Bob Newhart, Legatus And GLAAD: “What’s Going On Here?” Is Tricky To Answer

"Hey, Bob---What's going on here?"

“Hey, Bob—What’s going on here?”

The news item about comedian Bob Newhart cancelling an appearance for the Catholic executives networking group Legatus under pressure from GLAAD is fascinating.

From the perspective of Ethics Alarms, it illustrates a peculiar phenomenon I experience often, where a prominent story seems to have been designed by the Ethics Gods specifically to combine and coalesce several issues that have been discussed here recently. For Bob’s travails neatly touch on the issues of pro-gay  advocacy groups attempting to restrict expression they disagree with( The Phil Robertson-A&E Affair, Dec. 19), a comedian being pressured to alter the course of his comedy (Steve Martin’s Tweet Retreat, Dec. 23) and an entertainment figure being criticized for the activities of his audience (Mariah’s Dirty Money, Dec. 23). You would think I could analyze the Newhart controversy by just sticking my conclusions from those recent posts, plus some of the more illuminating reader comments, into my Ethics-O-Tron, and it would spit out the verdict promptly.

It doesn’t work that way, at least in this instance, and that prompts the other observation. In most ethics problems, the starting point is the question, “What’s going on here?”, which forces us to determine the factual and ethical context of the choices made by the participants. Here, the question can be framed  several diverging ways, leading to different assessments of the ethics involved. Thus, asking “What’s going on here?” in the Bob Newhart Episode, we might get:

Answer A. A Catholic group is being harassed by GLAAD and other gay rights groups for its religious beliefs.

Ethics Verdict: The groups that attacked Newhart’s decision and drove him to cancel acted unethically.

Legatus is one of many Catholic organizations formed by pizza baron Tom Monaghan.  which embraces the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. It is clear in its own self identification on its website: ” A networking and social group composed of CEOs, corporate presidents, managing partners and business owners, with their spouses, Legatus states in mission as “to study, live and spread the Catholic faith in our business, professional and personal lives.”

The official position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality is that it is a sin, and that marriage as only possible between one man and one women. As explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church  in 2003:

“The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.

Legatus members have a right to their beliefs, and the Constitution enshrines the right to practice one’s religion as one pleases as among the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness that the government of the Unites States, and thus its citizens, are bound to respect. It is ethical for those seeking to defend gay rights to debate and contend publicly against the public statements and any political activities of religion-based groups, but actively interfering with their operation is an unethical breach of respect, tolerance, fairness and reciprocity. Threatening contractors like Newhart constitutes  such interference.

Answer B.  Newhart, a Catholic who in the past has championed the use of humor as essential to freedom of thought, took the expedient and cowardly way out of a controversy, abandoned his principles, capitulated to political correctness bullying, and showed himself to be a hypocrite.

Ethics Verdict: Newhart acted unethically.

Legatus is engaged in a lot more than just gay marriage issues, and much of its work is beneficial to communities and the poor. No one knows Newhart’s religious or political views—that his TV shows have on occasion dealt sympathetically with gay issues does not, as some have assumed, mean that he opposes his faith’s position on gay marriage. It would be  reasonable and acceptable for a man like Newhart to agree to appear at a Legatus event to support its other works, or to just tell some jokes. After all, it was Newhart who  said in a commencement speech,

“I’ve found that one other thing that humor does is it makes us free. That may seem like an odd conclusion, but as long as the tyrant cannot control the minds of free men, they remain free. 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. 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.”

Never mind all that—it was just a speech. Newhart, like Steve Martin, caved on his expression of this supposedly vital principle and abandoned his faith the first time political correctness bullies started giving him dirty looks. Where’s Bob’s integrity?

Answer C. An 84-year old man decided to vary his retirement and bask in the warm glow of an appreciative audience for a check, as he has every right to do. Unexpectedly, it became a PR mess, and he has neither the interest, the patience nor the energy  to sustain a fight when he thought he was just doing an honest  job, as he has his entire professional life. He cancelled, saying, in essence, who needs this?

Ethics Verdict:  Newhart acted ethically.

Newhart doesn’t seek or usually occupy the spotlight; most Americans under the age of 30 know him, if at all, as a bit player in the Will Farrell comedy “Elf,” itself a decade old. A public appearance unexpectedly became a lightning rod, and he chose not to take sides, and cancelled in a timely fashion (the event is in February), saying nothing else. This was his right, and age has its privileges. He can pass on the culture wars.

Those are framings that I think can be defended. Around the web, I’ve read conservative commentators arguing that what is really going on is part of the organized war on religion and capitalism by atheists, Move-On and George Soros.

Now that I’ve kept you in suspense, here is what I really think is going on here:

Legatus, a religious social group that has every right to exist, associate as it chooses, hold what beliefs it chooses and express those beliefs, hired a comedian to appear at their event. The comedian, who has no ethical obligation to select his audiences by their political, social or religious beliefs, agreed to come, presumably for a fee. Anti-Catholic, anti-corporate, but primarily pro-gay groups set out to bully a non-political, elderly performer into cancelling his appearance by insinuating in public that to do otherwise would indicate anti-gay bigotry. It would have been exemplary ethics if Newhart had

1) announced that he was completely behind gay rights and fully supportive, and because it appeared that his performing at the Legatus event would be taken as otherwise, he would withdraw, not because of the criticism, but because he agreed with it, and urged Legatus and the Catholic Church to at last reverse its centuries-old position on homosexuality, or

2) announced that he was going to appear as scheduled, because he objected to performers being made pawns in the political game. believed that all audiences had a right to be entertained whatever their beliefs, and rejected the efforts of any groups to harm their political adversaries by interfering with their legitimate business relations, or

3) simply said that he had made a commitment and would honor it, and that it was none of GLAAD’s business whom or what groups he told jokes for.

What Newhart did–withdraw from the event without comment—was reasonable given his circumstances and the fact that he did not ask to be enmeshed in this controversy and did not knowingly thrust himself in it.

A GLAAD rep says that he’s  “proud of this one.” He shouldn’t be.


Pointer: Instapundit

Sources: Daily Caller, Catholic Culture, National Review, Catholic On-Line, the New Civil Rights Movement

32 thoughts on “Bob Newhart, Legatus And GLAAD: “What’s Going On Here?” Is Tricky To Answer

  1. Well, I think he caved in. Then again, being 84 and being attacked by some zealot fascists, I can understand why he did it and I will keep my old Bob Newhart records.

  2. “…and urged Legatus and the Catholic Church to at last reverse its centuries-old position on homosexuality,….” Jack, the Church cannot reverse itself on matters on matters of doctrine. Doctrine is, essentially, infallible, and received wisdom. Or, put another way, it was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow—and every tomorrow thereafter. The preceding is not my opinion. It is what the Church itself holds. It is, in a related vein, worth noting that the Church also holds that gays and lesbians are not to be condemned. The Church speaks much of sin, but does not then label people as sinners. Only God can know what is truly in someone’s heart and mind, and humans cannot judge them (as Pope Francis recently—and ringingly—reaffirmed). Homosexuality is still a grave, mortal sin, but so is gay-bashing.

    • I appreciate the clarification. Sincere thanks. But…

      The Church will have to abandon some dogma eventually. If its existence is threatened, I’m sure it will find a way. If it persists in policies and beliefs that are universally condemned as cruel and in defiance of reality, “God won’t let us change!” is not going to work.

      • God doesn’t change. His law doesn’t change. If it did God wouldn’t be God. If a particular religious doctrine changes that is a human thing and it’s not done through God. It’s done outside of God’s will, which He allows because free will is one of those immutable laws that even God can’t change and still be God. There has to be fixed law that doesn’t respect persons or there is no certainty of justice. In that way God’s law is like science. There are absolutes that don’t change. There have to be.

        • Your position, respectfully, is illogical. You acknowledge that human interpretations of God’s will can, and do, change. For example, contrast God’s ordering the genocide of the Canaanites, including the children, with your opposition to genocide and, most likely, opposition to abortion. If you believe that aborting a fetus is the murder of a child, you can’t cite God’s will for your position and also say that his will is unchanging. Unless you want to argue in favor of situational ethics.

          (And I do want to say that I don’t know what your position on that question is — I raise it simply to point out the conflict.)

          Your position on gay rights issues is, I’m sure, your sincere interpretation of what God’s will is.

          But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s your interpretation. Or the interpretation of a church with whom you agree. I’m sure that you, like everybody else (including me), read the Bible, keep the stuff you like, and ignore or explain away the stuff you don’t. It’s like a great big inkblot test, and what we see in it says a lot more about us than it does about God. As a Methodist, I hope that I’m at least approximately getting it right — but I’m sure that I’m not at 100%.

          One point that I would ask you to consider is this: You don’t like GLAAD. As a gay man, I do.

          Bob Newhart jumped into the middle of a vigorously debated and controversial issue without knowing he was doing it. GLAAD pointed that out to him. Whether his actions were a withdrawal from the debate, or actively picking sides is an open question. Although I suspect the former is true, he has been a longtime gay rights supporter, so the latter is possible, too.

          The problem that you conservatives have is that you’re so unused to your views being questioned that you feel kind of sandbagged when they finally are. We liberals are used to having our views challenged (it kind of comes with the territory), so it’s familiar ground for us.

          You accuse your opponents of bullying, or censorship. Not true. You have an absolute right to hold whatever views you hold about me and if anyone attempted to silence you, I’d be the first person to defend your right to criticize me and my life. (And that’s not idle — I’m retired now, but I’m still a pretty good lawyer and I’d represent you for free.)

          However, your constitutional right to freedom of expression does not translate into a right to never be disagreed with. The former is an absolute; the latter is a myth which exists only within your own head. (Well, not just your head. Lots of conservatives feel that way.) Free speech means nothing if disagreement is not allowed.

          In the meantime, I’m going to bow to your interpretation of the Bible.

          Since I’m apparently going to Hell for that shrimp scampi I had for lunch yesterday, anyway, I figure I might as well go ahead and take the man I love out to dinner to celebrate his birthday. And do other things which are none of your business.

          After all, if God’s will is unchanging, after that shrimp debacle I’ve got nothing left to lose.

          Thanks for considering what I’ve said. (I should also tell you that I deeply enjoy debating smart people, and being surrounded by people who agree with you all the time is, quite frankly, boring.)

      • The Church’s ‘existence’ has survived any number of tyrannies. We will not, and are not, and cannot change our teachings, which are neither cruel nor in defiance of reality. Millions of Christians have died rather than compromise on core dogmatic or moral beliefs. I think we can put up with being scorned and shunned a bit.

        • Good to hear a full-throated defense from the defendant, respectfully accepted.

          But churches and religions, despite their claims to the contrary, are human creations, and even if God doesn’t make mistakes, humans do. Presumably they also make mistakes interpreting God.

          As long as the Church quietly permits abortion-supporting American politicians to remain in the Church while calling themselves devoted Catholics, I will remain dubious about its integrity in the matter of dogma.

          • You’re correct about churches sometimes getting it wrong. As far as a specific religion follows God’s laws that is how far people can believe in and follow their dogma. That’s the difficult part for people. Each person has to have a personal relationship with God. Every person can know what is eternally true through that relationship. But, we have to be completely honest and not substitute our own understanding and wishes for His. Often that means being out of sync with the world.

      • Which dogma will it have to change, Jack? The Catholic Church has been around for centuries, weathering battles over heresies, bad Popes, stupid mistakes, attacks by secular powers, outright persecution (here in the US of A, we’ve had more anti-Catholicism over the years than antisemitism) and now, a pop culture that threatens to subvert rather than conquer, yet the Church is still here and doing just fine. An awful lot of people (not all of them Catholics) appreciate and respect the Church for not bending to the winds of fashion. And in all that time, doctrine has not changed. Finally, which of the Church’s doctrines (or, as you put it, policies and beliefs) are universally condemned as cruel and in defiance of reality? Yes, the Church has its critics, some of them quite loud and strident—always has, always will. Likewise, it has it supporters (again, not all of them Catholic), no few of them quite strong in their support. That’s not universal. I’m truly not trying to be argumentative, but am just stating (firmly to be sure) that the Church is not going away, in neither the short term nor the long run, and it’s doctrines, to paraphrase William Faulkner, will not merely endure, they will prevail.

        • It’s impossible for any of the Church’s doctrines to be universally condemned since the Church is part of the Universe and holds those doctrines. (But, nice conundrum, by the way.)

          And, as to doctrinal change never happening? Mass used to only be said in Latin.

          Not that I’m an expert since I’m a Methodist.

  3. And, on the other hand, this may have had nothing to do with GLAAD at all. Newhart is 84 and this may have been health-related, which he also may not have wanted to be made public. Yeah, I’m reaching. I just hate to see such dingbat bullying succeed.

      • Oh, I think it’s certainly inciting cyber-bullying. In cyber-world, there are hoards of powerless, self-esteem challenged people of little nuance or respect for opposing views just itching to use what they have, a keyboard, to pile on someone designated as unworthy of civilized congress by an appropriately PC anointed arbiter. When a group like GLAAD declares that someone is a hateful bigot and must be punished, or the NAACP accuses a public figure of racism, they are provoking disproportionate mob action, and know it. Or should.

        • Your thesis would require silence in the face of opposition, just on the off-chance that somebody radical might join in. I read GLAAD’s statement about the Legatus/Newhart situation, and I’ve worked with the NAACP for quite a few years. The words “hateful bigot,” and a call for Legatus to be “punished” appeared nowhere in their statement.

          It’s a recitation of facts. Ugly facts but, nonetheless, facts.

          I hate to break it to you, but there actually are hateful bigots out there and there are public figures who are racists. (I’m a white gay guy from Louisiana — trust me on both fronts.)

          Why is that that only we have the obligation to remain silent? Understand that I’m not saying that we don’t have to be respectful — we do.

          But your formulation would require us to just shut up. How much time do you spend telling the other side to do that?

          FYI, if you ever tried to shut the other side up, that’s the point where my civil rights lawyer with a background in First Amendment jurisprudence and legislation kicks in.

          At which point they and I are on the same side. Not yours.

          (FYI — I really love your blog, so don’t think I don’t appreciate the forum you’re creating here.)

          • A call for Lagatus not to have the right to choose their entertainment for a lawful gathering is calling for punishment—what else is it? It is an effort to harass and interfere with a group’s activities, lawful and ethical ones, because GLAAD doen’t like some of their policies and positions, and to send the message to others that the same thing can happen to them. Don’t merely argue and debate with your adversary, cripple him and wound him, and make him miserable and unable to function. Isn’t that what’s going on here?

  4. I really hope he didn’t cancel because of pressure from GLAAD…

    His comedy recordings were a favorite of me and my late grandfather – I would hate to have to pitch the cassettes I have because he folded like a bad poker hand…

  5. I don’t get it…why would a person be afraid of what others might think of him for something he has been doing for a long time now? #just_asking

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