again, but making a whipping boy of television, indicate that unless one operates within the framework…a framework other than that characterized by “what’s and where’s mine”. Unless one is (inaudible) with that “mustness” – no institution, no business, no enterprise, public or private, television, whatever – is going to serve the purposes that you want. We are talking about a people unrelated to that “mustness”.

Wall: That’s true. This public has less of the “mustness” than it would have had a hundred or two hundred years ago. That’s part of the lack of values in the middle of our society. We’re a society with an emptiness at the middle.

Fore: Take another example. Just in the last election, for the first time, we had only one network even covering, with full coverage in the evening, the election returns. In other words, the television process is mitigating against even informing the people about what happened then. Now, always prior to that, the networks have covered that. Why didn’t they?

Heffner: So we could watch it on three different television sets?

Fore: No, I think we deserve to have the very best minds, and there are some very keen minds among the commentators in television news, to have them analyze and take us around the country and see what’s happening to our country. Instead, we’re entertained with yet two more sitcom kinds of programs of which we have already more than we can possibly deal with.

Heffner: You know, there is…forgive me, I mean, I find your book an intriguing one, a totally intriguing one, particularly as you say television has come to play the role of religion and has created its own religion, but you do make a whipping boy of, it seems to me, you rather blame television than embrace what your friend Jimmy Carter called this “mustness”.

Wall: Can I answer for him before he does answer for himself? The mustness could be incorporated in television if television was not so obsessed with making a profit, if there was a sense of value, if there was a sense of idealism in the television industry – which it clearly there is not. The elements of it are hidden there and everywhere, but it is not there at the core of the industry.

Heffner: As in what other aspect of American life?

Wall:All aspects of American life have pieces of this here and there.

Heffner: No, no, no. but in…where in commercial America do you find…

Fore: Ah, well now we’re getting to the heart of the problem, which I say in the book is rooted in the basic economic and social structure that we’ve set up. I’m not making television the whipping boy. Television is the manifestation of a whole cultural situation in society that we ourselves have made which may trivialize us to death. And what I’m trying to say is, let’s change slowly, evolve ourselves back to some rootage with some basic principles that are human principles, and not simply ask what works, what sells the most, what is the biggest bottom line we can make and never mind the consequences as far as human beings are concerned. That is a religious concern that I have when television begins to pretend that it is taking over the religious functions of the society.

Heffner: Yes, but you know, you said, let us begin slowly. Is that because you don’t want to bite the bullet and say let us do this in fell swoop because slowly doesn’t work?

Fore: It’s because I think that the bottom of the problem – and may I speak theologically – the root of the problem is human kind, it is the nature of people. And I don’t want to, I have neither the power nor the desire to impose some kind of massive upheaval and change. Change has to take place in individuals and then slowly manifest itself in our system once again and through our electoral process.

HEFFNER: Then, of course, I would ask both of you the question: being honest men, being men of religion and honor bound and theology bound to answer straight, do you see any potential for that happening? For that change in the nature of human nature?

Wall: The question of human nature has been that way since the fall in the Garden of Eden, but we have opportunity to always improve on that situation. You mentioned Jimmy Carter. He is, you know, and as I said in that editorial, has come out of the white House, and instead of trying to make a lot of money by serving on a lot of corporate boards, he serves on none. He started making a lot of moony with a lot of lectureships. He works at a center on the subject of conflict settlement. He tries to deal with issues. Now that is setting an example. He is a man who does believe in this “we must serve our fellow human beings” and he is doing it. Now, he is so visible because he is a former president, that other people – and that’s where I see the hope – other people see him, and perhaps some will say, “That seems to be a better way of functioning than the way I’ve been functioning, therefore I will follow that”. So that’s the hope – examples are set by persons like Carter in the public eye.

Fore: Well, not only by individuals, but I see structural changes taking place –small groups – that are making changes slowly, in a very encouraging way to me, and these are groups not at all related to the church but I think are profoundly religious in their rootage and concern. I mean, like Alcoholics Anonymous, for goodness sake, or the groups that are concerned about AIDS, or the Green organization in Germany. I just came back from talking with a friend who is deeply involved in that peace movement. They’re making real progress – incremental progress towards peace there. I think that, given a chance, people can do these incremental changes and bring them about. But if television, which is their primary source of information, so anesthetizes their minds and trivializes the issues, before long we may reach a threshold of a point of no return beyond which people won’t even have the information to make the changes.

Heffner: But Bill, the key phrase, it seems to me, that you’ve just used is “given a chance”. You spend pages in this book describing how almost inevitably, given the instrument of contemporary communications and its impact upon our culture, upon our society, and you write almost in a deterministic vein – if it is like this, and it is, these are the values that it establishes.

Fore: and I go on to say, “And these are the things we can do to change that”.

Heffner: I know, but what I’m asking you to do is make a bet – a bet as a person who thinks in terms of larger determinations. Is that your bet that we will change?

Fore: I’ve got to fall back on my religion again. You know? We’re called to be faithful, to try to bring about that which we can to improve humankind, but at the same time you never do this like I think John Dooley and some of those groups, if I can go back to the educational area, who felt like if you just could educate everybody, everything would be perfect. I think that’s simplistic and I’m not sure what the future holds for the world or for our country. But you just have to keep moving towards what you feel is the most faithful response at the time. And that’s what I’m proposing that we do here.

Wall: And a key word to that point, and a key word that I would use, is “nevertheless”. In spite of what we face, nevertheless, we go right forward and do what we can and try and find those groups that are willing to talk about society’s needs, find those individuals and lift them up, and make points such as you’ve made in the book about the way the industry fails to address these things.

Fore: See, I think a program like this – and I’ve told you this before – a program like this is a profoundly religious program, if I can use that term. Not long ago you were interviewing Governor Cuomo, and you actually got to talking about things like god and faith in the society. But I’m not talking just about those programs. The very fact that you’re interested in dealing seriously with problems in a medium that tends to reject that, the very fact that this program makes distinctions when television lumps everything together and comes up with simplistic answers, you’re fighting and bucking and trend. Do you think this program will ever be number one or even number ten or twenty in the rating? Certainly not. But you go ahead and you do it. Why do you do that, Dick? You do that because you believe that you’re being faithful to something in your own self.

Heffner: You’re absolutely right. Something inside, without the anticipation of success, for mere personal…

Fore: That’s just what I’m saying. I’m not saying, “Therefore everything will be perfect”. But I am saying “To thine own self be true”.

Heffner: But you see, when Neil Postman was here, discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I said, “How can you take yourself out of this deterministic situation?” He said, “Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I’m an optimist, and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I’m a pessimist.” Even including on Sundays, I guess, we’re optimists.

Fore: I think all seven days of the week we try to be realists, which takes into account also the…

Wall: And you understand the ambiguity of everything.

Heffner: The ambiguity is not here. At times, there is no question…I just got the signal and I’m sorry Dr. Fore and Dr. Wall…dr. Wall and Dr. Fore, I wish we could go on…we did one program, now we’ve done another and I’ll get you both back here again, okay?

Fore: Alright, thank you.

Heffner: Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, about today’s guests, please write to The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; Pfizer Incorporated; and the New York Times Company Foundation.

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