Earlier this year I wrote about four legends of American Christianity who passed away between January 8th and June 8th – pastors Jack Hayford, Charles Stanley, Tim Keller – and the religious broadcaster, Rev. Pat Robertson, who shared the gospel with millions each weekday.

But on December 7th of this year, we lost perhaps the last major religious leader to die in 2023: television producer Norman Lear.

Why include him among this list of religious personalities?

That’s because Lear was indeed a religious figure in America. He did not espouse the faith of Jesus or Moses, but instead, he promoted and preached a secular religion, the religion that God was not needed in our daily discourse, that one should look for fulfillment through the culture. He even founded a “ministry” of sorts called People for the American Way. PFAW, as it was known, seemed to be at odds with whichever ministry I was associated during my career.

Lear died at 101 and was dedicated to the end. He was lauded as a television pioneer who broke down barriers. However, the primary barriers he removed were those of propriety, the portrayal of happy families, and a disdain for sin. We become desensitized to what we laugh at, and when we can laugh at sin, we are far more willing and likely to accept it.

Lear first burst on the scene in 1969 with his landmark TV program known as All in the Family, which featured subjects and language never before discussed in American homes. Profanity, abortion, promiscuity, adultery, rape, racism, divorce and death of a spouse – all were topics in the Bunker household. Dr. Al Mohler explains on his podcast about Lear that television sitcoms up until then were bland in comparison.

Just imagine Ward and June Cleaver contemplating divorce, or Sheriff Andy Taylor cursing a blue streak, or Elly May Clampett evading a rapist in in the Beverly Hills mansion, all things encountered by the Bunker household. The pre-Bunker era was a more innocent age, and were we not the better for it?

Lear created his lead character, Archie Bunker, as a patriotic, misogynist, racist bigot, who worked hard and wanted to relax with a beer and his television when he got home. In Archie, Lear was telling America that patriotism is a bad thing, because patriots also are racists who want to keep women under their thumb.

Lear taught Americans, through the Bunkers (plus spinoffs Maude and The Jeffersons), that laughing at sin, and at dysfunction, was good, in fact, helpful. Perhaps only the spinoff Good Times portrayed an American family worth emulating: They were black, they were poor and they lived in the projects of Chicago; and they loved each other, they worked very hard and they loved Jesus.

That show, to use its key word, was “dyn-O-mite.”

Dr. Mohler contends that Lear was surprised when American audiences actually liked his trail breaking character Archie Bunker.

But it was actor and producer Rob Reiner, who was made a star as the liberal son-in-law of Archie Bunker, Mike Stivic, who really encapsulated Lear’s secular genius, saying that the producer deftly utilized a pre-cable television America to preach his message.

Reiner says that his program often enjoyed as many as 45 million Americans viewing together on a Saturday night. In that way, it was like having a town hall, getting everyone together at the same time to hear that week’s sermon (my word) from Archie, well, from Lear.

Actor Tom Hanks laments that his first starring role, Bosom Buddies, routinely came in last (third) in the weekly ratings for Thursday nights at 8:00 p.m., but still was seen by 13 million American households, numbers which would be “huge” in today’s cable environment. Nothing today rivals that weekly gathering of America; not the most popular TV show, not the evening news, not even the Super Bowl, which gets larger numbers but is only an annual event.

Imagine gathering 45 million or more American households on a Saturday night who were eager for rest and recreation, and to laugh, and, thus, ripe for indoctrination. That will never happen again — for good or for bad — due to the expansive nature of cable television and competition from internet streaming services.

My Aunt “Birdie” (not her real name) was one of the most steadfast Christian women I have ever known, and she had the discernment to abstain from anything she knew would hurt her Spiritual walk. She was an example to all and left a Spiritual legacy for many to observe in our extended family and small town.

When Lear first raised his head with Archie Bunker, Birdie became aware of the profanity, and would not allow the program in her home. I was very young and felt that she was too strict. Yet my admiration of her and her sense of morality has skyrocketed since.

My mother, her youngest sister, was equally dedicated to God but not as discriminating of the times and yielded to the pressure of having two sons at home, both of whom loved television. I would have been difficult  for her to deal with — with my dad away on a business during weekdays and nights — if she had withheld my access to the popular programs. Mom let us watch pretty much whatever we wanted. As a teen Charlie’s Angels — which would be tame by today’s standards was a mainstay of mine, as were Norman Lear’s varied offerings. His last show that I recall, One Day at a Time, featured Ann Romano, a divorced mother of two, who was just trying to make ends meet. The program pushed America’s acceptance of acceptable behavior and, especially, language with her familiar exclamation, “Oh . . . my . . . God!” My mom would cringe every time she heard it. Now we hear that blasphemous phrase on most any show, even the news or during sporting events, but Ann Romano was the first.

I well recall watching the episode of All in the Family that dealt with homosexuality (although, it could have been any other adult topic) when I was about ten. Being totally lost in the plot, I asked “What are they talking about?” My mom struggled for an answer and settled on an explanation, which was all I needed to know at that age.

Make no mistake: Norman Lear established his religion of secularism and America is definitely not the better for it. In the end, my Aunt Birdie was right.


Image from Shutterstock.