Power and Principles

Power and Principles: Leaders in Media and Finance

Reflect on the Ethical Framework of Their Work

Published by Harvard Divinity School, 2002
Editor: Will Joyner

Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons, professes a similar combination of confidence and puzzlement regarding the core values in his life. Lear, however, considers his spiritual sensibilities not as the legacy of his childhood religion, but as an essential part of his creative gift. Perhaps because of this, he speaks of his personal values and spiritual values in a way that is more philosophical (concerning questions about meaning and knowledge) than ethical (concerning the right relations among human beings).

“I was born to struggle with [the question of how to be] a good person in the right way,” Lear says. “I have no explanation for that. My father got into trouble with the law. Couldn’t get right from wrong. I think it was some thing congenital. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy. He had this enormous joy and I cherished the joy, and I know I inherited it from him. But I don’t think I became a person wishing to be good because he couldn’t manage it all the time. I think it just happened ”

“I don’t know how to explain why I care about the things that I care about,” he continues “I’m just a keen observer, and I think you could call me a lover. I love people, I love life, I love food, I love what’s at the basis of all this: nature, God, you know, everything that flows from all the thinking that ever went into, across the centuries, an understanding of what nature is, what the world is, what the earth is, what the elements are, where did it all come from, everybody’s perception of a different kind of God. There’s an answer to all of these things. How does one explain why one is interested in the basic question of our lives, the basic question on the earth? I would think every body is, in his or her own groping fashion.”

Lear grew up in a Jewish household in which he found it difficult to respect the authority of religious leaders “I was bar-mitzvahed, but I didn’t like my rabbi,” he says. “I didn’t respect him. I knew several other rabbis because they were fathers of friends of mine, and I remember thinking as a really young kid, 13 or 14, ‘They’re God all day long and they come home and they’re still God, and they’re not fathers, they’re not husbands and they’re not real guys. They’re still playing that role that they play all day.’ I remember so clearly thinking this.”

This childhood frustration has helped fuel Lear’s own sense of entitlement to explore the basic questions that give life meaning. “The directors of the conversation have become the owners, and they are the professionals: the rabbis, the priests, the ministers, the reverends. And it’s their stained-glass rhetoric that prevails. Very few of us have that ability or maybe even the inclination to use that language and enter the conversation that way; but we all, whether consciously or not, want to be in the discussion…. I reached a place in my life where I came to understand: ‘Wait a minute, something’s very wrong here. I want to be in this discussion. I belong in this discussion. I’m a human being. I have all the same desires to know and questions to ask as anybody else, and my way of expressing it is just as interesting as that priest’s or that rabbi’s.’

“Think of it. The human of the species has been here—what?—a million years? But the planet has been here billions of years. And this planet is surrounded by a billion other planets. And the universe that surrounds it is surrounded by a billion other universes. So why can’t I be heard pondering this, expressing gratitude to the Creator, but in my way — and be respected for the way I speak it, just the way we respect all children who are only an instant younger than we? Why shouldn’t all of us be encouraged to become engaged in this best of all possible explorations and discussions, each in his or her own language, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a culture that nurtures that?”

The most crucial spiritual encouragement in Lear’s life has come from his wife, Lynn Davis. He puts it this way: “She was the first person who was total in my life—I had a mother and a father, and I had two wives before this. They were not total in my life. They were there all the time. But Lynn was the first person in my life who wanted to listen to everything I had to say, every feeling I had about anything. And she was always on her own search. And she had an enormous amount of things to share with me. To teach me.”

Lear also believes that his professional life is well-suited for the intentional exploration of his personal values “I don’t know any industry” he says, referring to entertainment, “that is more inclined to ask big questions, because I don’t see any industry or any area of public discourse where these questions are asked, except in churches and synagogues, and even then, they’re not asking the questions. They’re providing the answers to people who are still groping.”

One story that dramatically demonstrates Lear’s commitment to explore ethical and religious questions in his professional life concerns the relationship between Archie and Edith Bunker in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, which starred Carroll 0’Connor and Jean Stapleton. “In working out the character of Edith,” Lear recalls, “we would answer [the question], ‘What did we think Christ would do? That’s what she would do’. The only time she lost her faith, it was because a transvestite that she adored, a man that she adored was killed, simply because he was dressed in women’s clothing. And she couldn’t see how a just God would do that. And she regained her faith when it became apparent to her that Archie’s strength and health depended on her faith. If she was in trouble, he was in worse trouble, and she had to regain her faith to save him. It was very easy to write. You know why it was easy to write? I don’t mean ‘easy to be funny,’ but ‘easy to be truthful,’ because at our core we all know what’s right. It’s not hard to know what Jesus would do in any instance. It’s hard to live it, hard to see it, this idea that we insist it be lived. It’s not hard to know the answer.”

Lear’s creations have been immensely popular, which has earned him a great following among people who are concerned with the representation of religion and values in popular culture. But he expresses some discomfort with this status: “Every once in a while somebody says to me, ‘God is using you.’ And that makes me cringe. I mean, that worries me. Certainly I have a relationship with God, but my path to him is a one-way street. His path to me is a highway to all of us; I can’t find the effrontery to feel I am being used without a voice screaming inside, ‘We are all being used.’ I guess I’ve seen too much harm being done by people who think God is speaking to them, or God is using them. … I think we’re here to act for God, not God here to act for us. … George Bernard Shaw said we were here to do God’s will and that if we didn’t do it, if we turned away, saying “Thy will be done,’ leaving it all to Him, we might as well be the most irreligious persons on the face of the earth.”