When Barbara Walters decided to do a special on God last year, she had never done a piece about religion before.
“I don’t remember ever doing an interview about God,” said the noted television personality, who added that religion was something she hadn’t thought about that much. Her parents had not been religious and she really didn’t know about how her friends felt about it.
“Before the show ran,” she recalled in a recent interview, “at dinner parties I’d ask how many people believed they were going to heaven. Not many did.”
So you can imagine her surprise when her special, Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There? was the most highly-rated show of the year on ABC. It was so popular that the network plans to air it again this Friday night, Dec. 22. On the show, Walters interviews Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Rabbi Neil Gilman, Joel Osteen, the Reverend Calvin Butts, the Dalai Lama, actor Richard Gere, as well as a Muslim scholar, a scientist and a convicted terrorist.
Doing the show made Walters think more about religion, she said, though she doesn’t normally discuss her own beliefs. “I’m a journalist,” she says. “It just wouldn’t be appropriate.”
But Walters says she thinks that “it is enormously comforting to have faith and to believe in heaven and that things are going to be happy, and to have the Rose Kennedy point-of-view,” referring to the late mother of slain President John F. Kennedy, a woman noted for her devout Catholic faith.
“And of course the whole discussion of science, the belief in intelligent design, is very provocative,” added Walters.
The famous interviewer, however, does talk easily about her upbringing and what she believes has given her the values by which she lives. “I had no religious education,” Walters said. “I’m Jewish but because my father considered himself an atheist, religion was not part of our life. I never went to Sunday school.” Her father, Lou Walters, who owned the Latin Quarter, one of the hottest night clubs of his era, did come home on Friday nights, when the Jewish Sabbath begins. Her mother, Walters added, “never gave [religion] much thought, though we did make a point, once in a while to light candles on Friday nights. But we never observed Yom Kippur or fasted. We never celebrated the holidays.” She never went to temple, never remembers going to a Passover seder, nor celebrating Hannukah.
“We didn’t have a Christmas tree either,” she recalled. “But I have a Christmas tree now. I love Christmas.”
When Walters decided to do the show about heaven, it’s original title was “Heaven: Does It Exist?” The network rejected that title. There had been an earlier show called “Resurrection” where the ratings were not as good as expected, possibly because of the way the show was promoted. They felt that people did not want to have their beliefs questioned and wouldn’t tune in if they were.
During her many interviews for the piece, Walters was twice told that she was going to go to hell—once by an incarcerated, failed suicide bomber and once by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who said that if she wasn’t a born-again Christian there was no guarantee she would go to heaven. “I was very cool,” she recalled, “but it was a little chilling.” Haggard’s interview was removed from the new version of the show because the national evangelical leader resigned from his Colorado Springs megachurch ministry after a male escort alleged that he and Haggard had had sexual relations. An interview with Houston-based megachurch pastor and televangelist Joel Osteen was added to the show.
Walters said the interview that affected her the most was one with the Dalai Lama. “He said the purpose of life was to be happy. That comes from being warm-hearted and compassionate.” So, she said with a laugh, “for two weeks I was warm-hearted and compassionate….There was not an ounce of competitiveness in me…Then things went back to normal.”
Before she interviewed the Dalai Lama, she had rarely had anything to do with religion. “If my friends were Christian, or Jewish or Mormon I might know that, but I didn’t know whether they would go to church or temple.” She went a couple of times to hear the prominent black preacher Calvin Butts at the Abyssinian Church in Harlem. “Maybe twice I went to temple in a blue moon. When I was married to Merv (Adelson) we celebrated the holidays because it was important to him.” She adopted a daughter, Jackie, with her first husband Lee Guber. “Lee cared, so Jackie went to Sunday school. She considers herself Jewish.”
Because she did not have a religious upbringing, where she learn her values? “I don’t remember my parents ever lecturing me or discussing values,” she said. “I’m not sure where a moral compass comes from. Some people just don’t have it. How do you get from meanness to kindness?” Walters added that because her sister, who died two years ago, had been mentally handicapped, “I grew up with a compassion I might not have had.”
She also grew up in show business, first in Boston, where her father owned his first nightclub, then in New York. She was exposed to all sorts of famous people who were admired by everyone. “Yet because I knew them, I knew they had problems just like everyone else. I had a sense of balance and understanding I might not have had. I knew it didn’t matter how important or celebrated or rich you were. It had nothing to do with the way you led your life.”
Walters recalled that her father treated everybody the same, from the show girls to the celebrities. “I grew up with very little prejudice because all different kinds of people worked for my father, from all different religions to all different countries.”
Perhaps it was that same kind of understanding that she found so appealing in the Dalai Lama. “I loved his own warm-heartedness, I loved my hand in his, his humor. I sat in the rain with hundreds of Buddhist monks of all ages listening to him. He is very appealing. He says he is not a god, that he is a teacher. He’s very modest. If I believed in anything I would believe in reincarnation. That would help explain some of the misery in life….and that perhaps the next life will be better.”
–Walters was interviewed by On Faith moderator Sally Quinn