Archie Bunker and Why Liberal Religion Needs To Be A Bigger Force
I was watching All In The Family , the classic 1970s sitcom featuring a cantankerous old Nixon Republican, Archie Bunker, coupled with a very ditzy, but curiously wise wife, Edith Bunker. In the particular episode I was watching, there was a curious revelation. This was from one of the later seasons, when Archie and Edith are taking care of their Niece, Stephanie, who they found out is Jewish. During a meeting with a Rabbi, Archie says: “Well, we want to raise her as what we are … eh, what are we Edith?”, and Edith says “Episcopal”. Archie and Edith Bunker are Episcopalians. I posted this little notion on Facebook, and it sparked a bit of an interesting conversation, with one participant saying that she hoped that the Episcopal Church had evolved from Archie Bunker, but … maybe, Archie Bunker, or at least the story of Archie has some meaning that we can draw from.
Throughout the whole series of All In The Family, Archie Bunker evolves. He is still his old, cantankerous, occasionally mysoginistic and racist self, but he changes. He is affected by crises in his life, and encountering different points of view (especially when his very obviously left wing daughter and son-in-law move into the home). Archie does, in fact, change. In the end, he is still conservative, still a die-hard Republican, but one that perhaps has a much softer heart, maybe not on the issues, but for sure on the “person-to-person” level. And one of the reasons that, perhaps the TV show didn’t cover, is that Archie and Edith had a liberal religious community that they were associated with. The Episcopal Church in the 1970s was a changing denomination. In 1979, the Episcopal Church released its new and revolutionary Book of Common Prayer which departed from the stodgy, old, “reformed” traditions of earlier prayer books. The 1970s marked perhaps the transition of the Episcopal Church from the proverbial “Republican Party At Prayer” to more of a “people’s church”, a church that was more interested in social justice and what went on around them, and more interested in relationships with other faith communities (Christian or otherwise). People in the Episcopal Church were changing, and so was Archie Bunker.
Why are liberal religious communities forces for change? Because, they invite people to explore deeper, they don’t necessarily give a black-and-white vision of a particular situation. I could imagine Archie complaining to his parish priest about his son-in-law being non-religious (which is ironic, because Archie himself admits he does not go to church very often). I could imagine the Parish Priest giving Archie options instead of the solution to the problem. When Archie’s daughter Gloria miscarries, I could see the parish priest offering a pastorally and emotionally appropriate response to Gloria, as opposed to a lecture about God’s wrath or a guilt trip about Gloria’s lack of religiosity. Perhaps it was liberal religion that helped keep the Bunker family from descending into even more dysfunction.
Liberal religious communities (like the Episcopal Church, many of the mainline Christian denominations, and the Unitarian Universalist churches) are comfortable, open places where people of all kinds can come, encounter each other, and grow by the power of community. It’s not a flawless and perfect philosophical argument that changes people. It is community. Liberal religious communities offer opportunities for people to live in real community with real tensions, real disagreements, and real problems, but in an environment that is safe, where these things can be acknowledged and talked about. Liberal religious communities also offer people the opportunity to discover and embrace what is meaningful to them from a variety of perspectives, be it spiritual, political, or emotional, and the opportunity to grow and thrive as an individual.
It’s like this perhaps: Conservative and fundamentalist religious communities put one dish on offer for people to eat whether they like it or not, and people must eat this dish forever, it doesn’t change, it still leaves that nasty aftertaste, or it always tastes like the inside of an old shoe, whatever. Liberal religious communities offer the ingredients, and instructions on how to cook them, and allows everyone to try and make different dishes using different ingredients, until they find the ones that they like to eat.
Archie Bunker may not represent the most ideal, saintly man we would like to be the product of a liberal religious community. But perhaps if everyone could experience the transforming power of a liberal religious community, maybe, like Archie, people could change bit by bit and grow to embrace and love others more. Maybe they won’t become die hard liberals or social justice freaks, but maybe they will have that much more compassion and that much more thought when they engage in discussions with others and engage other viewpoints. So, maybe the Episcopal Church ought not evolve beyond Archie Bunker, but perhaps we should focus more on the lessons we can learn from Archie’s experience.