Institute Speakers Quench a ‘Thirst for Values’ : Culture: Author Stephen L. Carter and Mayor Richard Riordan, among others, call for a return to ethical living to ease fears and slow violence. They spoke at Skirball’s celebration of its 10th anniversary.


From high atop the verdant mountain, a call rang forth Sunday, a passionate reminder of a simple truth often overlooked in the sprawling valleys below so beset by fear and violence:

It’s good to live by good values.

At a luncheon in the just-opened Skirball Cultural Center near the summit of the Sepulveda Pass, speakers urged a crowd of about 200--a gathering of Southern California’s political, business, religious and philanthropic elite--to spread the word.

Nothing, speakers said, would go further to ease the fear and slow the violence than the veneration of good values--as well as some straightforward talk among those with competing visions but shared values.


Across America, there is “this thirst for values, this thirst to talk about values,” said the keynote speaker, Stephen L. Carter, author of the 1993 book “The Culture of Disbelief” that argues for a rightful place for faith and religious values in the nation’s public life.

Such a message was entirely in keeping with the theme of the day--a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Los Angeles-based Skirball Institute on American Values and the 80th birthday of its founding director, Rabbi Alfred Wolf.

The cultural center--and the institute--are named for Jack Skirball, a rabbi who later became a prominent film producer. In announcing the forming of the institute a month before his death in 1985, Skirball spoke of “American values” as “ethical values.” The institute is an agency of the American Jewish Committee.

Skirball went on to say in the interview with The Times: “Values that have to do with home, family--the relationship of the parents to their children has to do with the relationship of the children to the world--education, children, food, shelter, clothing. . . .”

The institute sponsors interfaith research projects, essay contests, teaching manuals and conferences aimed at identifying and promoting “those values held in common by the American people.”

Such values, Wolf said Sunday, “enable us to be a country that treasures both its diversity and its unity.”

It might seem a hopeless task to identify such values. Not so, said Carter, a Yale law school professor; they can be found in three distinct sources.

Embodied in the U.S. Constitution, he said, are such values as religious liberty, free speech, due process and racial equality. “Whether or not America lives up to these values, I hope we can say these are the values Americans should be living up to,” Carter said.

Religious traditions offer a second source, he said. Virtually every religion promotes generosity, honesty and a commitment to family and community.

Finally, Carter said, there is the nation’s historical tradition. Patriotism “has made America great.” So, he said, has a “sense of sacrifice . . . for the common good.”

Without such values, he asserted, “Society goes down a very dangerous path because our institutions, our laws, our schools end up standing for nothing.”

“While we have a nation often painted by the media as a country hopelessly divided . . . we actually have a great deal in common,” Carter said, urging a “national conversation” at which people “come together and talk.”

Mayor Richard Riordan, who followed Carter to the microphone, apparently opted to kick off such a conversation.

“I think a lot of the problems we have here in our society [are] that we don’t have the courage and guts to call things like they are,” the mayor said.

As an example, Riordan said, “The media, the newspapers, they’re afraid to call Mr. Farrakhan a racist,” referring to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “I call him a racist.”

The news media, he added, are similarly “afraid” to label as “unethical” those lawyers who “go as far as they can get away with in defending their clients.”

”. . . A lot of the blame goes to people of my generation and we just have to call facts facts--and we have to deal with them,” Riordan said.

His comments provoked no visible reaction from the audience.

Immediately after delivering those remarks, the mayor switched gears and praised such values as honesty, charity, hard work--and tolerance.

These, he said, are the “things in life that bring the community together, bring people together.”