Bob Newhart and the Narrowing of Freedom

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Humor “makes us free.”

That was Bob Newhart’s observation during a commencement address at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America in 1997. “As long as the tyrant cannot control the minds of free men, they remain free,” the comedian continued. “Humor abounded behind the Iron Curtain and in POW camps. Humor is also our way of dealing with the inexplicable. We had an earthquake a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t more than three or four days later that I heard the first earthquake joke. Someone said, ‘The traffic is stopped, but the freeways are moving.’”

“Laughter gives us distance,” he went on to say.

Newhart continued:

It allows us to step back from an event over which we have no control and deal with it and then move on with our lives. It helps distinguish us from animals. No matter what hyenas sound like, they are not actually laughing. It also helps define our sanity. The schizophrenic has no sense of humor. His world is a constantly daunting, unfriendly place. The rational man is able to find humor in his.

Erasmus wrote in Praise of Folly, “No society, no union in life could be either pleasant or lasting without me,” of course, meaning folly.

People with a sense of humor tend to be less egocentric and more realistic in their view of the world and more humble in moments of success and less defeated in times of travail. I certainly don’t delude myself that there aren’t certainly more important things to do in life than make people laugh, but I can’t imagine anything that would bring me more joy.

Joy — that’s at the heart of this Christmas season we are beginning to celebrate. Humor, as Newhart intimated there, can bring us closer to the Christ child — the humility that brought God to allow Himself to be born under some duress, in poverty, to suffer the most humiliating of deaths

And it’s that belief that we’re at a bit of a crossroads about. As you’ve heard, having been bullied by one of the groups that specializes in bullying, veiled in a banner of “tolerance,” Bob Newhart canceled on Legatus, a group of Catholic business professionals and other leaders. I’ve spoken to Legatus chapters — they’re about trying to be authentic Christians where they find themselves working, in their communities, in their giving, discerning the fullness of their vocations in life.

As Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez put it in one talk to a Legatus national convention:

Holiness is the beautiful demand and promise of the Gospel. And we are coming to realize that holiness is not just something for people who wear collars or people who wear habits. Holiness is won little by little in our faithful efforts to fulfill our daily duties. In our homes. In our businesses. In our neighborhoods. In our civic life.

St. Paul said: Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do it all for the glory of God and in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s the secret of life. That’s the reason we’re here. To give glory to God through our lives.

According to GLADD that is bigotry? That is outside the realm of anyone who wants to be considered civilized?

This is important. This is an ongoing attack and the stakes are high.

And this is not going away.

It will only get worse with everyone who gives in or is indifferent to it.

So many of the compelling images and challenging words of Pope Francis out of Rome are invitations to people who have fallen away from the Catholic Church or the life of lived religion, who have been wounded by Christians not being Christians and the Gospel not being lived. In the midst of this grace, there is also a co-opting happening.

When the George Soros–funded group “Faithful America” launched a petition drive against Newhart and Legatus, they used Pope Francis as their bludgeon:

It’s hard to imagine an organization further from Pope Francis’ vision of “a Church which is poor and for the poor” than Legatus, whose stated mission is to “study, spread, and live the Catholic faith,” but whose membership is open only to top executives of multi-million dollar corporations.

As it happens, though: Executives are called to holiness, too. And anyone who actually listens to Pope Francis, reads his words, and watches him, knows that this is his message — don’t settle for faux comfort and security of this world. Be transformed by Christ. Change the world as instruments of Divine Mercy — which you can only do if you are awash in it yourself.

This is not the first time “Faithful America” has taken this approach. This month, they have also attacked Catholic University for a grant its business school received for an entrepreneurship program from the Koch Brothers. The goal of the school is to infuse the marketplace with men and women of virtue, equipped with an understanding of Catholic Social Teaching on solidarity and subsidiarity and what helps men, women, and society flourish. If the Koch Brothers want to invest in this, good for them!

The goal of efforts like the successful bullying campaign against Bob Newhart is to beat the faithful into submission to a gospel of secularism, one that all too many of us have a track record of submitting to in our daily lives. Countercultural courage is hard, especially when it is out of fashion and threatens your livelihood. In this latest episode, they aimed for one of the rare comedians you can take your family to.

I get that these issues are hard. And they are made even harder by miserable bullying campaigns against a funny, inoffensive 84-year-old. They involve the most intimate issues. They involve pain and struggle. People are living in hellish conditions, with demons beating at their doors and their very hearts. Know that. Help one another out of it. Through economic policy and innovation and charity. That’s getting at the Pope Francis vision, whoever you are, whatever your income bracket. Start there. It’s Christmas. If you profess to be Christian, start with Christ and what He means for your life. Don’t use Pope Francis as a bludgeon for ideological submission. There’s not humor or humility in that. ’Tis the season for a close encounter with the latter, and Heaven knows we could use some of the former, in all charity. 

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