American cultural values, what are they? Are there some that are essential to understanding what is meant by the American way of life? Are there some that transcend the many ethnicities, races, and ways of living that make up the American landscape? People seem to think there are, but defining them is not that easy. Nevertheless, that is what this brief article will try to do. But first, What is America? In one sense we are a nation in which white European immigrants and their descendants conquered land through the use of force and duplicity in ways that are no longer tolerated as morally acceptable, but what an amazing feat it was. Books, movies, and myths record it in truth, and in romanticized exaggeration. It is the stuff of childhood dreams and games. Colonial and pioneer associations exist in every region, and are celebrated at annual fairs and exhibitions. It’s an odd mixture of pride and shame, with pride overshadowing deeds shamefully half remembered.
In another sense we are a nation in which loosely regulated entrepreneurial private enterprise is encouraged to prosper in whatever ways are legal. With luck and hard work, creativity and risk may be richly rewarded, or maybe not. Finally, we are participants in a national experiment in constitutional, representative democracy that is unique on the world stage. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One) is aspirational. Often interpreted to mean out of many people, one people, it was intended to mean out of many states, one nation. Either way, we are many. We are not one. Not yet. Moreover, we have not yet come to terms with what government is, or what it should do. American government is a hodgepodge of a complicated federal system overlaying fifty different versions of provincial government, each with its own sets of rules for local government, a few of which follow laws set for them by monarchs otherwise remembered only in history books. At its heart is a written constitution, amended twenty-seven times as we try to get it right.
Before exploring the variety of ways in which the cultural values that define America are expressed, it would be good to say something about the Constitution as an expression of cultural values, especially the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, because they not only outline core cultural values, they set them in foundational law. They are not values always adhered to, but they set standards we desire for the nation as a whole, even when we have little intention of meeting them. We are a land that values freedom of speech, the press, and religion, but forbids governments from establishing or favoring any particular religion. We are a nation that values the role of the citizen soldier, and, therefore, the right of citizens to be armed (in a limited and disciplined way?). We are a nation that will not tolerate governmental use of private property without due process of law. We are a nation that prohibits governments from searches and seizures without warrants. We are a nation that demands fair trials. We are a nation that recognizes there are other rights, unalienable rights, not recognized in law but given by the Almighty to all persons. As they are discovered, they will be protected. We are a nation that intentionally disperses governmental authority between and among different branches in different places. Following the Civil War, amendments XIII, XIV, and XV clarified these rights by specifically extending them to former slaves, and their descendants. Amendment XIX extended the right to vote to women. American Indians, declared full citizens in 1924, are struggling yet for their rightful place in a land where centuries gross injustices have gone unheeded.
The Constitution is our foundational law, but cultural values that define America go well beyond law. They are ever changing, often poorly defined myths, standards, and expectations that are generally understood, but in vastly different ways by different people in different parts of the country. Whatever they are, preserving or restoring them was a rallying cry in the recent presidential campaign, with many people complaining that their access to achieving all that they promise had been closed to them. Indeed, there has been a strong movement to preserve traditional American cultural values for several decades, with no little controversy over what they are. In the face of massive immigration from non-European countries, more demands have been made that newcomers must assimilate into American culture, leaving their old behind. It raises a question. What would you tell a new immigrant about what the essential American values are, and how to live into the American way of life?
We have an unofficial model assigned to display the ideal of what American cultural values look like. It’s a white, vaguely Protestant, middle class family living in their own house, surrounded by friendly neighbors who are a lot like them. It’s not that literature, movies, and the media (whatever that is) haven’t portrayed other ways of American life, but it’s always been clear that those ways fall short of the ideal. Everything either pointed to the ideal as the way to success, or illuminated the outer edges of society as places of tacky humor, tragedy, or failure. Even works that exposed and explored injustices assumed, each in their own way, that the depth of injustice was measured by its deviance from the unofficial ideal. It isn’t working any more. What would work? Can we define it?
I asked Facebook friends to write a little something about what they believed to be essential American values, and to do so without snide asides or political hatchet honing. A few responded. Some could not resist snideness. Only two of my several right wing and conservative friends had anything to say. Maybe the others thought it was a trap of some kind. Who can say? Nonetheless, some thoughtful offerings were made. Everyone agreed that freedom was one of the essentials, but all had difficulty saying what it means. Before digging into what freedom might mean, what language shall we use? Is it possible to share cultural values without a common language? I don’t think so.
Unlike most other countries, America does not have an official language, but English is our default shared language, and it has worked well for three centuries to help mold what it is to be American. Strident calls to make it our official language are more about bullying immigrants than anything else and are not helpful, nor are they meant to be helpful. Mean spirited is about the best one can say for them. Still, English is the language that binds us together as a people. Basic competency in it is essential to learning, understanding and adopting America’s shared cultural values. It is shameful when we deliberately make it hard for non-English speakers to learn it in their own way. It is even more shameful when we deliberately suppress the use of other languages. I stand in awe of my Spanish speaking neighbors who can flip back and forth with ease between it and English. Would that every school child was taught a second or third language from the very start of their education. Besides, like the increasing ethnic diversity of the American public, American English is a mix of many others as it adopts words and phrases from other cultures, almost without noticing it. New York City English is peppered with dozens of Yiddishisms that are ordinary parts of everyday conversation. Honolulu English contains a wild mix of Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese all mangled together. Santa Fe can’t be navigated without some knowledge of Spanish. Oy vey! Let it be. Competency in English is what enlarges our Ohana while binding it together. We don’t need laws to enforce it. We do need to explore freedom – in English.
Freedom. Everyone agreed that freedom is an essential cultural value, but what is it? The light of freedom had been snuffed out all over Europe in the last years of the ‘30s, flickering only in Britain. It looked like it too would be extinguished soon, and our own was under threat. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech articulated Four Freedoms that should be universal, are treasured by Americans, and are worth fighting for. They were: Freedom of Speech; Freedom to Worship as one desires; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear. Might they also include freedom to work at whatever one is capable of doing, or studying whatever one wants to study, or live wherever one wants and travel without restriction? Commentator Dennis Prager says that American freedoms are unique because they are not based on race or ethnicity. Would that it were so. It’s wishful thinking, but he has a point. We want our freedoms to be prejudice free. We may not live up to our highest standards of freedom that have no place for racial prejudice, but they are still our standards.
Although many countries proclaim freedom of speech, it is America that embeds it in the Constitution, and protects even vile forms of speech so that the freedom to express one’s self is not jeopardized. When powerful political forces arise to limit freedom of speech, equally powerful forces arise to defend it. It may be our most important freedom. Freedom to worship as one pleases frames the value Americans place on worship, and on the value of not prescribing what worship is or should be. If “in God we trust,” we do not presume to say who God is or isn’t.
Freedom from Want has generally been understood as freedom to work for one’s bread in the assurance that there is work to be had and that it pays enough to live comfortably. Can it mean more than that? Roosevelt’s speech came as the nation was finally coming out of the Great Depression when work was not to be had, or could not be had a wages sufficient enough for food and shelter. What was the responsibility of the community to create conditions under which well paid work is available to all who can work? That was the question then. It is still the question.
Freedom from fear of what? Fear of destitution? Fear of domestic violence? Fear of crime? Fear of war? Fear of terrorism? There is a lot to be afraid of, yet with few exceptions those of us privileged to have been born into and live the life of the American dream do not know fear the way others do. If all are to live free of fear, what has to be done? Freedom from fear means a certain level of security of life and property. It’s not a value unique to America, but it is the promise of security that draws many from other nations where there is little of it. Freedom from fear also implies courage in the face of threats, and there is an American ideal of courage that is a cultural value idealized in images such as the Minutemen, cowboys, Marines, and armies of one. It may be more hype than reality, but it is an important cultural value just the same.
Freedom is not the only cultural value that transcends the length and breadth of America. Consider self control – responsibility – accountability. An American hymn declares that freedoms are “confirmed by self control, liberty by law.” The cultural value of self control and liberty protected by and accountable to the law are important elements of the American character. From colonial days to now, American cultural values have included accountability to others, and the responsibility one has for one’s own choices and actions. American culture also values self control that eschews extravagant displays of emotion one way or the other, and can withstand temptations to act outside the boundaries of what is socially and morally acceptable. They are cultural values that, while celebrated, rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways depending on where one stands in relation to two significant strands of American political tradition: Libertarian and Puritan. Libertarians celebrate responsibility for their own actions and freedom from government oversight. They reserve the right to establish their own standards of what is right and wrong, desirable and undesirable. If they are not hurting anyone else, leave them alone. Those from a more Puritan perspective celebrate freedom, responsibility, and accountability within the context of community. It is the community that is free to do as it likes, and that sets the standards for those who are members of the community. Individuals are free to join or leave the community, but they are not free to live as they please within the community. When the community gets defined as the city, state, or nation, the conflict between Puritans and Libertarians can be unresolvable. It’s not that Libertarians don’t believe in accountability, they just have a problem saying to whom. While Libertarians are well known in today’s politics, Puritans can be dismissed as stuffy New England pilgrims from long ago who are barely remembered. It’s not true. Their political and ethical standards are with us still in hundreds of ways, underwriting our constitutions and laws, and buried deep in the American consciousness.
Almost as universal as freedom are the values of equality – equity – tolerance. Proclaimed, if not practiced, equality under the law is an essential American cultural value. If nothing else, we want to believe that everyone is equal under the law. We also want to believe that everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed in life. If it isn’t true, we agree that it should be, although in different ways to make it happen. Recent publicity about the reality of white privilege has been ill received by many, especially by those who think that whatever privilege had been theirs has been taken away and given to someone else who has not put in the hard work to deserve it. It’s created a strain on another essential element of American cultural values, tolerance of those who look different, think different, act different. We celebrate our tolerance of others more than we practice it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an essential cultural value, one that we insist new immigrants adopt as quickly as possible. In fact, we want immigrants to go one step farther. We want them to respect and honor the cultural values that have already been woven into the American fabric, leaving their own behind. Tolerance of differences is not the same as respecting and honoring differences. It seems to be where Americans want to go, but we want immigrants to go first. In the meantime, their cultural baggage will be grudgingly tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with established ways.
Related American cultural values are perseverance and hope. Sustaining Americans through ups and downs have been shared cultural values of perseverance and hope. We may not like what’s going on, but Americans value determined perseverance to get through it. Generic Protestantism, the de facto civic religion for three centuries, bequeathed hope to our shared values. No matter how bad things might seem there is always hope for a better future, perhaps not now, but soon. The Social Gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have sputtered in the wake of wars, depression, and social upheaval, but it will not be put out. There is always hope.
Is there more to be said? Of course there is. For instance, I believe that tax supported free public schools are not just important but essential to preserving and enhancing everything that is America. We may need to reenergize the principle of subsidiarity in public policy and programs. Some conservatives have a handle on it, and progressives need to do the same. You may have your own thoughts to add, but this article is long enough for now.