On January 12th, 1971, American television changed forever. A new sitcom on CBS was set to premiere, and the industry was at a fever pitch. The new project from television producer and writer Norman Lear would be the first of its kind, but few knew exactly how, or why. Despite the confidence CBS had in Lear and his program, the network was so nervous about its reception that it composed a disclaimer that audiences read moments before the show’s premiere. This was the first time that such a disclaimer had accompanied the debut of a primetime network sitcom, and for good reason. Lear’s main character was a self-identified bigot. The show appeared to be a powder keg waiting to happen, and Lear was about to light the fuse. CBS even hired additional switchboard operators to take the enraged phone calls executives assumed were coming.
That night, Americans the country over were greeted with the following message: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.” Lear and his writers sought a particular angle on the social issues of the times. Unlike many sitcoms before it, All in the Family would be inspired by contemporaneous events pulled from newspaper and magazine headlines, including the women’s rights movement and the Vietnam War. These events resulted in episodes such as “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib” and “The Draft Dodger.” The Bunker family was loud and abrasive, but their family arguments about hot-button issues served two interrelated but different purposes: they entertained, and they encouraged self-examination. While the show wasn’t overtly religious, its approach to satire and social change still outlined the contours of Lear’s own religious liberalism. As we celebrate 50 years since the show’s debut, it’s worth looking back at not only its popularity and groundbreaking content, but also its religious legacy.
A program is often deemed “religious” if it has recognizable features of a familiar American religion. When it comes to something like All in the Family, religious legacy has less to do with specific characters, and more to do with the design of the show and the sitcom episodes themselves. In other words, All in the Family does not draw scholastic attention because of all of the “religious content” in the show, per say, but rather from the didactic and civic purposes it played in American public life in the 1970s. For Lear, making relevant television episodes by bringing attention to prejudice and social concerns reflected a broader assumption about liberal religious activism itself: to foreground questions of ethics and social improvement as the bases of spiritual praxis.
As a child, Lear grew up in an extended Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut, that included uncles, aunts, and “zadies,” or grandparents. As I’ve argued in my own study of Lear and the American religious liberal tradition, he was intimately aware of both the fireside chats as well as the diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin, which were broadcast over Lear’s beloved crystal radio. These experiences shaped Lear’s understanding of religion, regardless of its specific definition, as primarily an exercise in “freedom from” religion as opposed to “freedom for” it. Lear identified himself broadly as both Jewish and liberal in the best tradition of “Tri-Faith” America and its civil religious traditions of inclusion and diversity. Largely in response to Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, Lear established the interfaith nonprofit People for the American Way, an organization committed to religious freedom and First Amendment rights. In this sense, Lear’s programming was an extension of his commitment to protecting the public square from potentially oppressive religious forces by offering viewers weekly parables of civic vigilance, pluralistic difference, and social responsibility. All in the Family can be understood as a purposefully satirical sitcom that brought attention to what ailed American society according to its creator, Norman Lear.
All in the Family may have taken place in Queens, New York, but the show’s true origins began across the Atlantic in Great Britain. Sometime during the late 1960s, Lear began hearing about a British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part. Its main character, Alf Garnett, sounded eerily like Lear’s father, Herman “King” Lear. Not unlike All in the Family, Till Death Do Us Part was also based on a working-class family with an opinionated patriarch. Lear realized he could adapt the program for American audiences by including autobiographical material from his own life. He also followed the show’s lead by composing characters reflective of the noticeable generation gap between the children of the Depression and the flower children of the 1960s. Like Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker held less than charitable views toward women and people of color. For Lear, these subjects were ideal for his satirical approach to issues of social concern. Comedy was not simply comedy; it had the power to shape sentiment and belief in real time. In short, it was the stuff of American politics.
Due to the controversial subject matter of All in the Family, Lear had to compose three separate pilot episodes for two different networks before the program officially aired. Lear’s initial plan for the show was to call it Justice for All. This title reflected Lear’s general progressive impulse to address social concerns. Instead of Bunker, the original family was supposed to be called “Justice.” In typical satirical fashion, however, the last name of Bunker was a simple play on words. In most instances, Archie’s opinion on a given issue would be based on “bunk.” The show did not condone Archie’s behavior, but instead sought to illuminate and expose it through various storylines. For some, this would forever polarize the family unit, bringing to life the feminist declaration “the personal is the political.” For others, it was just what the country needed: truth and justice at a high volume. For then Christian Century editor James Wall, Lear’s program was nothing short of a revelation. “Lear gives us a comedy with a purpose,” he wrote in an editorial correspondence in 1975. “He is a village elder … successfully telling tribal members gathered about the campfire/tube that individuals are different but valuable.” He went on to write that Lear’s programming possessed a “style of social criticism” all its own, one that often times emanated from his own “personal bully pulpit.”
Episodes of All in the Family explored numerous topics, including racism, sexism, and discrimination in the workplace. Respective characters symbolized certain flashpoints of the time. Old and young, man and women, boyfriend and girlfriend—all were included in the show’s narrative arc. Archie was not the only one who represented a particular character type. His son-in-law, Michael Stivic, represented hippies and their progressive views of the world. Gloria and Edith, Archie’s daughter and wife respectively, represented two sides of the same story: the ongoing struggle for female liberation. This type of storytelling was purposeful, and well crafted. The first season of All in the Family included episodes on women’s liberation, keeping people of color out of nearby neighborhoods, and being gay. In the pilot episode titled, “Meet the Bunkers,” the audience is officially introduced to the Bunker family. The opening scenes feature Archie’s married adult daughter Gloria and her husband Mike, or “Meathead,” in the Bunker’s living room. Archie and Edith are away at church, and Mike kisses Gloria and says that he is hoping for some alone time with her. Standards and practices at CBS fought Lear tooth and nail over the sexual implication, but Lear ultimately won out.
In the episode, Edith and Archie return from church and sit down with Mike and Gloria in the living room. The dialogue that ensues is classic Lear. “Why fight it?” Mike asks. “The world’s changing.” Edith responds, “That’s what Reverend Felcher was sayin’ … Of course, Mr. Religion here wasn’t seein’ eye to eye with the sermon.” Archie replies, “What sermon? That was socialist propaganda, pure and simple. And don’t give me that look.” In essence, Lear used satire and dramatic comedy to challenge audiences to think deeply about the human condition, and in this case, religion and civil rights. After a pause in the debate, Archie makes his point clear to everyone watching: “I ain’t sitting still for no preacher tellin’ me that I’m to blame for all this breakdown in law and order that’s goin’ on.” Lear’s understanding of religion as pragmatic and relevant resulted in episodic television that examined related but separate societal challenges through the genre of the sitcom. “I’ll tell you the cause of it,” Archie went on to explain. “These sob sisters like your Reverend Felcher and the bleedin’ hearts and weepin’ nellies like youse two … I didn’t have no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job.”
Perhaps the most memorable episode on All in the Family about the subject of religion is “The Little Atheist,” which first premiered November 24, 1975, during the show’s sixth season. The episode takes place over the Thanksgiving dinner table, and it features one of the more theological debates in the show’s run. Gloria is pregnant with baby Joey. Neither Gloria nor Michael, her husband, have any intent of having their son baptized in the Christian tradition, however defined. In fact, they intend to have him choose for himself. Upon hearing this, the Bunker patriarch, Archie, goes ballistic as only a Norman Lear character can: at the highest of volumes on Thanksgiving Day. Despite Archie’s less than Christian behavior himself, illustrated on a weekly basis to millions of viewers at home, he nevertheless thinks it’s important for baby Joey to be baptized in the Christian faith. In this sense, the episode’s debate suggests that even if broadly construed, Christian identity is an essential facet of American identity—especially at Thanksgiving dinner at your son-in-law’s house with a baby on the way. This sense of religion had far less to do with salvation in a Christian sense, and much more to do with its civil religious value in the American imagination as a dimension of national identity.
All in the Family never took a singular position in an argument, per say, but instead sought to frame debates through character dialogue and argumentation. As a result, there was no singular message to take away at the end of a given episode on behalf of parochial political purposes. The point was to wrestle with the story itself in hopes of sparking self-awareness and contemplation. In this sense, the religious legacy of All in the Family is as civil as it is religious because it looked to sharpen those faculties most crucial to a functioning liberal democracy: critical thinking and rational deliberation.
In the very best of the social gospel tradition, Lear’s All in the Family sought to address social dilemmas through whatever means necessary. In this sense, “the religious” for Lear had far less to do with individual salvation, and much more to do with pragmatic social concern. At its best, All in the Family helped cultivate a particular American subject: one that was empathetic, well informed, and tolerant of others. At its worst, the show reinforced almost every negative stereotype about the reactionary conservative in the age of law and order.
All in the Family was delivered to a studio audience in real time. When the show hit its ratings peak in the mid-1970s, close to a quarter of the country had seen an episode. For five years, it was the most popular show on television, and as such, it significantly influenced how Americans thought about conservatism at the time. The popularity of Donald Trump even briefly resembled that of Bunker himself in his heyday. While Archie was supposed to be a satirical cautionary tale of sorts, some still saw a leader of men based on common sense racism and good old fashioned hard work. As television critic Emily Nussbaum has argued in The New Yorker, “Archie represented the danger and the potential of television itself, its ability to influence viewers rather than merely help them kill time. Ironically, for a character so desperate to return to the past, he ended up steering the medium toward the future.”
Case in proverbial point: Before there were calls for Trump for President, there were calls for Bunker for President by way of clever t-shirts and bumper stickers. This legacy should give us some significant pause. How can the religious legacy of a show include both aspirations for something greater and moments of base creative impulses that demean and degrade? Is it possible to say, 50 years removed from the show’s premiere, that it accomplished its goal of creating a more civil republic through didactic programming? For many religious conservatives, religion is itself enough because of its salvific implications. For religious liberals like Lear, religion makes sense only when it is in service of something greater: civility, diversity, or First Amendment rights. Lear’s contribution to television did not unfold without its fair share of resistance and contestation. His programming as seen on All in the Family was unique because it possessed a moral context all its own, at once a reflection of and contributor to the decade’s cultural turmoil in a time of increasing polarization.
Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond. He is currently working on a new book, Establishments and Their Fall: Direct Mail, the New Right, and the Transformation of American Politics