2016-07-27
Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman interviewed Al Franken about his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and about his own spirituality. Excerpts from the interview, which was first published on Beliefnet in 2003:

The first line of the book is, “God chose me to write this book.” Now why would He go and do a thing like that?

Because He’s pissed off at Bush, whose friends have been going around saying he felt he was chosen at this time to lead the nation, presumably by God. God actually chose Al Gore, and got him the popular and electoral vote, which is usually sufficient.

So God asked me to write the book.

What do you make of the use of religious language by President Bush?

Sometimes it’s ok and appropriate for a president to use God. I probably wouldn’t if I were president. He wears his religion on his sleeve and yet this is the least Christian administration I can think of, in terms of Christ certainly as I understand it.

How so?

Well, he seems to have very little regard for the poor and the meek…

There’d been this article about Bush & God in Newsweek. It describes this Bible group that Don Evans [Bush’s Commerce Secretary and longtime friend] got Bush into when he stopped drinking. [Newsweek writer Howard] Fineman describes it as scriptural boot camp. Ten guys and each week they’d study a chapter of a book over two years and analyze them line by line. Over two years, they read Luke and Acts.

So I was at the White House Correspondents dinner and found myself seated at the table next to Don Evans. I was all set to ask about the tax cut. And I said, “So you know what Acts is about?”

And I saw sort of this blank thing go over his eyes and then sort of a quick look of panic and he said, “No.” And I was absolutely shocked. And I said, “Well your tax cut so heavily favors the rich, and Acts is so socialist almost.”

And he said, “But, ah! Acts contains the Parable of the Talents.” Now just as it so happens, I knew that actually wasn’t true. I knew the parable of talents was from Matthew. And he said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yeah.” It was just a complete fluke that I knew that. My son the year before had been assigned some New Testament reading in high schools as part of a civilization class and talents was part of what he was assigned.

But I realized that these guys didn’t read these books line by line for two years and discuss them for two years –- they couldn’t have! I know these guys aren’t the smartest guys in the world but they’re not that dumb. I remember stuff I read in high school that I didn’t really read that well but we discussed in class for a like a week—-ya know what I mean?

I just have to believe that what he told Fineman was a lie. That was the only conclusion I could come to. Then I talked to Fineman and he remembered talking to Bush during the primaries in New Hampshire. Howard asked him what selection of the Bible he’d read that day because the campaign was saying that Governor Bush read the Bible every day.

And we tracked down the transcript and Bush was totally defensive and it seemed to me from the transcript that he really didn’t read the Bible every day. He just said he did –- which is, like, a very weird thing to lie about.

So I’m sort of fascinated by the extent to which he really is born again, and how much a part of his life this really is. It’s possible he thinks it is.

So you don’t think [faith] actually plays a central role in his life?

I don’t know! I don’t know. It’s really hard for me to figure. He might think it plays a central role in his life and it may not. It could play a very shallow role? Might be a very central role for a very shallow man. It may play a very deep role for very shallow, immoral man? I don’t know. It’s very puzzling to me how you would try to create that myth that you read the Bible every day.

And then I also read a thing like when he was asked about whether Jews went to heaven and he said, “No.”

Did you mind that?

Yes, I minded that a lot! And how the press saw that as a huge gaffe and how Karl Rove thought that was like the best thing he said in the campaign, because it just assured the Christian right that he was one of them. That’s how these guys think.

Obviously part of the premise of my book is that this is not the most honest administration. So I don’t know what to think of his religiosity. I really can’t tell you – but I’m suspicious. I’m very suspicious of the way he uses it. I’m suspicious that it’s done for political purposes and that he really isn’t as religious as he makes out to be. But he might be. I don’t know.

In another part of the book you argue that Jerry Falwell is “a nut” because, while he said the Anti-Christ is a living Jewish male, he has not yet fingered Marvin Hamlisch.

Well he actually said he didn’t know if it was Hamlisch or not.

So he was hedging?

Yeah, I thought you could rule out Hamlish. I thought a sane person could say Marvin Hamlisch is not the Anti-Christ. Why would the Anti-Christ write Chorus Line? Why would the Anti-Christ write The Way We Were?

Chorus Line, you might get an argument on.

Nah, I don’t think so.

Other than that, what’s wrong with the religious right?

They sometimes forget we don’t live in a theocracy. They can be in the public square and express their opinion but to expect other people to alter their behavior to say that, for example, that homosexuality is immoral because it says so in the Bible…I mean it also says you can’t eat pork. I don’t see a lot of orthodox Jews saying people who eat pork shouldn't be allowed to get insurance benefits.

I mean there’s stuff in the bible how about how to sell your daughter. They kind of are pretty selective about what is important and what isn’t. I think slavery is ok in the bible. It’s stupid! It’s like the dumbest thing that they want to proscribe other people’s behavior based on their belief.

Conservatives have made the argument that the civil rights movement was very influenced by black preachers and in general the liberal church movement.

Yeah, that was great!

Isn’t that a case of religion being brought into the public sphere to change laws?

Yeah, that was good! That was good, let me tell you why: segregation was wrong.

[So are you saying] it’s ok to use religion in the public sphere as long as you agree with it?

In that case it was brought in because the preachers said “This is immoral.” And it’s immoral because it’s wrong – it’s just wrong on its face.

But on its face, [it’s clear that] people don’t have the right to stick their penis somewhere you don’t want them to stick their penis? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Bob Jones University--now why did you do that mean practical joke on them? [Franken and a research assistant impersonated a prospective college student and parent in order to make fun of Bob Jones University]

Did you think it was mean? We didn’t really mean to hurt anybody. We were kind of making fun of them. I tried to write in the chapter how nice they were.

Well you wrote “a good honest days work done, lying to God-fearing people. We’d sleep well that night.”

(Laughter) That’s known as satire. That’s irony and ambiguity, which are protected, I’ve learned. I did it because that’s where Bush chose to start the [2000] campaign, particularly South Carolina campaign. [Bush strategist] Warren Tompkins said ‘We had to do that to send the right message’ so if that’s the case, I wanted to find out what the place was about. So that was the satiric reason.

The comedic reason was…it just seemed hilarious to me. It was my wife’s idea to do it with my son, and that would have required less lying, but he didn’t want to. So we did lie to the people but we represent it honestly in the book. It was a prank.

 

In another part of the book you had an interesting line about the alliance between evangelical Christians and Jews in support for Israel. You seem suspicious of the evangelical support for Israel.

If they believe what they say they believe, they believe that the Jews have to be in Israel in order for the apocalypse to occur. So it seems to me that they want the second coming to happen and it can only happen if the Jews are in Israel so that when the rapture happens and the apocalypse and all that shit, all the Jews will die in fiery hell. So that’s why I’m a little suspicious of it. Wouldn’t you be?

What about Democrats – Democrats lie sometimes too, right?

Never! Yeah, sure, I guess. I think everybody lies sometime in their life. What I was kind of documenting was the systematic lying on the right and complete disregard for the truth.

There’s a difference between lying about your sex life and lying about why sending men and women into battle. I think there’s a huge difference.

Do you think hell exists and if so, who is there?

I think hell exists on earth. It’s a psychological state or it can be a physical state. People who have severe mental illness are in hell. People who have lost a loved one are in hell. I think there are all kinds of different hells. It’s not a place you go to after you die.

I don’t know what happens to you after you die. I’m not banking on there being like a heaven.

How would you describe your spiritual life?

My spiritual life is… sometimes I have access to it and sometimes I don’t. When I do have access to it, it’s usually a sense of my understanding what the best course of action or the best thing for me to do. By best, I mean when I have a real sense of doing the right thing and doing good for people and the connected universe of everybody.

What do you mean "when you have access to it."

Means when I’m in a more spiritual place than when I’m… reacting maybe more out of non spiritual reasons-- either anger or ambition or lust, those kinds of things. None of those are necessarily bad. I wrote this book in large part out of anger.

I also think that writing is a big part of my spiritual life. Because when you write you basically have faith that something’s going to come out of you. There’s really no reason to think that! So when you sit down to write, it’s really an act of faith. I don’t consider myself an artist necessarily but craftsmen or people in the arts, their spiritualism is sort of when you’re writing well or performing well or doing whatever you do well, there’s an element of that that’s either God-given, a talent that you’re not necessarily responsible for…. There’s such a thing as gifts that people are given by virtue of nature, they’re born with it – it’s God given.

How do you get there?

I usually get there by remembering to think about it. Slowing down. Experiencing it. When you write something funny or that you really like, that’s good, experiencing the joy of that, is one way I’m accessing it. And another thing is when I do have decisions to make on the way to deal with something important in my life I try consciously to access my spirituality by saying, “ok what’s really the right thing to do, what’s really going on here.”

Do you ever try anything formal like meditation or prayer?

I have. I haven’t actually been that successful at it. [Laughter]

What do you mean?

I just can’t sit still and meditate, that doesn’t kind of work for me. I don’t even know exactly what it means. Also another part of spirituality for me is thinking about my dad who died in 1993 or thinking about my kids or the continuum of life—that gets me into that.

You were raised Jewish?

Not particularly devout. We were reform Jews and I didn’t even get bar mitzvahed. I was confirmed. I went to Saturday school. We were very reform.

You have any positive or negative memories of confirmation school?

Well confirmation process was about history of Judaism, learning about the Bible the spiritual aspects of all that. It wasn’t incredibly rigorous.. I’d have to go in on Saturday. it wasn’t that long. It was like 2 years, and I hated it.