On a recent Saturday night, I was happy to see Phil Donahue being interviewed on CNN by Piers Morgan.
Phil was great as always; his answers persistently brought a smile to my face. And the clips of his show (including one with Marlo Thomas as a guest before they ended up dating and marrying) reminded me of the numerous times I was on both his syndicated show and his unfortunately short-lived programs on MSNBC and the now-defunct NewsTalk Television network.
In those recollections, however, I was also saddened by the state of both daytime talk shows and evening cable news shows. It’s not because it isn’t fun to be on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” or “The Ed Show” or (occasionally) Fox News. It’s because it is pretty difficult to say much beyond sound bites in the five minutes allotted these days for the average segment. (Some are even shorter at three minutes.)
What Phil did – and what William F. Buckley did in his two-hour, unedited specials – was to give a long forum to issues that mattered – and still do. A Buckley debate on evolution that I did more than 10 years ago still elicits comments from people in audiences I speak to now.
There is one television (and radio) venue where longer attention spans are treated well: C-SPAN, the network that is funded largely by the cable television industry. Its premiere program is “Washington Journal,” which airs every morning.
I was invited on in late December to respond to a show the previous day in which Jim Wallis of Sojourners (and self-anointed spokesman for whatever the “Religious Left” is) and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land discussed the role of religion in the presidential campaign.
I’ve debated both Wallis and Land and find little more than lip service paid to the actual idea of church-state separation. The morning of their joint appearance they both seemed to have little interest in discussing it. Their main disagreements seemed to be what economic and political positions were supported by Christian scripture (which they interpret quite differently).
I took notes so I’d be prepared to offer a different take the next day. During the program, I enjoyed explaining that the way we make policy in the United States is based on “values,” as in the commonly shared values of the Constitution, not somebody’s idea of “holy writ.”
I reminded viewers that John F. Kennedy, while running for president, told clergy in Texas, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
Questions then came up about a variety of political ads from the Republican primary including Rick Perry’s now-famous ad in which he claimed that President Barack Obama has declared war on religion. I used that to point out that when such claims are made, it seems to drive the current administration into doing things that make it appear more religious, not a good thing in a secular state. (I also took the opportunity to remind viewers that Perry’s ad isn’t a big hit on You Tube. It has more than 700,000 “dislikes.”)
During the program, I took questions from viewers and host Steve Scully on the “faith based” initiative, the National Day of Prayer as a legislative enactment and the National Prayer Breakfast held each year by a shadowy group called The Family here in Washington. A long format like “Washington Journal” provides an excellent opportunity to discuss issues in-depth and gives the framework for connecting what may seem to be disparate concerns.
But those opportunities are few and far between these days, so we need to always be looking for new ways to broadcast our message. I experienced one of them in December when the Salon Sanctuary Concert series in New York City (with its artistic director Jessica Gould) put on a program to benefit Americans United called “More Between Heaven and Earth.”
This event featured members of the baroque Clarion Society Orchestra, two soloists and, here’s the kicker, a reading of letters by several fine actors and singers of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his beloved Maria Cosway as well as a few of Jefferson’s most famous letters on the principles of religious liberty and Enlightenment thought.
Jefferson was played by Matthew Modine (who has been in dozens of films and will be in the summer Batman movie). Melissa Errico (who has one of the most beautiful voices in modern music) portrayed Cosway, and Kathleen Chalfant (a Tony Award-winning actress) provided narration.
I was then given some time to connect the core Jeffersonian ideas to current political controversies. It was one of the most moving evenings I spent last year.
From the bright television lights of C-SPAN cameras to the soft footlights of the professional stage, these two venues couldn’t have been more different. Yet each shared the same goal: educating and activating the public on behalf of church-state separation.
The ability to do that through enjoyable and stimulating events is an incredible bonus.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.