American values. We hear them talked about a lot. Politicians like to say that their legislative priorities uphold American values while their opponent’s legislative priorities are diametrically opposed to them.
But how often do we seriously discuss what these values are? Why are they important? What do they really mean? Too often, these foundational questions are left unanswered in the age of soundbites and political gotcha culture.
America is unique. It is exceptional. Ours is a creedal nation, the first and only of its kind: we are the only nation in the history of the world that is derived not from geographical homeland, ethnic identity, or religious uniformity, but from ideas.
These are good ideas, important ideas, revolutionary ideas, ideas for which people have died. They are ideas about equality, freedom, and human dignity. The American founding asserted the historically unprecedented concept that we are born with certain unalienable rights. The government does not give us these rights. We are naturally endowed with them. The government is simply our collective project to secure these rights.
We are not, nor have we ever been, a country which draws its identity from blood and soil; in this way, we are unique. To be an American, one must not be of a certain ethnicity or race, nor must they subscribe to a particular religious ideology or even share a cultural history with their fellow countrymen and women. To be American is something much richer. What we ask of our fellow citizens is subscription to the American idea: a commitment to the universal dignity of persons everywhere.
As a creedal nation, we traditionally overcame our lack of shared history, culture, racial identity, or religion by uniting in our commitment to upholding these ideals and securing the American experiment for the next generation. We are the most diverse, pluralistic, multicultural society in the history of the world, but we hung together on the strength of our belief in our shared values.
This is, in the words of U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, “why Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are essential American ‘Founders’ … When Lincoln freed millions of slaves from their shackles, and when King loosened the bonds of segregation and inequality, they were lifting America up — toward those ideals it has always held forth but not always lived up to … Lincoln and King appear not to reject but to carry forward the Founders’ dream: to more perfectly realize the marvelous American idea of liberty and justice for all. This, and nothing less, is what America means.”
Martin Luther King Jr. referenced our founding documents often, and with reverence. In a 1965 speech in Atlanta, he said of the Declaration of Independence: “This is a dream. It’s a great dream … Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us … that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”
A more powerful affirmation of the American idea cannot be found.
For most of our history, we haven’t always succeeded in living up to these eternal values. However, throughout our shared history it was commonly understood that our founding ideals were worth pursuing. Progress was justified in terms of our common belief in liberty, equality, and fundamental human dignity. There was a powerful unifying force in this: we shared a core set of values, even if we might disagree sharply on the means through which they would best be fulfilled.
However, this is changing.
As a nation, we have failed to educate our youth about what it means to be American, and more importantly, what America itself means. We take for granted that America will always survive, but we are collectively losing the creedal glue that holds our republic together.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Ronald Reagan famously warned. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
Does the generation currently coming of age know about the exceptional nature of America? The statistics are deeply concerning:
Forty-one percent of Americans under the age of 30 believe the First Amendment is “dangerous.”
Thirty-eight percent of young Americans do not agree that “America has a history that we should be proud of.”
Only half of Americans under the age of 35 believe that our country is “special,” compared to 83 percent of Americans over the age of 55.
One in eight millennials believes that “America was never a great country and it never will be.”
The polling goes on, ad nauseam. The results, however, are clear: our republic’s young people no longer believe in or affirm our collective national commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The American idea is in serious danger.
This can be directly linked with a national failure to educate the next generation about America. A full 40 percent of Americans can’t name a single freedom enumerated in the First Amendment, the beating heart of the American experiment. Only 12 percent can name two. The numbers plummet from there. Only 19 percent of Americans under the age of 45 can pass our citizenship test (NBC News).
This is something we should all be concerned about. Without a shared history, culture, religion or any other factor that holds most nations together, we have always relied on a shared belief in the ideals set forth in our founding. If we no longer buy into our creed, what reason do we have to remain unified at all?
Together, we must rediscover what it means to be American.