United America (Wayne Baker) -- A Review

UNITED AMERCA: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and the 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear.  By Wayne Baker.  Preface by Brian McLaren.  Canton, MI:  Read the Spirit Books, 2014. 

            I am a citizen of the United States of America.  I italicized the word united, because it doesn’t seem as if these states that comprise America are all that united.  If the news reports are to be believed, it would seem that this nation is not only divided it is polarized.  In fact, if you contrast Fox and MSNBC, it might appear as if we’re living in two different countries.  While on the surface it seems as if the country is irreparably divided, perhaps we’re not quite as polarized as it would seem from the outside.  If there is unity in these “United” States, then what might that be?

            Wayne Baker, a sociologist teaching at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, believes that there are ten core values that a majority of Americans hold to strongly. Not only that, but there has been significant stability in how Americans view these core values over time.  It is this set of ten core values that provide the foundation of our unity.  That is, even though there are corrosive forces at work, healing is possible if we’re willing to strengthen the values that can neutralize these corrosive forces.  For this to take place there will need to be, as Brian McLaren notes in his preface, “an outpouring of positivity” (p. xvi).
As a sociologist Baker has sought to discover these core values through the use of surveys.  Besides consulting the many surveys that have been taken over the years that take not of American core values, he has gone further and created a few of his own. As a result he has discovered these core values that range from respect to critical patriotism.  The results of his study are reported in this book and through the auspices of the Our Values Project (www.OurValues.org). 

 His list of ten core values includes: respect for others, symbolic patriotism, freedom, security, self-reliance and individualism, equal opportunity, getting ahead, pursuit of happiness, justice and fairness, and critical patriotism.  A quick glance at this list will identify certain values that seem to conflict.  Consider, for instance, freedom and security.  As we’re learning, in a post-911 world, the government has erred on the side of security, thus limiting some of our freedoms.  Self-reliance can conflict with equal opportunity.  We value respect for others, but we often fall short.  Indeed, as I began reading the first chapter, which deals with respect, I had to wonder whether the author was in touch with reality.  I’ve seen too much disrespect of late, to believe that as a nation we value respecting others, including those who are very different from us.  While it’s true that will people might not be so forthcoming about negative attitudes to a survey-taker, Baker suggests that these values may be more aspirational than current reality.  

What we learn is that by and large Americans are in agreement as to the centrality of these values, whether they are liberal or conservative. Of course, they have a tendency to interpret the values differently. When there is conflict they may lean in different directions. Thus, while Americans, as a whole, value self-reliance, some Americans are more apt to emphasize individualism while others the role of community.   Consider as well the value of equal opportunity.  Conservatives are more apt to emphasize the premise that America offers a level playing field, so if you work hard you should rise to the top.  Liberals, while not taking it to an extreme are more concerned than conservatives about moving people toward equality of outcomes by working toward removing as many barriers to equality as possible.  To lift up the issue of income inequality, the two sides take very different views.  On one side, there is the view that people deserve to take home what they earn – and if the rich get richer then so be it.  On the other side there are those who believe that government should step in to reduce inequality.  They don’t the use the word redistribute, but that is the way it has to occur.

Definitions matter as well.  Consider the word “freedom.”  Americans certainly value freedom.  Freedom of speech, religion, and the press are enshrined in the Constitution.  But is freedom the same thing as liberty?  Baker notes that linguistically liberty speaks of independence and separation, while freedom speaks of “rights, duties, and protections of belonging to a free tribe.”  That is, liberty is about separation, while freedom speaks of connection (p. 49).  Because we tend to see these two words as synonyms, we often talk over each other.  Thus, the Tea Party mantra of "Don't Tread on Me," is libertarian, and is not focused on freedom to engage one another as a whole in community.       

This is an intrriguing book.  As I noted, it’s more aspirational than descriptive of current reality, but then the same can be said about the Declaration of Independence.  Our values are the ideals that we pursue.  The values lifted up, even patriotism, are firmly held by Americans across party and ideological lines.  But while agree on the values, we don’t all agree on the application of them in society, and that’s where the rub is.  While we most Americans embrace in some way each of the ten core values, we don’t all give the same weight to each one.  I, for instance, would place greater emphasis on respect than self-reliance, freedom over liberty.   

While Brian McLaren and many of the persons whose comments from the “Our Values” website are people of faith, this isn’t really a religious book.  Spirituality influences these values, but they have emerged from a variety of places and sources.  In many ways, when allowed to blossom, these values make room for a variety of faith expressions, all of which contribute to the life of the nation.   

I encourage the reading of the book, because it can serve as an important conversation starter.  Exploring these values, especially in conversation with others, can help Americans move toward recognizing our underlying unity.  I could quibble about editing and organizational matters, but these are incidental, and in the end don’t take away from the value of the book.  Take, read, reflect, discuss, and that we may attain to the ideal of a United States of America in the midst of all our diversity of ideologies, religions, ethnicities, and gender.    


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