Americans could raise the level of public discourse, improve the quality of life for millions of people and solve most of our political problems if we could agree on the meaning of one word: “Values.”
The ideals we hold reflect our values. The way we act and how we treat others reflect what we value.
If we could talk—and listen—reasonably and patiently to people from all segments of society, perhaps we could discover a common set of values. These values, in turn, could shape how we establish public policy, operate institutions and businesses and, in short, behave toward each other.
We continually hear complaints that America’s “values” have declined precipitously across the past five or six decades. Really? How can anyone but white men even take that claim seriously?
To be sure, no television station from 40 or more years ago would have carried a program featuring a young female singer of middling talent “twerking” her behind in the crotch of a male singer almost old enough to be her father. And immodest dress is now ubiquitous, as is rampant sexuality.
But for all the media attention it generates, profligate promiscuity is not the leading indicator of America’s moral values.
Values may have improved
In fact, you can build a case that our values—or at least numerous important values—have improved across the years. Decades ago, Jim Crow laws segregated and repressed people of color, particularly in the flagrantly religious South. Voting rights were not distributed equally (although, now we’re regressing on that front). Girls did not possess equal privileges in academics and athletics. Women, who still haven’t caught up but are making progress, faced repression in the workplace.
Legislation and public policy forced Americans to treat each other differently. Slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, attitudes followed along. Millions of young people today will not condone—and, frankly, find incomprehensible—the racism and sexism their grandparents took for granted. That’s a vastly improved value.
Now, public attitudes about the dignity and worth of all people are changing. We don’t agree about the morality of homosexual activity. But more Americans acknowledge all people, regardless of their orientation, should be respected and their rights protected.
Economic values hit where we live
Economic values seem to be the most intractable, because they hit each of us where we live—in the pocketbook. Any value that doubles as daily reality calcifies into bedrock.
So, many Americans worry about deficit spending and insist on balancing the federal budget and reducing the national deficit. We’ll leave the debate over whether that will work or if it is in fact necessary to the economists. The question of values comes into play when they suggest exactly how to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.
Those proposals disproportionately fall on the backs of the weakest and most vulnerable. For example, recent legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes cutting SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by $40 billion over 10 years. This program is designed to expand and contract with the economy so that the most vulnerable—the elderly, children and the working poor—can receive basic nutrition. It’s not extravagant, either; the cost is only about $1.50 per meal. Drastic cuts mean consigning fellow Americans to malnutrition, at the very least, which ultimately further harms the economy.
This is but one example of competing values. A strong economy and a healthy federal budget are important, positive values. But so is the health and well-being of all Americans. Similar illustrations could be drawn from policies and budgets that shape health care, education, the military, housing, the environment and more.
And contrary to partisan politicians (Others are hard to find these days.), while values may compete, they need not be mutually exclusive. If we weigh the values, we must look for solutions that balance them appropriately.
Christians can take at least two steps to help our nation define the values that shape our society.
First, we can insist on balance. It’s past time to reward politicians who have the courage to build consensus and compromise, so all Americans are respected and protected and so the range of legitimate values are respected.
Second, we must insist on placing a premium value on human beings. All people are created in God’s image. It is blasphemy and a sacrilege for political and economic power to run roughshod over the divine stamp in any soul.