How The Lear/Reagan Debates Mirrored the Course of America’s Culture Wars

first-amendmentI came across this series of letters in my research for a doctoral dissertation titled, “Norman Lear and the Spiritual Politics of Religious Liberalism.” This work, along with the subsequent book manuscript that is currently in preparation, provides essential context for the conversation below between two of America’s most beloved figures: Norman Lear and Ronald Reagan.

In October 1984, Harper’s magazine posted a spirited debate of letters between renowned television producer and writer Norman Lear and President Ronald Reagan. Lear’s nonprofit People for the American Way, founded in 1981 with the help of countless Protestants, Catholics and Jews (including Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh and religious scholar Martin Marty), was already a robust organization dedicated to defending the First Amendment, along with the civility it was meant to foster, on behalf of a diverse and passionate citizenry.

Reagan, elected in 1980, was nearing the end of his first term and running for re-election that fall. His presidency had created a sense of rancor within the political and religious left since its very inception.

“Dear Mr. President,” Lear’s first letter began, “I am deeply troubled by what seems to be an endorsement of the so-called Christian Nation movement in many of your recent speeches. While I fully respect (and would fight to protect) your right to whatever spiritual and religious beliefs you prefer, I am concerned that you not use the office of the presidency as Evangelist in Chief to further the notion that any particular group of Americans is to be accorded special standing because it practices any religion.”

“Mr. President,” Lear elaborated, “without freedom from religion we could have no freedom of religion.” President Reagan’s prompt response assured Lear that he had no intention of representing the Christian Nation movement in any of his social policy decisions. “I certainly do not support the notion that any group of citizens is to be accorded special standing ‘because it practices any religion,’” Reagan wrote. “The goal of our nation must always be to achieve the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.”

Reagan’s words would prove prescient, delineating two flashpoints of late twentieth-century American life: the bitter culture wars over artistic and personal freedom of expression and the energized terms of a new conservative consensus.

Needless to say, the talking points of the Lear/Reagan debate rumble through our culture still in today’s talking-head arguments on cable news and in such Supreme Court decisions as allowing private corporations to request exemption from laws based on religious beliefs.

Thirty-two years later, these civil letters between a television showrunner turned activist and a former actor turned president still offer all Americans wise guidance in this uncertain and tumultuous political time. You can read the letters here.

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