A Profile of Norman Lear

A Profile of Norman Lear

By Martin E. Marty
From The Christian Century, January 21, 1987

Norman Lear is an atheist And he doesn’t believe in any religious values in our life [M. G “Pat” Robertson].

A rabbi who is rather close to Norman Lear said he may indeed have an anti-Christian bias….. One bouquet of onions for Mr. Norman Lear as he continues his anti-Christian work [Jerry Falwell].

Norman Lear…is an atheistic Jew. There’s nothing in the world any greater than to be a Jew, and nothing in the world any worse than being an atheistic Jew [Jimmy Swaggart].

THESE LEADERS of the religious New Right would revise Norman Lear’s Who’s Who entry. They would have him described as “writer, producer, director of TV and films, atheist.” To militant fundamentalists he is Mr. Secular Humanist, the arch-subverter of civic virtue and family values. As they see it, he incarnates the devil’s ways in godly America.

The first thing wrong with all these charges is that they are false. The second is that the attackers have never produced a shred of evidence to support their accusations. They dislike Lear because he initiated People for the American Way, an organization that counters many of their claims. As for Lear’s prize-winning television programs, there is, of course, room for disagreements and criticism. Lear, I would suppose, doesn’t like all of them himself. It so happens, though, that millions of Christians have a positive attitude toward many of those programs. They believe, for instance, that shows like his “All in the Family” have helped ease ethnic tensions. I’ve read many of his humorous scripts which refer to religion. They are well within the bounds that seriously religious people themselves use to keep their pretensions in perspective.

The present point, however, has to do with the question of evidence for the television evangelists’ descriptions of Mr. Lear as atheistic and anti-Christian. They are simply guilty of a sin described long ago in Exodus 20: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Not ever to call the preachers on their claim might suggest assent to it. I want to throw light on the subject by providing one friend’s view of Lear’s long “pilgrim’s progress.”

To begin not at the beginning but at the most recent stage: this autumn Lear and I were comparing our African summers. Mine was in Christian South Africa, among agents and victims of apartheid. Lear’s Africa was remote from politics or television. Armed with a Minolta and guided by a book or two that might belong in the mysticism-spirituality-metaphysics section of the bookstores, he enjoyed glimpses of transcendence. He related how he had sighted buffalo, mountain gorillas, and other wondrous beasts under Rwanda moons or silhouetted by golden Kenyan sunsets. He even described a kind of mystical experience that took place in the Seychelles Islands. Naturally, all that was what he wanted to talk about.

The very next morning that we conversed I had read in the newspapers Pat Robertson’s latest “atheism” charge. “It’s ironic,” I heard Lear say, “to read something like that in these years. I guess I’ve always believed somehow in a Supreme Being…” At his mid-sentence I thought how typically American that apparent banality sounded. But it supported my contention that the “atheist” charge had never been appropriate in the first place. He finished the sentence: “…but never so much as in these seasons, or in Africa itself, have I been aware of the ‘forever’ and ‘the eternal’ and ‘the deep things.’”

The quotation may not be exact, since I was still distracted by my own reflections on Lear’s accusers. It was difficult to get him even to comment on the premeditated attacks from the evangelistic politicians. Finally he shrugged, “What can you do?” I responded that some day someone should somehow correct the record. The public in any case would welcome and profit from an accounting of Lear’s spiritual journey, just as it would of the pilgrimage of any number of other prominent, unconventionally religious personalities. He scowled. Might that not mean parading piety publicly?

Despite that demur, it is time to set the record straight, which I intend to do after a one-paragraph aside.

The aside: I accept the personal assignment but not its civil context. That is, with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and most of the nation’s other founders, I believe that whether one is theist or atheist is irrelevant to civil purpose. Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Madison: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” In other words, some of my—and America’s—best friends are secular humanists. But I’ll abruptly end this aside in my eagerness to measure an intrinsically interesting pilgrimage.

LEAR HAS a company of friends that includes writers and politicians, priests and musicians, rabbis, longtime cronies, public philosophers and new-coming theologians. They each have experienced their own pilgrimages, and, I have always found in my visits with this group, they all have much to offer. The “natural” Lear is usually to be found in larger communal contexts with these friends, as well as with family members. His days are interrupted by any number of phone conversations with family, and the Lear tribe, generations deep and cousins wide, is part of his commitment to the very family values his enemies say he would undercut.

Some of those relatives and old friends make the point that they have always known him to be sensitive to “spiritual things.” It would have been difficult—it still may be, of course—to identify in Lear those shibboleths that would satisfy the critics who look for their own kinds of formal theism. A pilgrimage entails many steps, many means. At the Lear houses, well-studied books like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled join coffee-table books on the history of Buddhism or Jewish civilization. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, it is true, might not be content with such a list, but the test here is not Catholic fidelity; it is Lear’s “fitness” to be in on the debates about values and public virtue.

Even more than books, conversation plays its part along such a way as Lear’s. I have often felt a sense of cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaketh unto heart”) when meeting with his group. Lear himself speaks of “kvelling,” the Yiddish term for the welling-up of the heart. Thus pilgrims on many trails have served as resources for each other.

Let me invade privacy to provide more glimpses along this pilgrim’s way: For several autumns, at the time of the leaves’ turning in Vermont, a half-dozen couples have accepted Lear’s hospitality at “The Gulley.” This farm, once owned by Robert Frost, has trails and roads not often taken during the rest of the year. I recall a time when, in that unspoiled natural setting that Lear and his guests love, three of us took an afternoon walk. The beauty was overpowering; the silence almost induced suspense.

Suddenly our host broke the silence. He stopped to spread his arms—we kid him about that gesture’s being his most spontaneous and consistent act of worship—as if to encompass the hills and sky. “Why do I deserve all this?” Why, Lear wondered, did he get to own this piece of Creation? He, the Jewish kid from New Haven who grew up not knowing where he fit in? He who made his living writing comedy? Why all this good in the midst of a world where ugliness and poverty, unfairness and misery abound? Why he, and we, and not others, to share the gold of the leaves and to look forward at evening to food and wine and conversation?

Just as suddenly—this being autumn and he being Norman Lear, and because he is also a comedy writer and thus someone who knows about the cramping limits of existence and the paradoxes of its joys—he went on: “Why also the bad things?” He mused about why my wife and I had both lost a spouse to cancer. “We all have known separations and alienations and failures. Why us?” he continued. My wife sensibly suggested that such questions evoke answers which always have to be edged in mystery. She allowed that there was, however, at least an old name for the zone in which we found ourselves at the moment: “Providence.”

“Providence, then, that’s it!” Lear can be almost boyish when he seizes a theme that is too big for us, for anyone. Providence—or fate—turned out to be the dinner topic later. As candles burned low in the faces of 14 amateur theodicians, we pondered the big questions. Our vocabularies were as puny as they had been for some of us when we tried to avoid those questions back in seminary. Some best sellers deal with such topics as Why Bad Things Happen to Good People—and, we volunteered to add, to Bad People too. Where does a “good God” fit into the reckoning? Horrors. Don’t let me misconvey the mood: on such occasions there are always jokes and eruptions of laughter along with whispered thanks for undeserved grace.

ANOTHER YEAR on such a weekend foray we visited some collegians on a nearby campus. At parting time I asked their Harvard-trained moral philosopher what he was working on. “A book on deontological ethics.” What’s that, Lear wanted to know. The writer and producer of “All in the Family” and “Maude” had traversed six decades without ever having needed the term. Well, translated the professor, it involves moral obligation born of a sense of duty. Such ethics grow out of one’s view of the meaning of life. “That’s it!” Lear exclaimed. Tonight “meaning of life” and “duty” and “moral obligation” had to be the topics. So they were, with the faculty couple at the head of the table and in the crossfire. The topic almost worked that year. The food was perfect.

As I reread all this, it seems pretentious and, out of context, almost sophomoric to take on such subjects. One shouldn’t talk about “the meaning of life,” at least not after one’s college dormitory years are behind. You have to know that the agenda at “The Gulley” is set with a twinkle in the eye—that the conversation can easily produce arguments and then chuckles on the narrow ridges between reverence and irreverence, self-importance and self-deprecation. I come to wonder: if this is what “secular humanism” is about, why does churchly talk so often stick with formulae, slogans or chitchat?

Another step along the pilgrimage began with a whisper from Lear at a charity fund-raiser. “Martin, why do you clergy always get on us all, telling us we have to love everybody? I can love family and friends and people close up. But not far away. How can I really love Bangladesh?” I thought of Lear as having more sense of justice and generosity toward the far-away than do most of the regular churchgoers I know. But I also sensed that a mealtime topic was taking shape. Two days later we got busy with what we could remember about “love” out of texts by Plato and Second Isaiah, Jesus and Mortimer Adler.

At a dinner not long after, Lear tried another provocation. Each diner should try to capture in a word or two the bearing of God toward himself or herself—or vice versa, the bearing each of us would like to experience My response, was, Lutheranly, “trust,” I also heard “love” and “care.” Eventually the fourth dinner partner said, “Transcendent justice!” We may not have been writing the Summa, but the conversation was hardly “secular humanist,” either.

The pilgrimage has since proceeded, as metaphorical pilgrimages do. On still another occasion—at a noisy restaurant —Lear simply began, “Martin, tell me about your God.” All right. I would oblige if Lear would first answer a similar question. He answered, beginning, “I know in advance that you’re going to tell me I’m only halfway there.” Halfway is not a bad point on a pilgrimage, wherever it is to lead. For half an hour Lear talked about God the way America’s founders would have. God was the person or power or force or source or principle or sense or idea—who doesn’t stumble here? – who/which, when Lear followed his conscience and had a creative flow going and was in harmony with nature, was the Endorser. Or who/which, when Lear was in moral compromise or in a dull phase, was the Disapprover. He chuckled when I, reflexively still looking for the concept of grace, said, “You’re only halfway there.” Wherever “there” is. I had my own half-hour then to talk of “Martin’s” God and maybe even to “lay out the plan of salvation,” as the evangelists would put it. “Waiter, the check, please.”

A PAUSE: Where are we pilgrims at this juncture? Have we crossed some decisive line into a world of neat zones marked Atheism/Theism, Faith/Unfaith, We/They, In/Out, Moralist/Corrupter? The Lutheran in me will not allow anything like that. Doubt and unfaith are the very fuel on which faith feeds. We are simul—at the same time—”righteous and sinners,” says the orthodoxy I cherish in my tradition. The cocksureness, labels, stigmata and merit badges that come with heresy-hunting seem out of place. In any case, wherever on that pilgrimage we are by now, we definitely have not found ourselves in zones that correspond to the religious NewRight’s images of the corrupting TV writer and producer.

Lear was brought up, as were most Jews of his acquaintance, in a “nonobservant” household. Like many of the “born again,” he had some negative childhood and adolescent experiences with local religious leaders, and has spent years overcoming those impressions. He is not a candidate for being plucked off into Orthodox Judaism or “Jews for Jesus.” Yet respect for much of Orthodoxy is there, and even the subject of Jesus comes up at decisive turns. Some seasons ago I handed Lear an article by Robert Coles in which the Harvard psychiatrist explained that he could discuss most any human motivation without having its authenticity questioned. But when he once wrote about a civil rights worker who risked his life “out of love for Jesus,” people around him considered the worker and maybe Coles himself to be a phony.

After Lear read the Coles article we discussed it. From the place where he had started, there would have been room to smell phoniness too. Lear had come from a very different cohort than do the evangelists, or I, in our pluralist society. The fundamentalist beams his signals toward and gets responses from citizens who live far from where Lear and so many Jews begin. He had to allow that, in his experience and reading of history, people had also done bad things in the name of Jesus. “In all my life,” I remember him saying, “no one who ever did good to me or around me did it saying it was ‘out of love for Jesus.’ And whenever anyone did say they were doing something ‘out of love for Jesus’ to me or those around me, it was always to do bad to us.” I wondered whether continuing slanders from the television evangelists fit that consistent pattern. Another wonderment: if these preachers now find that their accusations were misplaced, will they, “out of love for Jesus,” say they are sorry?

Coles had cearly jostled Lear into revisionist thinking. Ever since, Lear has entertained the idea of a television sitcom whose lead character would be taken seriously doing good things “out of love for Jesus.” She would be there neither as a sign that Lear wanted to become acceptable to a once-alienated audience segment, nor as a candidate for derision. She would simply be a positive character in the middle of our funny world. Lear has in mind a person who can serve as a model for that character; his sitcoms ordinarily take off from real-life people. He seems eager to give the story line a try.

On the matter of faith and being funny: Some of Lear’s critics still have trouble connecting a comic sensibility with a spiritual quest. Let them take lessons from Kierkegaard or some saints and sages while I do my own musing. Is it possible that attention of the sort Lear tells us he’s been giving to “the vertical dimension” these years might lead him toward staid and grimmer modes of expression? Will he begin to desert the world of old friends like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner? Not a chance. He knows Sam Goldwyn’s advice: if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Lear’s best shot is his art. “All in the Family” and its kin are his kind. Not a few cultural historians expect that decades from now such sitcom scripts and tapes will be studied for timely perspective on American foibles. In this respect they might be compared, for their half-century, at least to “Fibber McGee and Molly,” and at best to Mark Twain in other periods.

Others who have shared the walks, the conferences or the table can testify to the frequency with which the concept of “Being Connected” is a code word to match “The Vertical Dimension” of Lear’s pilgrimage. At another Vermont fireside one of the participants averred, with some underestimating of the company, that she knew only Lear, one other stated conversationalist and me as having had a sense of Connection. (A Sense of the Presence, it was classically called, but this is a Vermont fireside setting that must develop its own codes.) The conversationalists around the room subsequently heard three futile exercises in what used to be called asserting “proofs for the existence of God.” They were immediately and creatively undercut by a philosopher in our midst. We probably had no consensus or conversions, but once again we were far from what are described as “secular humanist” salons.

THIS AUTUMN Lear pressed us all harder than ever before. He continued to prefer code words for “God,” but he was more insistent than ever in creating a climate wherein each of us was to “indulge” his or her theism, his or her sense of Being Connected. On a walk he pressed two of us for definitions of worship. I had not been quizzed so pointedly since doctoral examinations time.

“I’m finding myself at the edges of religious language,” a guest on another occasion remarked to me. He was in the process of appropriating something of his Jewish heritage, he said. We were sharing passage on The Galaxy, a tall ship under Israel’s flag that Lear had arranged for in the waters near the Statue of Liberty last Fourth of July. The “edges of religious language” man and I spent one hour among many on deck with others in the “heart speaking unto heart” spirit. We talked about family, which was there abundantly, and God, who could not have been far away, and probably apple pie and very much about love of country—all themes that the fundamentalists won’t allow Lear. In dealing with that fourth topic, Lear is also consistent, impassioned. I should leave discussion about love of country as an agenda item for another time and place. Yet it would be eccentric not to mention that in any brag session, Lear’s Air Force Medal with four oak leaf clusters (for combat over Germany) would be more likely to come up than a shelf full of Emmys and Peabodys. As for me, I can’t get the good shipboard apple pie off my mind.

In talk about values, Lear regularly moves far beyond television-producing or support of organizations like People for the American Way; he voices a larger vision for the nation. Did other acquaintances and I help him formulate this one, or were we independently converging on a direction for some of these energies? “What’s the good society?” I remember Lear asking “Can a society live by altruism?” No, I responded, wearing my best Niebuhrian scowl. A person can, a small unit of people may, even a congregation might. “What’s the good society, then?” he wondered. I have enough of James Madison and Reinhold Niebuhr in me to use the words “interest” and “self.” I tried this. If many people in a society could move from shortsighted self-interest to long-visioning self-interest, we might glimpse some of “the good.”

That suggestion matched a track Lear was already on. He never tires of finding evidences of such a revisioning or the need for it, of people who seek it and engage in causes promoting it. Not long ago he pressed some younger people to tell him about their and their friends’ vision of what is to come. Talk about values! They did, he did. Only in Socrates’ sense did Lear conform to the fundamentalist picture of the interrogator who corrupts the young.

I have done Lear and readers a disservice if I have suggested that the path of pilgrimage is straight, that progress is easily measured. It would be wrong to push him into a Procrustean cot of simple respectability, beyond the range of heresy-hunters or the legitimate criticisms of fellow citizens, including even the fundamentalists. Some friends and all foes find fault, for instance, with People for the American Way, which is not—despite the media clichés about it—a simple extension of Lear. He and it still draw fire whenever PFAW only reflects the kind of defensiveness Lear originally felt as a Jew under attack. As a communicator who has great faith in free speech, and as a liberal American, he acted in the face of threats to free expression. He did follow the Madisonian advice appropriately: if you don’t like the way a religious “sect” degenerates into a political faction, you counter-organize and respond.

Those who find fault will, however, hear from People For or Lear—or me, for what that’s worth—when they keep acting as if the born-again have or should have a monopoly on civic virtue and a privileged place in promoting what the all-purpose word “values” is coming to mean. The impulse to reply is always then in order. As the TV commercials say, “That’s the American Way.”

The evangelists will most certainly hear from me, after they receive this account of a pilgrimage—as the ones named above soon will—if they keep on feeding the media charges that Lear is an atheist, with all that they want that epithet to connote. If they think that I think Lear is an orthodox theist, they have misread this. But if they henceforth portray him as an atheist who, in their terms, is beyond the bounds of civil discourse and moral inquiry, who does not respond to the stirrings we associate with Theos, I will know something about them. They may still have faith, but not good faith. They will then continue to bear false witness against their neighbor. That remains a sin as gross as any of which they accuse him.

I wonder whether, instead, Lear’s pilgrimage might produce the side-effect of helping some of his most public enemies henceforth become more empathic and open as they make their own ways. This wondering may be a dream—too idealistic, almost foolish. But I come, as does Norman Lear, from a tradition which proposes belief in repentance and new beginnings.

Dr. Marty, a Century senior editor, is professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.