202: Conversation With Dr. Wayne Baker, the Researcher Behind OurValues.org

any of you jumped immediately into the new www.OurValues.org project, rolled up your sleeves and got involved. Thank you! You’re already offering comments, taking the Quick Poll and signing up for the in-depth survey.
   We’re thrilled to see that -– because you really are making a difference by helping Dr. Wayne Baker and the team of researchers at the University of Michigan learn more about American values.
   TODAY, we’re going to give you a chance to hear from Dr. Baker about the importance of this project -– and the unusual nature of American values in the global community. Dr. Baker launched OurValues this week after years of studying these issues in the U.S. and in cultures around the world.
   So he knows a lot about this subject already.
   Some readers have told us that they’re thinking of using OurValues materials as “discussion starters” in small groups. Tuesday’s Quiz on values and today’s interview with Dr. Baker are great resources to share with groups to help spark discussion. Dr. Baker’s book also is available (just click on the cover).

Here are highlights of our Conversation With Dr. Baker:

   DAVID: We’re sitting down to talk today at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, your home base here in Ann Arbor. And, we’ve already been working for quite a while on this OurValues launch. How are you feeling about this, so far?
   WAYNE: Great. This is very helpful already. One way this already has been useful to me in my research is that it gets me thinking every day about: What are the values issues that people are encountering in the various news stories that we see every day? And, what are the complications we’re facing when values conflict around news events?
   DAVID: So, you’re watching the world more closely in terms of how ordinary men and women experience our changing culture, right?
   WAYNE: I’m watching the news as people experience it in a new way. When I go online, I’ve got Google as my homepage now, because I do so much stuff through Google –- it’s where I start.
   DAVID: Me, too. I’ve got a customized Google page as my starting point going out into the world.
   WAYNE: I have Google customized for headlines about religion and politics and lots of other topics. It’s a great way to scan what’s happening. I look at the new headlines coming out all the time –- and I also look at publications that only come out once a month. So much is happening in the world –- so many things are developing.
   As people post comments on the OurValues site -– their comments themselves become raw data as we think about how people respond to questions about values. Then, there also are the surveys we’re developing on the site. This has opened my eyes to how much information people can help us gather here –- even beyond the larger survey that people can sign up to participate in. I’m realizing that there’s the potential here for people to help us in many ways.

   DAVID: I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve been the editor on your first series of posts. Looking ahead, I’ve seen, now, about two weeks of articles you plan to publish –- and the kinds of questions you’ll be asking people. I like the fact that, rather than just asking basic questions about values and political choices -– you’re giving people all kinds of different doorways into thinking about their values. You’re asking them about everything from Hillary Clinton’s generation –- the values shared by people of her age group –- to things like poetry. What can poetry teach us about values?
   I like it that for the July 4 weekend, you plan to ask Americans about the colors of our country. We all know it’s a red-white-and-blue holiday -– but what other colors that represent America? Green? Or, the political colors? Other colors? I think this really is a refreshing way to get people talking about our close-to-the-heart values.
   I can’t wait to see what comments we see to your questions about unusual topics like poetry –- or colors.
   WAYNE: And I’m going to be watching closely, too, for which issues really set people off –- and which issues really are non-starters for people. This is important data, too –- helping us to get a better sense of which issues really are causing a lot of concern for people. Some issues we’ll raise will turn out to be like –- vanilla. Nothing really to say about them. Others, I think, will spark some really strong reactions.
   Seeing the levels and nature of people’s reactions is part of the process -– part of what we’re looking at here.

   DAVID: Let’s talk for a moment about the basic issue behind this project: Helping researchers –- and, really, helping all of us, including our country’s leaders –- understand these values that are at the core of our lives.
   On the face of it, this seems like such a simple question, right? These are the issues that millions of men and women agree are extremely important to them. So, why is the word “values” such a complicated term these days? Why is it so difficult to talk about values in public? How did this get so confusing in the first place?
   WAYNE: There are a couple of things that became very complicated for people. One is that the word “values” and the phrase “values voters” became associated specifically with conservative values and conservative political causes. My position is that nobody has a monopoly on values -– and everyone has values, whether you’re ultra-conservative, ultra-liberal, somewhere in the middle. You’ve got values no matter what your religion is –- or even if religion is not an important part of your life. If you’re secular, you have values as well. Part of the problem is this knee-jerk reaction that’s now associated with the word “values.” So often, you hear the word and the first thing you think of is –- what? — conservative voters.
   It is interesting that conservatives seem to be able to talk more freely about their values than liberals can –- even though liberals have values as well. That’s part of the difficulty. The whole discussion seems to be usurped by a particular political ideology, when really we all have something to say in this discussion. We all have values.
   Another problem is that it is just difficult for all human beings to talk about our values –- because values operate many times at a sub-conscious level.

   DAVID: You’re talking about important parts of our live that, over many years, we pick up –- pick up, where would you say?
   WAYNE: Usually, people pick up values not because their parents hammered at them about something -– but because they observed how their parents behaved and how they interacted with other people. People infer values from what they see in their families. People are socialized into their values often in ways that they really are unable to describe in words. So, finding out about the most important values in our lives often involves asking questions on other levels about our behavior or attitudes –- and then trying to infer what underlying values led to those choices.

   DAVID: Is this basic difficulty in talking about values associated with a particular period in American life? I’m asking this because we’ve written a lot about different periods in American life. A few weeks ago, we ran some verses from Woody Guthrie’s famous song, “This Land Was Made for You and Me” -– and, even though most people don’t recall the final verse of that song, the fact is that the final verse is a very bitter critique on American values.
   So, back as early as the Depression, you had people arguing about what today we would call values. Then, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was a whole different shape to the discussion, but a lot of the really important cultural waves that rolled through those decades were all about how we define American values.
   Do we say we’ve always been concerned with our values? Or, is this desire to talk about our values associated with a particular period in our history?
   WAYNE: I think it’s a perennial issue and debates about values have always been there in American life. If you go back to the early years of our nation, you can look at how the Puritans responded to the Quakers, for example. There wasn’t a whole lot of religious tolerance back then. Different Protestant groups clashed throughout our early history. Then, later, when Catholics came over in significant numbers, those clashes over religious values escalated to a whole new level.
   So, I think questions about values have always been there –- but the conversation ebbs and flows according to what’s happening in the world at any given time. The values debates during the Civil War focused on some different issues than we’re facing today.
   I talk about this in my book, “America’s Crisis of Values,” because it’s quite interesting. There’s always a base-line debate going on over our values. But there’s something unique about the American system when it comes to values.

   DAVID: I’m glad you’re touching on this point. Your book is dense with data from the U.S. and around the world and you talk about a whole range of issues -– but I keep returning to this central point you make in the book: You believe there is a unique nature to the values debate within American culture.
   WAYNE: Yes. There is something unique about America as a cultural system. Most nations view themselves as nations because their people have a very long history, very long periods of occupying the same territory, long associations with a particular religion, common customs that go back often for many centuries. That becomes the cultural glue in many nations -– but America never had that. For Americans, our cultural basis is not that we’re born into a particular culture that’s many centuries old.
   Here, you can become an American. You’re not born into a culture like –- say, you’re French because you’re born there and have inherited this long cultural history. We say that people can become Americans.
   DAVID: That’s a powerful realization –- and, when we think about it, we know this about our culture, right? We actually celebrate it. But it sets us apart.
   WAYNE: This idea really isn’t true in a lot of other nations. Being American is an ideological commitment.
   The cultural foundation of America is a set of values that function in ways that are different than almost any other nation we can think of.
   DAVID: So, what are some of these core values that are part of this cultural foundation?
   WAYNE: One of them is patriotism, or national pride. Americans are unusual in the world in how patriotic we are. For example, there was a survey done of patriotism in 22 countries worldwide and Americans were right at the top in being the most patriotic. And we see this in the World Values Surveys as well.
   It may not always be the most patriotic in the world –- but it’s always right up there at the top as one of the most patriotic societies in the world. By and large, a lot of Americans are proud to be American and are proud of America’s accomplishments –- even as they acknowledge our shortcomings and failures as well.

   DAVID: Journalists, over the years, have often heard people express attitudes that are pretty close to: Love my country; hate my government at the moment. So, talk a little more about this value.
   WAYNE: Every nation-state has a problem of both legitimacy and integration. So we have about 300 million people living here in America. How could that large a number of those people feel they have anything in common with other people? Well, one way they feel that they share something in common is that they feel that we share this sense of “being an American.”
   When people talk about themselves and the country, they talk about being an American as something distinctively different, let’s say, than being Canadian or being French or being Chinese. It’s a sense we have of belonging to an imagined community. We envision that we do have something in common -– that we hold values in common –- and one of those important values is this feeling of pride in being American. That’s the cultural part we feel we share.
   DAVID: Then, there’s the government, the state -– and that’s something different than this vision of our shared American culture, right?
   WAYNE: Yes. There’s this governmental and legal apparatus -– this part of America that’s the state that governs. And this is another way that American values are really unusual in the world: Americans tend to be anti-establishment. Compared with much of the world, we prefer limited government. Now, there’s variation in that. But the debates in this country between liberals and conservatives about big government and limited government are talking about a range of government that –- compared to much of the world –- is still a small government.
   Look at the nation-states in Europe, like Sweden where the government is a much, much bigger presence in people’s lives -– and the people in countries like Sweden accept the government as this much bigger presence. Americans are unusual in preferring limited government.
   That pride in being an American goes right along with that skepticism about government and that desire for limited government.

   DAVID: So, we are distinctive around patriotism. We’re distinctive on how we see our government’s role. Give us another top-line value.
   WAYNE: Another is religion. It’s very interesting when you look at other lists of American values that people have made over the years. Lots of people have tried to do this and they’ve come up with long lists of our values –- and short lists, too. I’ve always been surprised that religion is rarely on those lists, when it seems clear to me that religion is a dominant American value.
   For example, if you ask Americans: How important is God in your life on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important? When you ask that, you’ll get 85 percent of Americans saying: 7-8-9-10. More than half of Americans will say: 10.
   It’s completely the opposite in Europe where many people will say: 1. One exception would be Ireland, as an example of a place with very high levels of belief in God. But generally, in many places in Europe, you’d find far more people than in America putting the importance of God or religion at 1 or 2.
   DAVID: This surprises a lot of Americans, because we hear so many people decrying what they perceive to be the fading of faith in our country. We often hear this from conservative religious leaders -– but we hear it, too, from mainline leaders, as well. And yet the data –- in your study that went into your book as well as in Gallup data or Pew data –- show a very strong level of religious involvement here in the U.S.
   WAYNE: Yes. Religious attendance here is still at very high levels, especially compared with Europe.
   The fact is that religion is a much more personal matter here. In much of Europe, churches are state sponsored or they are linked to the state in some way. In contrast, churches in America are very democratic. This idea of democracy in religion goes beyond the organization of our churches. It also reflects the way Americans think about which churches they will attend. How do people talk about choosing a church? They’ll says: I don’t like this church, so I’ll just go join another church. That idea is pretty unusual around the world.
   Now, there are a lot of disagreements between Americans about how we should express our faith –- but Americans tend to be united, and unusually so in the world, in very strong beliefs in the importance of God.

   DAVID: You’re saying that our disagreements about religion have more to do with our flavors of faith, we might say. Or how we express what we believe in our faith.
   WAYNE: Yes, the debate mainly is about flavors of faith and how we express our faith.
   DAVID: Ever since your book was published and I reported on your research work, at that time for the Detroit Free Press, I’ve been amazed at your findings in this area. So many people perceive us, as Americans, as so deeply divided –- when, in fact, there’s so much we share as common ground.
   WAYNE: There’s actually a constellation of values that we share: the God-country-family constellation of values.
   And, again, that sounds like I’m talking about a conservative set of values that we associate with conservative political viewpoints, but that isn’t necessarily so. You can be very patriotic, you can have a very strong religious faith as so many Americans do, and you can believe in the importance of the nuclear family -– and yet you could also be extremely tolerant and even celebrate a lot of other cultural choices people are making. In other words, you could be making your own very strong choices about these values of God, country and family –- and yet you also can celebrate and welcome diversity, as well.

   DAVID: It’s got to be very challenging to sort out such a complex chemistry of values.
   WAYNE: It is. This is very difficult for researchers. Here’s an example: We are working on developing a list of possible questions we can ask Americans about values. So, we went back and made a careful review of more than 130 different questionnaires people have used over the years to study values — and we’ve culled from that about 200 potential questions that we could ask.
   One thing that surprises me is that there are questions I think we should be asking Americans about values that have never been asked on any of the 130 questionnaires. This work I’m doing right now will help us evaluate the kinds of questions we should use.
   So, people really will be helping us when they visit the site and add their comments, take the surveys and so on. They’ll be making a difference.

   Visit www.OurValues.org to roll up your sleeves and get involved.
   If you’d like to read more about Dr. Baker and even download some of his earlier work, visit his personal Web site.

PLEASE, TELL US WHAT YOU THINK. Click on the “Comment” link below – or you always can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

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