Editor’s Note: Amy Brenneman is an actress, producer and activist. She holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Harvard University (with a specialty in Indo-Tibetan traditions) and is a founding member of the award-winning Cornerstone Theatre Company, which specializes in site-specific original theater pieces centered on themes of social justice.
Her other theater credits include CSC Repertory, Yale Rep, Lincoln Center, Williamstown Theatre Festival, LA Theater Works, LATC, The American Repertory Theatre , Playwrights Horizons and the Geffen Theater. She created and served as executive producer of “Judging Amy,” a drama series that ran on CBS from 1999-2005. The series, which was based on the work of her mother, the Hon. Frederica Brenneman, received two TV Guide Awards, three Golden Globe Award nominations, a Producer’s Guild Award Nomination, three Emmy Award nominations, a People’s Choice Award nomination and a SAG nomination.
Her other TV credits include “NYPD Blue,” “Frasier,” “Private Practice,” “Veep,” “The Leftovers” and the upcoming “Tell Me Your Secrets” (Amazon) and “The Old Man” (Hulu) opposite Jeff Bridges. Her film credits include “Nine Lives,” “The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Casper,” “Heat,” “Daylight,” “Your Friends & Neighbors,” “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her” and “Words and Pictures.”
Brenneman wrote and performed the plays “Mouth Wide Open” and “Threshold” as well as directed the documentary “The Way the World Should Be” about inclusive special education in America. As a teacher, she has taught drama and creative process at the CHIME Charter School, which specializes in educating children of all abilities. She has also taught at Harvard, UCLA and other universities.
For her activist work, Brenneman has been honored by Women in Film, the Brady Center, the League of Women Voters, the California State Assembly, the National Children’s Alliance, the CHIME Institute, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the Help Group and the Producer’s Guild of America, among others. In 2016, she was part of the amicus brief for the Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, ensuring that abortion clinics remained open in Texas and elsewhere; she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from the Feminist Majority for her ongoing commitment to reproductive rights. In 2019 Brenneman received the Change Agent Award from En Garde Arts in New York. She has served as keynote speaker at several events, including a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Brenneman recently discussed her activism with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Q. What does religious freedom mean to you?
Brenneman: Religious freedom means that we protect one another’s right to think or believe in whatever is right for each of us. We collectively hold space to have our own personal faiths.
I come to that answer a product myself of a myriad of traditions and faiths. My mother is of Jewish descent but was raised by an atheist; my maternal grandfather was a brilliant science writer for the Detroit News and believed that religion was a vestige of the Old Country. Conversely, his wife came through Ellis Island from an eastern European shtetl and was a devout Jew her entire life. My father was raised in Ohio from ancestral Mennonite stock, though he himself was raised in no particular religious tradition.
After they married, my parents attended an Episcopal church in northwest Connecticut and were baptized there. They embraced a life of service to others – my mother as a judge overseeing juvenile matters, my father in his practice of environmental law. Stewardship to the earth and to fellow humans was in the air I breathed throughout my upbringing.
I grew up in a Congregational church and, it being the 1970s, we did things like the musical “Godspell” and liturgical dance: Performance and sacred expression were forever intertwined. In college I majored in Comparative Religion and spent a fair amount of my time at the Harvard Divinity School and – even more significantly – at the Center for the Studies of World Religions, where religious scholars from all over the world were in residence for study and interfaith dialogue. I studied in Nepal and wrote a thesis on an obscure Tibetan Buddhist meditational text, which gave me an excuse, in the last chapter, to talk about ritual, shamanism and acting.
After college, I helped to form a traveling theater company, and one of the joys of that time was attending worship services in whatever town we landed in: a Pentecostal church in rural Mississippi where I first heard speaking in tongues, a Black AME congregation in West Virginia where I was the only one who looked like me and a ceremony on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Nevada where I observed in wonder and awe. Around that time, I found my way to the 12 steps, where I still belong; there I found the third step deeply resonant. We commit ourselves to a higher power, or a higher purpose, but what that looks like is deeply personal and forever changeable. Your higher power may look nothing like mine; such is the diversity and wonder of human expression.
At present, I attend All Saints Pasadena, an Episcopal church founded in the twin beliefs of radical inclusion and service to others. There I am free to continue my spiritual exploration; it is not a place of “answers” as much as a safe place to be human and build a community of compassion and activism. At All Saints, there is a strong tradition of interfaith work, where people of different religions, or those that don’t practice any, come together for the vital and ongoing work of peace and justice.
That is a long-winded response to this question, right? But that is where I come from. All the traditions I have come into contact with course through me, as well as my own unique path. I find none of these traditions in conflict with another; to me, they are all expressions of the deep human hunger to create meaning, purpose and community.
Religious freedom has an external meaning – protecting one another’s journey – but has an internal meaning as well. I myself have the freedom to learn, to change, to grow. Religion, philosophical inquiry and spiritual practice are not set in stone. They are fluid, and in a respectful culture there is support and inclusion for all.
I am so naturally ecumenical that often it is genuinely hard for me to understand fundamentalism of any kind. I don’t get it. How could there be just one way for humans to live? Similarly, I am bewildered by proselytizing – how can I possibly know what is best for you? The famed quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has resonance here; I may not understand your system of belief, but I will fight for your right to have it.
Q. What about separation of church and state? In your view, how does that concept relate to religious freedom?
Brenneman: Our country was founded, in part, to protect religious freedom. The Mennonite strain of my family fled Europe to practice freely. My Jewish grandmother fled Lithuania to practice freely. Their religious beliefs were not in conflict with their commitment to the American ideals of personal freedom and the rule of law. As Americans, we agree on the external framework that gives individual citizens and communities freedom to practice their own traditions, free from persecution. In such a diverse and heterogeneous country as ours, personal religion and the framework of the state must be clearly delineated to guard against theocracy.
Q. You’ve been active in the battle to protect reproductive freedom. Opponents of the right to legal abortion often cite their religious beliefs. Why is it dangerous to base public policy on religion?
Brenneman: Because there are a myriad of religions and beliefs in this country! Unfortunately, evangelical Christians have dominated the discussion about reproductive freedom, and the assumption now is that “religious beliefs” equals “Christian” equals “anti-choice.”
My Christian church is pro-choice. Many churches are, as well as other religious communities. In the same way that individuals who have had abortions have begun to talk freely and without shame about their abortions (as I have), it also may be the time for communities of faith to speak openly about reproductive freedom and abortion as a necessary part of health care and human rights.
In 2016, I was part of the amicus brief to the Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Along with over 100 other women, I told my abortion story. Not only do I not regret my abortion, I remain actively grateful to those who fought for my right to make decisions about my own body and know that my ability to be an engaged and committed mother now is directly connected to my being able to access a safe and legal abortion then.
Not surprisingly, anti-choice “Christians” have hounded me periodically since. (I now see this as a badge of honor!) One night several years ago, a hater came on my Twitter feed. He told me how much God hated me, how much Jesus hated me, how I was going end up in hell, etc. Usually I pay no mind, but this time I wrote simply: “Jesus and I are good, thanks for your concern.” I didn’t mean to be snarky. I really wanted to communicate that my God and I were at total peace, and that She supported my decision to have an abortion way back when. Folks immediately responded with gratitude that I invoked God and Jesus as someone who is pro-choice. “I didn’t know that was possible,” one person said, “Thank you.”
Well, the “Christian” went nuts. Because I was a tad unaffected by his fire and brimstone, he upped the ante: “You are SELFISH and will wind up REGRETTING KILLING A BABY. You are a TERRIBLE mother,” on and on. He seemed really, really mad. So, I said to my Twitter folks: “This person seems really upset. I’m not sure why. I think he might need some love.” So … everyone loved on him. They wrote, “It’s okay” and “Sorry you’re having a bad day” and he kept spouting fire and brimstone, and they kept on loving him and finally at about midnight I went to bed. I said to my husband, “I feel like the soul of Christianity is being battled right on my Twitter feed.”
The right to an abortion has been the law of the land for 50 years. The vast majority of Americans continue to support it. There is no reason that a minority of religious extremists should be able to alter this.
Q. Some members of the entertainment industry have been very outspoken about political issues. You’ve never hesitated to speak your mind. In your view, do members of the arts community have a special role to play in bringing certain issues to public consciousness?
Brenneman: No, I don’t think we have a special role to play. We are citizens voicing our views and concerns just like everyone else. Historically, we had a larger platform – talk shows and fan bases and the like. But now with social media, everyone has the opportunity to build a big platform, which is great! We are all in direct and constant conversation with a wide audience.
There is occasional backlash – “stay in your own lane! Just act, don’t talk politics” – but that is old news. LeBron James is a citizen as well as a basketball superstar. Natalie Maines of The Chicks has a right to her views and doesn’t have to “shut up and sing.” As a member of the arts community, I see myself as no more or less important than any other citizen fighting for what she believes in.
Q. Our country seems more divided than ever. Can entertainment such as movies, television shows, music, etc., help bridge that divide?
Brenneman: Yes! Art and empathy are the path out of tribalism! That is good news for everyone.
We are a divided country now, but we have also had an administration that wanted us to stay divided. It had nothing to gain with a strong, united citizenry. The headlines say we’re divided, but actual humans tell another story. Actual humans tell a story of nuance and grace, of changing opinions and unlikely friendships. That is where art comes in.
“The Burning Bed” was the first television movie about domestic abuse. “The Normal Heart” first told us about AIDS. “Philadelphia” starred Tom Hanks in a mainstream movie with a gay protagonist, and Laverne Cox opened our eyes to the beauty and talent of trans performers. When we experience a work of art, our heart can expand in a way that our rigid tribal identity may not be ready to. The heart leads the way forward.
Now, technology is also part of art-making and empathy-creating. In 2017, the filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu created the virtual reality experience “Carne y Arena” to give participants the visceral experience of refugees’ agonizing journey to be free. (Editor’s note: Find out more at: https:// carne-y-arena.com). It was wildly successful. Discussions and debates about the rights and threats of refugees – debated for decades along partisan lines – fell away instantly as participants experienced, not debated, their plight. Politicians want to calcify us along party lines, often for their own benefit. The human heart is more supple than that. We as artists have the duty and opportunity to keep the heart open as way to retain our collective humanity.
Q. What role can church-state separation play in unifying the country?
Brenneman: Church-state separation allows us to practice our personal beliefs free from persecution. We all want that; that is a unifying idea. No one wants to be told what to believe or be coerced by someone else’s religion.
To strengthen church-state separation, we can reaffirm the ideals of this country that drew religious refugees of all kinds: the rule of law, the inherent equality and value of all citizens, the celebration of diversity. Our diversity – religious, racial, cultural – is our strength. Strengthening church-state separation creates a safe and respectful culture of all of us.
Q. For those of us who defend separation of church and state, the Trump years were exhausting. We felt besieged on all fronts. Our allies in the progressive community felt the same way. Did you employ any special coping mechanisms over the past four years that you’d like to share?
Brenneman: I agree. It has not been easy. For me, one of the (many) low points were the days after Justice Ginsburg’s death. Ruth – who reminds me so much of my own fierce, Jewish, Harvard Law-educated judge mother – being replaced by a religious extremist under the literal cloak of night, in anticipation of a contentious election – woah. Dark night of the soul indeed.
What helped me was curtailing my doom-scrolling and looking to the helpers, in the words of Saint Fred Rogers. People like the parishioners at All Saints, people like Rabbi Sharon Brous at Ikar, Richard Rohr and Stacey Abrams. What helped me is disengaging from the newsfeed, and remembering, always, that “if it bleeds it leads.” Newsfeeds will never tell the story of the person who helped me get my mom into her wheelchair, the story of a kind word at the store or the beauty of a rose slowly opening. These are true too.
Trump himself thrives on attention; indeed, he implodes without it. One day I had a clear thought: What if I don’t give him my attention? Can I attend to what needs to be done today – doing my part as a concerned citizen — but then disengage to focus on things other than HIM? It took some doing. I was addicted to looking at the dumpster fire as much as the next gal. But one day at a time, I disengaged in a healthier way.
A friend of mine is battling lymphoma. He talks about things getting very clear, as they do during moments like these. He talks about it all coming down to the practice of love. Not the noun – the verb. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about this in Between The World and Me. Life as a verb. The struggle has no endpoint, but the experience of intentionally choosing how we spend our time and our resources – this is what creates our day, our life, our world.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Brenneman: I think I’ve talked a lot already!
I was quite intimidated by these questions – I feel so strongly about these issues but found myself initially quite inarticulate. But then I looked down at my scrubby three-ring notebook. It is old school – paper! With pencil scribbles! Can you imagine?
It has a plastic sleeve into which I shove pictures and articles to inspire me. Lo and behold, as I sat down to answer these questions, this is the poem that is in there now. It is by Hafiz. (Editor’s note: Hafiz was a 14th century Persian poet.)
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.
While I don’t pretend to have attained the spiritual state of Hafiz, I am moved by this poem deeply. It speaks to my experience too. That beyond any tradition or philosophy is a common heartbeat. Through strengthening church-state separation and creating a safe place for all beliefs or none, we will keep that heartbeat strong.