Norman Lear

What’s Wrong with The Moral Majority

VTR Date: February 5, 1982

Guest: Lear, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Lear
Title: “What’s Wrong with the Moral Majority”
VTR: 2/5/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. i doubt that anyone watching this program is unaware of the Moral Majority, of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and of the other religious, political and social fundamentalists who feel that a deep-seated malaise has gripped this nation, that liberal humanism has led to a breakdown of our family structure, to a diminished national morality, to a rise in crime, even to a growing inability to protect ourselves from our enemies abroad. Richard Viguerie, the extraordinary fundraiser of the new right, has twice been my guest here on The Open Mind to express that point of view. And, of course, it’s surfaced on other programs, too. Today I’d like to discuss it with an opponent. A media person who has created some of the brilliant, wildly popular television programs that have exercised the new right, provoking what I assume to have been paroxysms of rage, and because of their popularity, perhaps even of profound envy on the right. “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, these are the media marvels that have thoroughly and even purposefully roughed up traditional American ideas of what can and cannot be said and done in public, particularly on the air. Their creator, Norman Lear, a remarkably successful producer and broadcasting impresario, is my guest today on the Open Mind. Norman Lear has recently joined with Father Theodore Hesberg, the president of Notre Dame, with former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and with a distinguished array of other educators, theologians, popular figures in government and business, in founding and ten directing what they call “People for the American Way”. This nonprofit organization opposed the Moral Majority, thinks that more important than the new right’s concerns about the decline of traditional American morality is the maintenance intact of America’s traditional First Amendment right to believe, think, worship and speak freely.

Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Lear. And I guess the first question that I would ask you comes from the fact that you seem to share with the Moral Majority a sense of is-ease about a kind of destructive moral malaise abroad in our land, and you’ve said that, talking about People for the American Way, you’ve said, “One of our major priorities is a long-due respect an d affection for the mass of Americans”. You’ve also said that you’re not comfortable with many of the excesses that take place in the name of the First Amendment. And I wonder how you can make jibe those statements that, on the surface, may seem to contradict your opposition to the Moral majority.

Lear: I have to have to the question.

Heffner: Well, the question is: How do you make your concern for some of these – and you say you’re not comfortable with many of the excesses that take place in the name of the First Amendment – and you also say that you want to give priority to it, respect for the3 majority of Americans. Isn’t the Moral Majority respectful of that majority? Don’t they, too, feel that there have been excesses in terms of the First Amendment? Don’t you want to straighten that out?

Lear: I think they feel there have been excesses. First, I would like to say that the Moral majority is a tree that sometimes seems desperately to be covering the forest, or seeking to prevent us from looking at the forest. There is only one Reverend Falwell. There are many people on the cultist new right. “Religious” is a lovely word. Most American share religious, certainly spiritual. The people on the ultra-Fundamentalist far right behave much more in the nature of cultists, absolutists. They proceed with the certitude that they are right, that their reading of Scripture is the only reading of Scripture, and their application of that reading of Scripture is the only application of Scripture that makes for Christian, and then when they don’t use that word, they use the word “Godly Christians”, with the implication that other people who don’t agree are ungodly. Now, there are the heads of all those mainline churches –and assuming they are the shepherds, their followers – who disagree entirely with this cultist view, this narrow, narrow view of Scripture. And that’s why so m any theologians are on the board of People for the American Way.

Heffner: You say, “cults”. Are you really willing to say that the Moral Majority has no relationship to the concerns that are being expressed by Falwell and others?

Lear: Well, the Moral Majority is neither the moral point of view, nor a majority. I don’t know what their claim is in terms of membership at the moment. But I’d be very surprised if it was anywhere near as large as some of the claims that I’ve heard in the past: something like 40 to 60 million. There are, I keep reading, 40 to 60 million born-again people, people who have claimed to have had a born-again experience. And that I quite believe i find everywhere people are reaching, grappling for answers. And you refer to something I said about our being in some kind of spiritual malaise. We are, i think, as a people, more frustrated, more anxious, more deeply concerned, with less hope than at any time in my 59 years on this planet, and as a citizen of this glorious country. And I think people are reaching out for something. In the absence of other leadership – and I think the mainline churches would be the first to agree they haven’t offered sufficient leadership – the country has been very disappointed in its political leadership for a great many years, and we watch constantly the decline of values in public life. One headline after another, one individual after another, in one kind of scandal or sham or threatened or impugned scandal or sham. And people’s feelings of belief and faith in the future in terms of following those leaders falls off accordingly. So I think, in that vacuum, when people are so desperate and frustrated and anxious, in that vacuum of leadership, comes a divisive (I feel) , very narrow group who insists, “Here we are. We have all these answers. And they’re simple answers to your most complex problems”. People would normally embrace, I mean, it’s natural that they would wish to embrace that and be embraced by that in the absence of anything else. When People for the American Way hopes to do, in part, or to begin to seed, is some understanding that the traditional American values of freedom of speech and expression, of religious tolerance, of that spirit of liberty that Learned Hand talked about wherein we view the other fellow’s point of view with the same kind of understanding and appreciation with which we’d like our point of view viewed, that these values are worth holding onto. We mustn’t be divided at a time when we are simply anxious, frustrated, and people are offering us these simple answers to complex problems.

Heffner: What about the other groups of values? The ones that our friends in the Moral majority point to? The ones that they believe are demeaned, undermined by television, film, by a different set of values in terms of family life? What about those values? You’ve passed them over. You said, “There has been a decline in morality in political life”. Granted, true. And you say that has, in a sense, created a kind of…

Lear: But you see, this decline of values or of morality in political life, to what may we lay that? To the ERA? To abortion? To gay rights? To – what are the issues that the ultra-right is involved with with such passion?

Heffner: I think they would say, “Yes” as you checked off each of those, wouldn’t they?

Lear: Well, I would humbly suggest that none of those factors – I mean, I would ask quickly, “Tell me how the abortion situation has affected the Abscam scandals. Tell me where it applied to Watergate. Tell me where it’s applying now in the cases we’re reading about daily”. We started, some years ago – and I don’t hear them talking about this – to adopt a winning-or-losing (and nothing in between) philosophy.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Lear: I mean, this country seems to be instructing its youngsters that what life is about is winning and losing. We see it in sports. We see it in government. We see it in business. Businesses are run today to make profits in the short-term. Solely to make profits in the short-term. I read article after article about the nature of contracts drawn for chief executive officers, and which are drawn so that bonuses of the highest kind are paid in the shortest term for quick profits. And so companies are raped. The future of these companies are raped for the short-term. I look at Detroit and wonder why, when I was a kid (if we’re approximately the same age; and we may be we were kids at the same time), I grew up in a country where the American motorcar was the symbol of our nonmilitary might, where every Sunday morning, every Saturday, the neighbors on the street were out as a family washing down, cleaning that car, practically taking dental floss to the tire treads. Everybody cared so much about the automobile. And wherever one traveled in the world, the American motorcar was the standard. I don’t know that it’s reached deeply into the American psyche even yet how much it has hurt us that the American motorcar is not the standard of the world; that the Japanese and the West Germans and others have taken over. But where were the motor companies all those years ago when the handwriting was so clearly on the wall, when the Volkswagen was being imported, and the Toyota, and the Datsun, and it was so apparent that small, more fuel-efficient cars would have to be made to satisfy the American appetite and the imaging situation as it began to impact on us? I think we were tied up in this bottom-line philosophy: Must make profit in the short term. And to invest in smaller cars, the tools, dies, research and development, would be to diminish a profit statement. And nobody would diminish that quarterly profit statement for the sake of the future. I think we see this everywhere today.

Heffner: What do you think pushed us into this…

Lear: And I don’t think – just to complete that thought; if it is a complete thought – that I don’t think that any of the questions that the new right and the excessive religious new right were dealing with two years ago in the 1980 elections, when they were talking about Panama Canal, Taiwan, nuclear superiority, abortion, ERA, none of those things caused Detroit’s failure.

Heffner: Would you accept the possibility that, indeed, on several levels, there have been a change in American life? One in Detroit, you use that as a symbol, and as a metaphor. But the other that they refer to, or the others that they refer to, is a changing notion of who we are and what we are in terms of a different kind of moral standard: Relation to the family, relation to wife and children. An older pattern of relationships between men and women generally. They’re concerned about that. They seem to be worried. You’re not saying, are you, that they are standing there alone? That there’s Jerry Falwell and a few other people, and they really don’t represent some fundamental concern for these particular matters? For the matter of family life? So that you want to shunt those aside for the moment?

Lear: I don’t think they have or should have a monopoly on appreciation for concern about family life. This country is a country of family people. And we’re all interested and concerned with family life. But to assume that I am less concerned with family life because my wife is pro-ERA and I along with her, and her three daughters and my daughters are for the Equal rights Amendment, to assume that I’m less a family man because I disagree on that political issue, is an unfair assumption. And to attack the integrity of an individual simply because they disagree on a political matter, I don’t think is the American Way.

Heffner: Do you think that we’ve – you mention in one of your speeches that I’ve been reading, you refer back to Joe McCarthy and to the fifties – do you ever sense that we have returned or are returning to that dreadful period?

Lear: Well I refer to, in that speech, I believe, I refer to McCarthy because he felt himself infallible. Anybody that disagreed was automatically a communist or a fellow traveler or whatever those phrases were at the time. And i find that with the new right and religious or cultist new right, they do the same thing. To disagree with them is automatically to be a bad Christian. That was the essence of the very first commercial People for the American Way did. Just an American sitting on a piece of heavy equipment, happened to be a working fellow, looking into the camera and said, “I come from a big family. We have lots of opinions. We disagree on all kinds of political issues. Don’t tell my wife that she’s a bad Christian on two issues and good one on two others, and my boy that he’s a bad one on the ones she’s good on and good on the ones she’s bad on, and me, I’m 100 percent Christian because I agree with the minister on all of it. We’re Americans. And don’t tell us we’re bad Christians or good Christians depending on our political points of view. That isn’t the American way”. That was the first commercial. There are 50-some thousand members of the organization now, in 50 states. That commercial, along with others – one minute, that’s all – just drew so much attention because people were receiving, in the mail, and watching on television, and listening to preachers on the radio who were constantly attacking their integrity and their meaning, their compact with the Almighty, because the thought the Department of Education was okay. And automatically, their compact with the almighty was threatened because these people were saying, “That’s not a Christian attitude”.

Heffner: When Richard Viguerie was here at this table, he said that, “The new right learned from the old left how to go about single-issue politics”. Now, is your group going to imitate what the new right did in 1980, and they’d been trying to do for a few years before, and may try to do in the next Congressional election: Organize along single issues, and gain a kind of political power? Why not?

Lear: Well, the beginning of the question was, “Would we care to do what they do”.

Heffner: Yeah.

Lear: No, I wouldn’t care to attack your worth as a human being or a citizen just because you disagreed with it, and I just wouldn’t wish to do that.

Heffner: But what about picking single issues? The issue that we’ve been talking about…

Lear: Well, we’re an educational group. We’re not taking sides on issues, unless you would call it an issue to wish to affirm that an America we’re entitled to our own points of view and with every right to express them, including the Reverend Falwell and Mr. Viguerie and all of them. I care deeply about their right to speak. But I also care about my right to answer them, and my right to say, “Hey, fellas, I think what you’re doing is antithetical to the spirit of the First Amendment. Yes, you have every First Amendment right to say it, but it may be antithetical to the spirit of the First Amendment to wish other people to less of a human being simply because they disagree with you”.

Heffner: Where do they go? Where do they move away from what you consider legitimate First Amendment rights, to speak up? They don’t like what appears on television, they don’t’ like what appears in film, they don’t like certain other things, they speak up.

Lear: They have every right to do that, and to speak up.

Heffner: At what point do you want them not to say what they’re saying?

Lear: At the point at which they would insist that you are a poor Christian because you believe differently on a political matter.

Heffner: That’s an exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Lear: It is, indeed. You asked me what I would wish. I would wish them to live with the First Amendment and its spirit. There are two different aspects to this. You can’t flaunt the First Amendment saying just about anything in this country. And I believe in it, as an absolutist. I would wish each individual would have the right to speak out, so long as there isn’t any imminent danger o anyone else as a result of that. I would also wish – and it pleases me to be able to say, in this free society – “Hey fellas, the spirit of liberty is demeaned and devalued when you tell another human being that they are less of a Christian because they disagree with you politically”.

Heffner: What do you think, what can those who do believe very firmly that programs, films, books, have undermined a traditional ethic, a traditional ethics in this country, what do you believe they can do, quite literally?

Lear: I think they can speak to any issue about any television show or any book. There are 140-some books and authors in this country, as we sit here, who are being pushed off in many cases, and attempted to be pushed off, of library shelves across the country, from JD Salinger to George Orwell to Bernard Malamud to William Shakespeare in some places, because some, quote, “concerned parents” don’t like the way Hamlet related to his mother. Now, it’s one thing to proselytize against something; it’s quite another thing to try to force books off of library shelves so that other people who may wish to read them can’t find them.

Heffner: Suppose in a particular community he library committee, the duly appointed school board, or duly elected school board, decides for that community it doesn’t want its young children reading any of those “horrors”. And I remember in the Fifties a book of mine was taken off the shelves because it was supposedly too liberal. Suppose that community decides that. Has the community, in your estimate, the right to do that take it off the shelves from our community?

Lear: If they were breaking a law, they would find they were breaking the law and would have no right to do so. Do they have the, in terms of the First Amendment, the spirit of the First Amendment, liberty, the right to prevent other youngsters from find in the book or the parents of those youngsters from helping the children to find the book (because that’s often the case, too)? No, I don’t. I think they’re entirely flaunting the spirit and the essence of liberty in this country. There’s much they can do. And I hear this largely because of my involvement in television. I hear this about television all the time. “Do you like the violence on television? Do you like gratuitous sex on television”? Well, I think I’m a reasonably adult human being. I’m offended by smarm. I don’t like gratuitous anything certainly not gratuitous sex. There is no real sex on television; it’s smarm. The problems of human sexuality, unfortunately, when you traffic in the marketplace of ideas and talk about pushing gratuitous sex off of television, somebody has to decide what is gratuitous and what isn’t. And very often I find with these groups what they’re pushing off of television is an honest (in some cases) attempt to explore problems of human sexuality. Not smarm, not gratuitous sex, just problems of human sexuality. And that’s the danger when you’re trying to determine, one small group is trying to determine what’s okay for everybody else.

Heffner: Mightn’t one say, “Mr. Lear, you start down the slippery slope as soon as you say, ‘Well, someone has to determine what’s gratuitous’. Who? You? The next person”?

Lear: That’s the point I was making. Nobody should be in the position of making that determination.

Heffner: Not even an editor?

Lear: Well, but that’s in the give-and-take of putting on programs, writing books. There are editors, there are, in television, program practices people. You know, I dealt with them all the years I was doing the shows. And there are the actors and the actresses and the writes, and so forth. There’s a tremendous amount of honing of material and ideas that goes on. And out of that comes drama which has no responsibility to please everybody. Drama that pleases everybody is absent something, some abrasion, some idea. There’s no way a good idea can please everybody. And there’s obligation for drama to please everybody.

Heffner: It seems to me increasingly we bring into focus a conflict between your absolutist involvement in First Amendment considerations and a kind of majoritarian point of view. Now, you don’t want to identify the Moral Majority with the real majority in this country. Fair enough. But I have always wondered what you, yourself would do, given your deep, democratic, worldly sympathies. If you understood that certain things that appeared on television and film, whatever, really turned away, turned off, repelled a majority of parents in this country, what would you do then? Still sit back and say, “Well, we tolerate this in the name of the First Amendment”?

Lear: I think that the television industry should, people from the television industry – to talk about television particularly – should be moving about the country. We all get too isolated, too insular. And there should be much more communication between the viewers and the television industry.

Heffner: To what end?

Lear: For the purpose of having the industry understand better, and at first hand, what viewers are feeling, what their frustrations are, and not have those viewers interpreted to the industry by Reverend Laudman or Reverend Falwell or any of the others who are involved with that, and vice versa. I would like not to be interpreted to the American viewers by Donald Laudman. I’d like to make my own case.

Heffner: What happens if, as you go among the people, you find that a substantial number of them 00- let’s say a majority – really are offended by Maude, or All in the Family? What happens then?

Lear: Well, if a substantial number of them were offended, they’d be off the air soon enough, because they would not be watching it. People don’t watch what really offends them.

Heffner: Do you really believe that?

Lear: Oh, I do believe…well, of course I believe that. I don’t see people marching into movies to look at something that offends them. Well, television is a better notion because it’s easier to talk about because it’s on every single week. Why would grownup – and we’re a wise-hearted people; we may not be the best educated people in the world, but we’re a wise people – why would a wise person sit down in a crowded life and look at something that they can’t stand? I don’t think people make that kind of a choice. They’re too smart for that.

Heffner: so you remain a good majoritarian?

Lear: I do? (Laughter)

Heffner: Well you do. A great feeling for the wisdom of the people.

Lear: Oh, I believe totally in the wisdom of the people. Totally in the wisdom of the people. Assuming they have the information. Give people the information and look for their views. And I think t he’ll be wise ones all the time.

Heffner: Norman Lear, that’s where you’re going to have to come back again on the Open Mind, because we’ve reached the end of our time.

Lear: I don’t believe it.

Heffner: Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Lear.

Lear: Thank you for having me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you, too will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”