Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
I have come to believe that atheism is a kind of cultural cancer, a nihilism: in essence, a cultural depression.
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue." - Air Traffic Controller Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in Airplane
Why would anyone become a Roman Catholic at a time like this? Fresh new reports of victimization (nearly all of it preceding 2002, for those who care about such details) are still in the headlines and many more embarrassing news stories are on their way. Church leaders are openly quarreling over the cause of the recent abuse crisis and even the future of the Catholic Church. There are even rumors of a schism by the American Catholic Church. Joining this group would be like being adopted into a family going through a custody battle. Why would anyone do that?
Well, look around. We increasingly live in a world where up is down, right is wrong, compassion is ridiculed, and forgiveness is nonexistent. "Truth" is defined by the websites you repeatedly check and the Twitter personalities you follow. On the right, you are regularly admired for how much you can humiliate the other side. On the left, you are admired for your status as a victim or your level of self-condemning "wokeness."
Social and cultural norms are collapsing all around us. What it means to be a good person is being warped by navel-gazing notions of "social justice" or "happiness"—two seemingly zero-sum endeavors for folks on the left. It is now worse to utter an offensive thought than to get someone fired from his job for uttering or, more likely, tweeting an offensive thought. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of a colorblind society is a laughably quaint notion in a culture that created and eagerly wants to believe Jussie Smollett.
What does all this have to do with Catholicism? It is what happens when a society once rooted in Christian values loses its way. As America has increasingly eradicated Christian references from the public sphere and as folks on the left openly ridicule Christianity, our culture and national identity have given way to the anodyne multiculturalism (Easter egg hunts are now "spring egg hunts" at my local library) and moral relativism that defines modern life.
But in my own experience, I found an even darker side of atheism. At times, my atheism led me to believe that life was pointless, that it would be a terrible thing to bring kids into this cruel world. My son reminds me continually how foolish that kind of thinking was. It is through that experience that I have come to believe that atheism is a kind of cultural cancer, a nihilism: in essence, a cultural depression. It is choosing to be an orphan in a cruel world. It was out of this realization that I found myself looking for answers in the Catholicism of my grandparents.
I wasn't merely rejecting the incoherence and short-sightedness of the secular world, though. I've always been drawn to the many beautiful aspects of Catholicism. For one, it's a better way to look at the world and has an answer to every difficult question. Viewing all those around you as God's children is a great remedy for racism, sexism, and many of the other "-isms" and "phobias" that the left obsesses over. Loving your neighbors and enemies makes the many rude motorists out there somewhat easier to tolerate.
The Catholic Church, more than any other institution, upholds the centrality of family in a culture determined to chop it up and redefine it. Indeed, the reason the Church struggles so mightily with how to handle the issue of homosexuality is a testament to this. The Church does not want to do anything to undermine the traditional nuclear family while loving everyone. It's complicated.
I'm also drawn by the discipline of daily practice and Catholicism's many beautiful traditions. Daily prayer, daily expressions of gratitude, weekly mass, seasonal spiritual renewal: These are the keys to a life in which you have your priorities straight. And in this time of spectacularly high rates of loneliness, when so many of us live across the country from our families, it offers connection to others. This cannot be understated as a social problem. The growing disconnection from family and community that modern humans experience is a cultural catastrophe. If we allow it to continue, rates of suicide, addiction, and other measures of cultural despair will only grow.
Finally, there is the notion of God. Like many, I struggle with this one somewhat. But for the first time in my life I've opened my heart and mind to a higher power. As I read the gospels and study the words of Jesus, I am at times blown away by the moral perfection of His statements. Maybe this is wishful thinking or maybe my heart is changing the way God wants it to. Either way, it is clear to me that Christians are not the "crazy" people in our society; rather, it's the people who think they know enough to navigate the world alone who are lost.
@dogma_vat is an editor and writer based in Washington, DC.