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The Religious Language In U.S. Foreign Policy

Historian Andrew Preston says questions in an undergraduate class her was teaching at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq spurred the research for his new book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith. "Once I started looking for religion [in U.S. foreign policy], it was everywhere," he says.


Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 15, 2012: Interview with Andrew Preston; Interview with Sonja Sohn.


March 15, 2012

Guests: Andrew Preston-Sonja Sohn

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Religion continues to play a big part in American politics, and much has been written about that. Far less has been written about the role religion has played in the history of American foreign policy, either in justifying war or avoiding it.

My guest, Andrew Preston, decided to write a book on this subject several years ago, when he and his students were discussing President Bush's use of religious imagery in justifying the war in Iraq, and he found his students were puzzled by the presence of religion in the normally hard-headed world of diplomacy, especially American diplomacy.

Preston teaches American history and international relations at Cambridge University and before that taught at Yale. His new book is called "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy." Andrew Preston, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's go back to the colonial era.

Settlers came here from England, early on, looking for religious freedom because they were persecuted in England.

ANDREW PRESTON: That's right.

GROSS: But when they came here, what were some of the religious goals that they had?

PRESTON: Well, first and foremost, they wanted a haven. They wanted safety from religious persecution. But more importantly for my purposes, certainly for the book, what they also wanted to do was protect the Protestant faith because it was under siege all over Europe, and it was under siege in England, not just - England was going through a lot of very intense religious politics.

Those would play out in the English civil war. Europe ended up fighting for centuries over questions of religion, and at various points, Protestantism looked like it might not survive. And so one of the things that they wanted to do was bring the Protestant faith to what they called the New World in order to keep it safe, in order to let it grow.

And because of that, they ended up identifying the protection of an idea, of a religion, of the Protestant faith, with their own physical security - and that one and the two were the same. And also they believed in the converse, that not only did they have to protect that idea and protecting that idea would protect themselves, they also had to spread it. And by spreading that idea, they would ensure its survival, they would ensure its prosperity, and they would ensure their own survival.

And this kind of exceptionalism, I think, has been fairly constant and fairly continuous in American history.

GROSS: You quote the founding charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, this is the group that founded Massachusetts, and the founding charter stated that its primary goals included to incite the natives to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and savoir of mankind.

And then the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony pictured an Indian pleading: Come over and help us.

PRESTON: That's right.

GROSS: Boy, when I read that, I thought, wow, they were really delusional.

PRESTON: They had some pretty strong ideas. They had some pretty strong ideas about their own faith and their own virtue, and the virtue of their own faith. So these people who founded Massachusetts, they were seeking religious liberty, and they were complaining about the persecutions they suffered in England. And of course, the first thing they do when they get to Massachusetts is persecute others and persecute their religion.

So it's not an easy story. It's not always a comfortable story. It can be fairly contradictory at times. But I think that's what makes it even more interesting.

GROSS: So, so many settlers in the colonies were Protestants from England. How did religion come into play in the justification of the Revolutionary War, which was going to be fought against fellow Protestants?

PRESTON: That's a great question, and historians still argue a lot about religion and the American Revolution. I argue in the book, that religion provided some of the core ideas for a lot of the people who would become founders and certainly the people who fought against British rule.

Even those people like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, who either weren't very religious or had a very personal, very eccentric - and I meant that in the best way, I don't mean that as an insult - but a very eccentric faith, a very eclectic faith. They saw religion as the source of conscious, they saw religion as the source or morality, and therefore you had to protect religion almost at all costs.

And Thomas Jefferson, who we know wasn't - he was a cultural Christian I guess is what we'd call him because he certainly didn't have any faith in the divinity of Christ or anything like that. Even Thomas Jefferson believed that, that you had to protect individual conscience, and therefore you had to protect religion. In order to protect that, but also in order to prevent ecclesiastical tyranny, you had to separate church and state. And that's where these early ideas about the separation of church and state emerged.

GROSS: How do you think the idea of separation of church and state has evolved over time?

PRESTON: It's evolved in really interesting ways, in ways in which a lot of Americans I think would be surprised, given the state of politics over the separation of church and state today. For most of American history, the separation of church and state favored the church.

The First Amendment has the free exercise clause and the establishment clause, and that's pretty much it. That's all it says. And how that was interpreted for the first 150 years, at least, of the nation's history, was that religion had a role in public life, religion had a role in politics. It just meant that the government couldn't regulate religion; it couldn't set up a national church, and it couldn't interfere with the way people worshipped.

And effectively what that mean, because America was so overwhelmingly Protestant, was that it gave - it effectively made Protestantism the unofficial religion. And that began to change after World War II, as the nation became more religiously pluralistic and as other groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics and Jews and Mormons became more confident and started challenging the Protestant domination.

The Court decided to make things simpler for a modern era by hardening what Jefferson called the wall of separation between church and state. And so, the best thing to do was to try and remove religion from - or at least try to remove religion - from public life as best as people could.

GROSS: So in talking about how America became a more pluralistic, ecumenical country, you describe President Franklin Roosevelt as being the first president to really see the United States as a Judeo-Christian country - Christian in terms of being inclusive of different Christian denominations and faiths and Judeo in terms of including Jews in that, too.

PRESTON: That's right.

GROSS: So how did that come into play in his thinking? And I should say, I don't know if he actually used the word Judeo-Christian or not, but you say that that's the way he saw the United States.

PRESTON: Absolutely. This is definitely how he saw the United States, and I think it came, really, from two sources. One was just his own personality, and I don't think historians have done enough work on FDR's own personal faith. And his religious background, his religious philosophy was he was very religious but in a very informal way, in a very inclusive way. He believed...

GROSS: He was Episcopalian, right?

PRESTON: He was an Episcopalian, and he came from a tradition in the church. He was raised in a tradition of the church. He was obviously from a very well-to-do background, but he very strongly believed in, you know, a tradition of noblesse oblige, of giving back to society, of public service.

He also didn't have much time for theology, which is also a very strong tradition in - among certain Episcopalians. And because of that, he instinctively had an ecumenical outlook. But then also because he became a politician in New York, especially a Democratic politician, Democratic Party politician in New York, even if he wasn't naturally ecumenical or interfaith, he had to include Jews and Catholics, otherwise he wouldn't have been elected.

And so these two formative influences, his own personal background and faith and then his political milieu, really pushed him to be very inclusive and very ecumenical. And that's the world view, that's the vision that he used to explain the world crisis in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

GROSS: What do you mean?

PRESTON: The late 1930s and '40s were a time when most Americans didn't want to get involved in the world crisis that was emerging. They didn't want to get in European affairs. They didn't want to get involved in Asian affairs, and you can understand why.

They were living through the Depression. The reasons for intervening in World War I and Wilsonianism had been discredited by then. But FDR himself was convinced that the United States had to do more because this was a very serious threat.

And so beginning in 1936, 1937, when again, most Americans were absolutely opposed to getting involved more in Europe and Asia - and at a time also when there was no way that Germany or Japan were going to attack the United States, the continental United States, that just wasn't even a possibility, and that was the most effective argument that isolationists had. FDR started describing the threat from Germany and Japan, and especially from Germany, as a threat to religion, not just to the Jews, although he did emphasize that, but to all people of all religion.

And he said this was a problem because religion - just like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and James Madison argued in the 18th century - FDR argued that religion was the source of democracy because it was the source of conscience and morality. And because religion was the source of democracy, democracy was also the source of international peace. You couldn't have international peace without democratic countries.

And so everything rested on religion, and he said this in his 1939 State of the Union address. And so for him, it was good foreign policy to emphasize the Nazi threat to all religion but then also to offer the alternative, which was America's - as he couched it, America's Judeo-Christian traditions, its heritage of religious tolerance, of pluralism in which the separation of church and state prevented the government from meddling with religion as it was doing in Germany and the Soviet Union and elsewhere and that religion could be free in the United States, and that's why the United States was democratic.

GROSS: And in doing that, did he ever quote the Bible, like say George W. Bush did, or talk about his own personal faith?

PRESTON: All the time. Yeah, he did that quite often. He would quote from the Bible. He would paraphrase from the Bible. He would talk about his own faith. FDR was a master at personal politics and at personalizing things in a very comforting way. And he did that all the time, and then to bring the message home, he would argue, and he would tell Americans that - he didn't use the term - but he would say in a globalized world, America cannot remain a lone island in a world dominated by force. It can't be the only democracy, it can't be the only religious country in a world that's been conquered by the forces of atheism and tyranny, because eventually - it might take a long time - but eventually those threats will harm America.

GROSS: I never saw the Nazis as atheists. I saw them as believing in their own kind of mono-culture that included their religion.

PRESTON: Yeah, that's true. It depends on which Nazis you're looking at, but no, that's absolutely right. And actually, I should say that FDR didn't couch the Nazis as atheist. He would say that they were pagans, that they wanted to set up their own cult around the worship of Nazism, where, as he said, "Mein Kampf" would replace the Bible, and the swastika would replace the cross.

It was a threat to religion all the same, and this is an era, of course, where there was lots of atheism around in Europe and especially in the Soviet Union.

GROSS: So in talking about how FDR used religion to help rally people to go to war against the Nazis and against Japan, how much of this do you think was just knowledge of how to change popular sentiment away from non-interventionism toward, you know, going to war; and how much of it do you think was genuine personal belief?

PRESTON: Yeah, that's one of the riddles that is impossible to answer, definitively, one way or the other. I myself am completely convinced that FDR did it for both reasons, that it was consistent with his own private beliefs - that what he was saying was consistent with his own private beliefs - that he was - that these private beliefs gave him ideas about the wider world and how to interpret that wider world.

But clearly it was good politics. Using religion to explain to a country that was very religious, the United States - and still is, of course - was an easy way to describe the threat, to explain the threat that after all probably wasn't going to come in the form of a bomber or a tank - unless as Americans found out in 1941, unless you were living in Hawaii.

But if you were in the continental United States, you weren't going to be attacked. So religion provided a very - not the only reason or not the only justification - but it provided a very compelling reason why Americans should get more involved in the world.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Preston, and he's a professor at Cambridge University. His new book is called "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Preston. He's the author of the book "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith." It's about how religion has figured into American war and diplomacy.

So you've said that the idea of American exceptionalism really dates back to the colonial era, to our earliest history in the United States.

PRESTON: Absolutely.

GROSS: What does the idea of American exceptionalism actually mean?

PRESTON: Well, to most people, it means that America is exceptional in that it's not only different but that it's better. And often it's better because of those differences. But America is a unique force of good in the world, a unique force for virtue. And exceptionalism mean, usually means that - it usually applies to people who believe that America should spread this virtue or should share it in the rest of the rest of the world, and often that sometimes results in conflict and in war.

GROSS: And what are some of the things American exceptionalism has been used to justify over the years?

PRESTON: Well, in pretty much any war or any major crisis, you'll find exceptionalist rhetoric about the virtue of America and benevolence of America. It could be Lincoln speaking of America as humankind's last best hope. It could be FDR saying that the United States can't be an island of democracy in a world governed by force. It could be any kind of rhetoric like that, sort of positioning America as a unique force for good in the world.

GROSS: And is religion always seen as an inherent part of American exceptionalism?

PRESTON: It usually is. Almost all commentators on religion and American politics, and especially the few people who have looked at religion and American foreign policy, see it as automatically, inherently exceptionalist - that it's always exceptionalist. And religion certainly has been a major source of American exceptionalism, there's no doubt about that.

GROSS: In what ways?

PRESTON: In providing ideas about why, about how America is different and how America is better than other countries. And it's also, sort of, provided evidence for others to see America as exceptional, not necessarily better, but also different. So for instance, Europeans always looked - increasingly secular Europeans, rather - over the last 40 or 50 years, looked to the United States as an exception because as society has got more modern, the thinking went they would automatically become more secular, and the United States was the most modern society in the world, and it was becoming more religious.

And so Europeans would always say, you know, would speak of American exceptionalism in that way. But for Americans, religious ideas, religious imagery, especially the notion that America is God's chosen nation, is a very powerful strand in American exceptionalism.

GROSS: How is America foreseen as God's chosen nation? Like what did that mean?

PRESTON: Part of it comes from the particular kind of Protestant faith that the first - some of the first colonists and a lot of succeeding waves of colonists and immigrants - brought over with them. A Calvinistic belief in providence, that God had a plan for people, that God had chosen peoples and that Americans were one of those chosen people.

And by the modern period, by this period, that Americans were God's chosen people. They were God's instrument on Earth, to do good and to rid the world of evil.

GROSS: Do you think there are a lot of Americans who still believe that Americans are God's chosen people?

PRESTON: I do. I think a lot of Americans believe that, and I think it still provides a very strong motivation for people calling for America to act the way it does in the world.

GROSS: The evidence is? An example?

PRESTON: Well, you can see it in the rhetoric around quite a few wars. You could see it in the rhetoric in George W. Bush's language in justifying war in Iraq. Whether that decision was the right decision, whether it was the wrong decision, I don't take a stand on that in the book, but that sort of idea that America is chosen to - and that language that Bush used, explicitly, that America's been chosen by God to spread certain values and to protect certain values. It was all over Bush's rhetoric before the Iraq war.

But it certainly isn't unique to Bush. Bush is absolutely not - was not an aberration in American history. He was actually quite typical.

GROSS: So a lot of people who fled their countries and fled to the United States, came here in full or in part, because of religious persecution. And how do you think that's affected the religious identity of the United States?

PRESTON: Well, that's the source of America's religious pluralism. It's - it has been for a long time the most religious pluralistic society on Earth, and I don't think that could've happened, that wouldn't have been possible without successive, as you said, successive waves of immigration from various parts of the world - first Europe, and then other parts of the world - happening over centuries and that are still happening right up to the present.

One thing that immigrants from religious communities - Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, more recently - have done is pay a lot of attention to what's happening to their co-religionists back home or in other parts of the world, not necessarily where they came from.

And they have formed very effective, I guess what we we'd call pressure groups, in lobbying or trying to influence the American government to taking a particular - to advancing a particular cause or to push the cause of human rights for a certain group. We saw this a lot with Catholics in the 19th century. We saw it a lot with Jews in the late 19th century, after Russian pogroms and Romania's brutal repression of its Jewish population in the late 19th, early 20th century. So it's certainly not a new phenomenon. And that's what religious immigrant communities bring to American foreign policy.

GROSS: Well, Andrew Preston, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

PRESTON: Oh thanks, Terry, it's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Andrew Preston is the author of the new book "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy." You can read an excerpt on our website, I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've listened to our show over the years, you know that many of us here were big fans of the HBO series "The Wire," about drug gangs, kids and cops in East Baltimore.

My guest Sonja Sohn played police Detective Kima Greggs. When the series was over, she wanted to help young people in East Baltimore like those portrayed in the series. And she thought she stood had a chance of helping after she noticed that she and her fellow stars from "The Wire" had become known and respected by young people. So with the help of some of her colleagues from "The Wire," she started a two-year pilot program called Rewired for Life, working with kids who had been arrested multiple times and were about to do serious time.

She used scenes from "The Wire" as a jumping off point to help them discuss the problems they were having and how they could change their lives. Then Sohn worked with a second group, a little older, with different needs. They were quitting dealing drugs, had no GED and needed support and advice. Now known as Rewired for Change, the program also turned a church-owned house into a village house, a safe place for members of the neighborhood to gather.

Sohn's goal is to keep Rewired going and expand its reach. She now travels back and forth between Baltimore and L.A., where her current TV series, ABC's "Body of Proof," is shot. She plays homicide Detective Samantha Baker.

Let's start with a scene from "The Wire." Detective Kima Greggs, played by Sohn and Officer Carver, played by Seth Gilliam, have observed a well-dressed man in a nice car being handed a trash bag, so they stop him. Greggs speaks first.


SONJA SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Step out of the car, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) What I do?

SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Step out of the car.

(as Detective Kima Greggs) Go write him up over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Man, look, I'm already late.

SETH GILLIAM: (as Sergeant Ellis Carver) Put your hands on the roof, please, sir.

SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Sir, you were observed in one of the city's designated drug-free, anti-loitering zones, where a drug suspect leaned into your vehicle, handing you something. And when we signaled for you to stop, you were leaning over as if attempting to conceal something beneath the passenger-side seat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Come on, now, look, enough of this (bleep), now. Come on.

SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Is there something beneath that seat, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Nah. No.

SOHN: (as Detective Kima Greggs) Then you don't mind if we take a look...

GROSS: Sonja Sohn, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, you're an actress. After you were finished shooting "The Wire," why did you want to stay in East Baltimore and work with young people who are out on parole and try to help them straighten out their lives? I mean, that's - you're not a social worker. You're an actress.


SOHN: You know Terry, my journey to becoming an actress is not your typical one. I didn't, you know, strive to become an actress all my life. I didn't - it's not some goal that I had. This career, essentially, you know, chased me down while I was on the spoken-word scene in New York. I kept hearing that my delivery of my poetry - which was very personal and cathartic at the time - was, I guess, very moving to folks, and people thought that I was an actress because of my delivery, when I was just dropping into the work and really, you know, pouring out my soul.

It seems like I just couldn't escape this sort of career chasing me, so I decided to stop, turn around and face it. I realized that there's something internal that I could gain from pursuing this career as an actor. However, once I got into the business, I really abhor, you know, what this career can sort of drum up, you know, inside of a person. You know, it really plays on your ego, and I had a really tough time with that, sort of battling that and trying to, you know, balance that out. During the first season of "The Wire," I almost quit. And...

GROSS: Why would you want to quit "The Wire?"

SOHN: It was painful. It was torturous. I...

GROSS: What was torturous about it?

SOHN: By the time I'd gotten "The Wire," I was experienced. I studied for five years in New York and, you know, I was ready. But I got on the set, and I found myself, after hours of preparation, you know, every day, you know, I found myself, you know, blanking out on my lines. You know, and I saw, you know, the reaction of, you know, my co-workers and, you know, the sort of the tension, you know, as the takes are clapping away, you know, and the times, you know, ticking and the money's, you know, being spent.

And I started feeling very humiliated, going, what is going on? Am I really this bad an actress? And I got very disheartened. And I couldn't, for the life of me, figure it out. And I, you know, you know, barreled through. But it was extraordinarily painful for me, because I, there were days on the set where I felt humiliated.

GROSS: Did you ever figure it out, like why were you suddenly...

SOHN: Absolutely, I figured it out. You know, I had done a tremendous amount of work, you know, personal work, you know, on my own, you know, because of, you know, the type of, you know, trauma, abuse and whatnot that I had grown up with. And I realized that what was happening was, you know, I was, you know, working in neighborhoods that were very reminiscent of the neighborhoods that I grew up in. I was, you know, seeing, you know, people that reminded me of the people I grew up with, essentially, you know, on some level, you know, you know, experiencing a re-trauamatization. And my brain was just short-circuiting all over the place.

GROSS: So where there particular scenes that you shot on "The Wire" that you realize now were bringing up traumatic events from the past to you and making it hard for you to do your work?

SOHN: It wasn't the scenes so much as it was the location. You know, shooting in the low-rises...

GROSS: These are low-rise projects where, in "The Wire," people are selling drugs. Yeah.

SOHN: The low - right, the low-rise projects. Right. Because the - yeah. I grew up in a sort of a mixed-income type housing where people were - there were some people who were on Section 8 and some people who were - they were the working poor. And then there were folks who were, you know, much more impoverished. But the setting was very similar to the low-rises.

The other thing I was working out that first season was my relationship to law enforcement and police. It was really difficult that first season to play a cop (unintelligible).

GROSS: Well, what did you think of cops when you were growing up? What were you relationship to cops?

SOHN: My relationship to cops, you know, wasn't, you know, a very good one. My perception of cops was that they, you know, came into your neighborhood, they roughed up people that you loved for no reason and took them away. I mean, as a young child, you sort of saw that.

But I think for me, on a deeper level, there were times when I called the police to come to my home because my mother was being abused. And to call the police is a really - you know, it's a really big deal to call the police, because you don't snitch. You don't, you know, that's sort of a culture that you grew up in. You certainly don't want to call the police on your father.

But if I thought my mother's life was in danger, I would pick up the phone and I would call the cops. And at that point, then it's like, oh, I'm calling them, and they essentially didn't do anything about the situation. They would come and, you know, the moment would be, you know, quelled. But, you know, eventually, I did want them to take my father away, because this was, you know, really painful to live with.

And then one time, the last time I called the cops, they came to the house, and it was a pretty serious altercation that day. And I thought surely something's going to happen here. They're going to, you know, take my father away. And I saw the cops look at each other. I saw one cop look at the other one and roll his eyes and smirk and kind of laugh. And that angered me so deeply. You know, I believe that, like, that sealed, you know, the inner sort of dislike and, you know, I would even say hatred, at that point, of the cops. And so I had to overcome all of that to play this cop.

GROSS: Kima really loved the work. I mean, she got shot and nearly died in the course of "The Wire," but she went back to the job afterwards, insisted that she didn't want to just stay put in desk work. She was willing to put her life on the line. She was, you know, on the whole, pretty fearless, responsible, but, you know, not afraid to take risks. How did you physically handle yourself when you were growing up? You're not a large woman. How tall are you?

SOHN: I'm 5'5".

GROSS: OK. Like you're not short, but you're not tall, either. And you're certainly not imposing. Like, no one's going to look at you and feel like, wow, I'm scared, you know.

SOHN: No, especially not running around the neighborhood with two ponytails.



SOHN: You know, and all my friends got Afro puffs, you know.


SOHN: You know, I'm already sticking out like a sore thumb. So you're asking me, sort of, how did I, sort of, make my way through my childhood? I think I was born with a warrior spirit, if you will. And I believe that that can, you know, fit into, you know, a small, unimposing being, as well as a, you know, an Amazonian type. And I think I projected that, you know, as a young, as a child, but also a lot of bluffing.

You know, I knew that - you know, my sister and I grew up in the same neighborhood. My sister's very light-skinned, and I knew that - and we both had these long ponytails. And there's this whole kind of thing, you know, when you grow up, you know, in the hood, especially back then in the '70s, where you know that being different, being quote-unquote, you know, "light-skinned" is going to make you a target. I saw that, you know, I just needed to appear tough.

Yeah, I got to tell you, there's a moment when my mom sent me out of the house one day with a broomstick. And, you know, a boy had been teasing me and, you know, my mom's Korean, and so I was getting a lot of Chinese this, Chinese that, ying, yang, yang, yong. You know how kids can be, you know?

And I came home crying, and my mom was, like, you know, I'm, you know, I'm sick of this. She gave me a broom handle, and she put it in my hands and she marched me to the, you know, the door and she pushed me out the door and she told me to go beat his, you know, X, Y, Z. And I went whoa. You know, if your mom's sending you outside to kick some butt and you got permission to do it, then, you know, you got to go do it. You can't turn around and run back.

And the boy was sitting at the top of the sliding board, and I marched up the sliding board, and he just did not think I was going to, you know, go through with it. I cracked him upside the head with the broom handle. He went reeling down the slide. And, you know, for the rest of the - I'd say I got a good six months out of that, you know.


SOHN: No one messed with me for about six months. The girls were all on my side. I mean, you know, and it's a funny little story, but it's also pretty sad.

GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn. She played police Detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire" and plays Detective Samantha Baker on "Body of Proof." Her community program is called Rewired for Change.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking with Sonja Sohn about how her life story relates to her work. On the HBO series "The Wire," she played police Detective Kima Greggs. That inspired her to start a community program in East Baltimore called Rewired for Change, which helps young people try to turn their lives around. Sohn now co-stars in the ABC series "Body of Proof."

I know you've spoken in the past about how one of the problems you eventually got into was drugs, and that's I'm sure another way that you can relate both to characters in "The Wire" and also to the young people you're trying to help now in East Baltimore. What was your story about how you started using and what it was you used?

SOHN: Well, I first smoked pot when I was 11 years old. And, you know, initially it's just, you know, a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds experimenting with pot. You know, a lot of us had older brothers who were drug dealers, and so, you know, we found the weed and we...

GROSS: You had an older brother who was a drug dealer?

SOHN: Yeah. He was five years older than me. And he was selling weed at the time. And, you know, most of my friends had older brothers who hung out with each other, and they were all selling - at least selling weed and participating in other criminal behavior, you know, like theft and whatnot. And so, that's how, you know, we became introduced to it.

But, you know, initially, you're not - you don't think you're smoking pot to, you know, to get away from, you know, stress. You know, you think you're just having fun. But by the time I was 13, I was smoking every day. And I realize now that that coincided with a time in my life when I had just given up on things being any different at home.

I had spent a lot of childhood trying to fix my family and trying to find a way to make this work so that I could be home and I be happy - including, you know, three or four, you know, probably four or five years trying to convince my mother to leave my father and, you know, prior to that I was making practically straight A's in school. I was on this, you know, track to, you know, go to college and, you know, I thought I would become an attorney and a lawyer. You know, there was the whole thing that Sonja's going to go to college. She's going to be a lawyer. But, you know, around about 12, sometime between 11 and 13, I, all I wanted was to be happy. I wanted some peace.

GROSS: So did it just stay marijuana, or did you move on to other drugs?

SOHN: Through like 13, 14, we were doing - we were smoking weed, speed, acid. And then later on in high school, probably my senior year in high school is when I was introduced to coke. And essentially, I would say coke is, you know, what - you know, once I started doing coke, that's when things started to get hairy.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that your older brother and the older brothers of a lot of your friends sold drugs. Your brother I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, was murdered?

SOHN: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you mind talking about what happened?

SOHN: This was back in 1988. My brother had actually, you know, hit, you know, a bottom, you know. He had had quite a reputation growing up in our town. And - but, you know, in his, you know, mid-20s things started to go sour for him, and you know, which eventually happens to, you know, anyone in that lifestyle. And he decided to move down to North Carolina, where my father had - my father and my mother eventually divorced after I was in high school.

My brother moved down to North Carolina to essentially change his way of life. My father had found God and joined a church down there and my brother was starting to, you know, investigate, you know, more spiritual side of himself. And, you know, we were hopeful. But, you know, he had some moments where he backslid here and there, but, you know, we had never seen him this broken, but you know, we had also never heard him talking so deeply about change.

At any rate, he was living with my uncle and my uncle lived next door to a young woman whose boyfriend was abusive to her physically. And from time to time, my brother would see her on the street and would talk to her. And the boyfriend knew this and essentially told my brother to stay away from his girlfriend. And my brother wasn't trying to date her or anything, but he was consoling her and was, you know, essentially giving her some advice and whatnot.

But, you know, essentially a jealous boyfriend, you know, shot my brother and killed him.

GROSS: How did it affect your life when your brother was murdered?

SOHN: You know, to be honest with you, I had – you know, my brother said something to me when he was in his early 20s. He said that he had this deep feeling that he was not going to live to be 30. And I had a tendency to kind of see my siblings as, you know, being a bit, you know, self-pitying at the time. And this was, you know, me in the middle of my own stuff, like I can be a judge of anybody's character. But I just, you know, thought - my brother was extraordinarily talented.

He was a gifted athlete. He was an amazing artist and he could sing. But he felt very deeply somewhere inside himself that he wasn't going to live to 30 and he died when he was 29. My mother was just devastated. My brother was born in Korea and my mother was just beside herself because she kept saying, he didn't make it, he didn't make it. And my sister and I were going, no, he didn't make it. I mean, what is she saying?

And she finally just said, you know, we came from Korea together and he didn't make it. And my mother – my mother took him from Korea because, you know, a mixed kid in Korea, you know, my brother was born in 1959 and, you know, even today, you know, a mixed kid in Korea goes nowhere.

GROSS: Your father fought in the Korean War, right?

SOHN: I believe it was just after the Korean War that my father went over there.

GROSS: So he was stationed there, in the military, the U.S. military.

SOHN: He was stationed there, right.

GROSS: Okay, yeah.

SOHN: Uh-huh. And so, you know, what my mother didn't understand was that in this country my brother's considered, you know, a man of color. He's black, and he was going to have to face, you know, all the injustices that come with that, you know, the racism, and he was, you know, basically put in a comparable situation there to what he would have been in had he stayed in Korea.

GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn, best known for her role on "The Wire," as detective Kima Greggs. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Sonja Sohn. We're talking about how her life story relates to her work. On the HBO series "The Wire," she played a cop. After that, she started a community program in East Baltimore called Rewired for Change and she now co-stars in ABC's "Body of Proof." You had mentioned earlier that before you were cast in "The Wire," you did slam poetry and you co-wrote and starred in the movie "Slam."

And that's how you were kind of discovered as an actor, that people saw you performing your poetry and thought you should be acting because you perform it so well. Could I ask you to do something from that period for us to give us a sense of...

SOHN: Oh, my goodness.

GROSS: ...what you were writing and what you were thinking at that earlier phase in your life when you were first starting to perform and to articulate your thoughts?


SOHN: Sure, Terry. I can't say that I will remember an entire poem, but I can give you a little tidbit.

GROSS: A little tidbit is fine.

SOHN: I had actually left the poetry scene to study acting, and after five years my coach said to me that she thought I was ready and that she was convinced that if someone saw me, that they would give me an opportunity. And she said, you've just got to get on stage any way that you know how and you know how to get on stage. And so she sent me back to the poetry scene and I was just appalled.

But, you know, I, you know, looked up to her and so I decided to go back. And when I went back, I basically had to bring out the old work. And this is a poem that I read on stage nine months after she sent me back. And Mark Levin was in the audience. He was there to see the young man that he had chosen to be lead of the film, "Slam." And when he heard this poem, he realized that it resonated the theme of the film.

And they were looking for a female lead for the movie and that's, you know, that's how this poem is actually sort of responsible for my career. And it's called "Run Free." I feel like my back is against the brick wall and I got a Mack truck two inches from my face. Every cell in my body is screaming, run, but I can't. My mind drifts. I think about the last time I ran, left my baby with two coke-heads on acid. Okay, that's the beginning.

GROSS: Okay, okay.

SOHN: Now, you know, I jump all over the place. But that's the beginning of that.

GROSS: Sounds good. Had you actually left your baby with two coke-heads on acid?

SOHN: One was my sister and the other my best friend. That's the next line. Yeah, and it's something about what was I thinking, kind of like my brain was busted, frying on the hot concrete of my life run amuck, dripping down the dead body of my soul, collecting into pools of blood at my feet. I'm kicking and stomping and running and jumping, wreaking all kinds of havoc, creating a bloody mess. And I am going nowhere. Somewhere in my mind, I am moving.

Somewhere in reality, I am running. Somewhere inside myself, I am oh so still, quiet, dead. My soul is not rising. My heart is not lifting. My life is not living, but I am running, moving through the universe, a whirling dervish with no end, no purpose, no means, no life left to live and yet still I want to go to that place where I can run. Run free, my mind tells me.

But those two words cannot occupy the same space in reality. Run free. My back is against the brick wall. I got a Mack truck two inches from my face. Well, run free, baby, right now. Just turn around and go. Clip all the wires, hookups and hang-ups and then you're home free. You can give birth to an excuse so easily you'll believe it's always been there, part of the natural order, made to order by your forever clever mind.

Constantly making you believe in things you no longer need to believe in, and I believe. I believe like a holy-roller singing, sweating, preaching, go tell it on the mountain, diving at 10,000 feet of baptismal water without a life preserver. I believe like my bullet-ridden brother out there somewhere dying, bleeding, gurgling blood through his last breath, spitting out a red ripe prayer so new, so sweet, so baby fresh he thinks he can save his life.

Brutal honesty won't knock down the doors of heaven, but it will damn sure crash the gates of hell, so I believe any and everything that sprouts from my colossally imperfect mind because in this moment I have a Mack truck two inches from my face and a brick wall kissing my ass. God does not exist in desperation and hope is lying dead somewhere in the sewer down the street around the corner underneath the feet of someone in the alley - da, da, da, da, da.


SOHN: Whew. It's been a long time. It's been a long time, Terry.

GROSS: That sounds good though. Wow. So that poem launched your career because that's how you were discovered, basically, as a performer and as an actress. So that's how you got your role in "Slam," which you ended up writing part of as well. And did that lead to your role on "The Wire"?

SOHN: No. "The Wire" came a couple years later. That just got me in the business. You know, it got me to Sundance. The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. I got an agent, a manager, and that started, you know, that's how I got into the business. It took two years, maybe three, before "The Wire" came along.

GROSS: So what lead you, along with other cast members from "The Wire," to create a program, a community program for at-risk young people and, you know, a program to bring the community together? Why did you want to do this?

SOHN: Well, it all started back in 2008, during the 2008 election cycle when we were asked to do some voter empowerment work with Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, to educate, you know, folks on their voting rights and whatnot. And, you know, during that time that we discovered that we had quite a bit of influence in these underserved communities.

GROSS: So this made you realize that you has some power, you had some...

SOHN: Exactly.

GROSS: ..some influence.

SOHN: At that point we just thought, you know, we couldn't, you know, just kind of use this kind of, you know, social capital to promote our careers. It just seemed so small. And so when I came up with this idea that we start this nonprofit, the fellows all liked the idea and they said, listen, we don't have the time to run it, but if you can run it, we got your back. We'll always be there.

And they became the founding members of the organization. Wendell Pierce and Michael K. Williams are on our board. David Simons is an honorary chair of the board. So everyone got behind it.

GROSS: Sonja Sohn, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SOHN: Thank you, Terry. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Sonja Sohn plays Detective Kima Greggs on "The Wire." She now plays Detective Samantha Baker on ABC's "Body of Proof." She co-founded Rewired for Change, a community program based in East Baltimore whose goal is to help young people at risk try to turn their lives around. You'll find a link to Rewired for Change and links to our interviews with other cast members of "The Wire" on our website, I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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