Divided America: Do you trust God or yourself?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Divided America

The Creation of Adam on Sistine Chapel ceilingOne of the main messages of OurValues.org is that, after all, Americans still have a lot in common. We are united by 10 core values. (You’ll find them all on our resource page). But when I give talks about my latest book, United America, I’m often confronted with skepticism and questions.

Why isn’t the family on your list of core values?

Where’s God or religion?

Values like these don’t make the list of core values for a simple reason: Americans are divided on many values, even though they are united on others. All this week, I will give you glimpses of the “other side” of my research on values in America: the values that divide us. Are you ready for the story of divided America?

The most divided value concerns moral authority: Where is the ultimate source of moral authority? Is it God? Or, are you the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong?

Many Americans say that right and wrong is based on God’s law. They also say that American kids should be raised to believe in God.

Americans are unusually God believing and God fearing, according to data from the World Value Surveys. I wrote about this in my earlier book on values, America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception.

But many Americans don’t believe that God is the ultimate source of morals and moral authority. Rather, they say, what is right and wrong is up to each person to decide. The individual is the decider.

For you, where is the source of moral authority?

Does it reside in God and religion?

Or, do you place your trust in yourself as the arbiter of right and wrong?

Divided America: Group marriage?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Divided America
Oneida children produced by eugneics circa 1887

About a decade after Oneida’s founder fled to Canada, some of the “children” produced by the Oneida Community’s policy of eugenics posed for this photograph.

Turn over a piece of fine silver flatware and see if it says “Oneida.” If so, it’s made by the company that was founded years ago by members of a commune that practiced a complex form of group marriage.

In fact, under the direction of founder John Humphrey Noyes, the community’s leadership decided who was best suited to produce children, mixing and matching partners in a process of what scientists already were calling “eugenics” in the mid 19th Century. Noyes finally fled the country in 1879; the Oneida Community ended its experiment in complex marriage and eugenics—and members of the community became stockholders in the ongoing silverware company.

What do Americans think about group marriage today?

OK, I didn’t ask a question about group marriage in my national surveys. I think it’s safe to say that the most Americans today would reject this notion of “marriage.” But that doesn’t mean most Americans endorse the traditional definition of marriage. Values about marriage, gender roles, and family are in flux in contemporary America.

Here are two questions I did ask in my four surveys. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each statement?

Statement 1: A child needs a home with both a father and a mother to grow up happy.

Statement 2: Marriage should be defined solely as between one man and one woman.

Americans are divided on both issues. Just over half of Americans agree that a child needs both a mother and father at home to be happy. But more than a third disagree, with only 11% taking the middle “neutral” position.

I observed a similar pattern for Question 2, though there was more support for the traditional definition of marriage. Since the time of my surveys, opinion has shifted, with a majority of Americans now supporting legalized same-sex marriage.

Just yesterday, a federal judge struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Oregon. Now, 18 states allow same-sex marriage.

A generational divide seems to be emerging. Younger Americans are much more likely than older Americans to support legalized same-sex marriage. The older view of the culture war pitted cultural progressives against cultural conservatives. Now, it seems that the conflict is organized along generational lines.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with each statement above?

Do you see a generational divide?

Who made your silver flatware?

Divided America: Still “A City upon a Hill?”

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Divided America
The ship Arbella where John Winthrop spoke of City on a Hill

A sketch of the ship Arbella where John Winthrop talked of this new country as a “City upon a Hill.”

Should American values actively be spread around the world?

If you say yes, then you probably believe that America has a special role—perhaps a sacred place—in the world and world history.

Does America have a moral destiny? Belief in the moral destiny of America is a prominent theme in American history, dating back to the Puritans. John Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” in a 1630 sermon aboard the ship Arbella. It comes from the biblical parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop borrowed the phrase to remind the colonists of the ideal community that were striving to found in the new world. This was the origin of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the mystical idea of an American national destiny.”

Is America still that city upon a hill?

Many Americans believe it is. Almost four of ten Americans agree that American values should be actively spread around the world, according to my national surveys. About the same number disagree, however. About 20% are neutral.

Would the world be a better place if people from other countries were more like Americans? More than three ten Americans say it would be. Just under half say it would not. Only about 20% are neutral.

In other words, belief in the moral destiny of America is one of the areas of intense disagreement in American society.

Do you believe that American values should be spread around the globe?

Would the world be a better place if more people were like Americans?

Do you believe in the nation’s moral destiny?

Divided America: Is Edward Snowden hero or traitor?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Divided America

Edward SnowdenWhat was your reaction when you first learned about National Security Agency (NSA) warrant-less surveillance of Americans? Did you feel the program was justified in the name of national security? Or, were you outraged by the invasion of privacy and the trampling of individual freedom?

The tradeoff of freedom and security is a theme that has endured since the nation’s founding. And, it’s a tradeoff that can’t be resolved, only managed, with the pendulum swinging back and forth between  security and freedom.

A good litmus test to gauge your feelings about these values is the way you responded to Edward Snowden’s release of a wide range of NSA secret documents as he fled around the world, finally landing in Russia. If you’re among those who view Snowden as a traitor, then you are likely to place national security over individual freedom. If you’re among those who see him as a hero, then the opposite is likely to be true. (The extreme length of the Wikipedia page about Snowden attests to the vigorous partisans on both sides—some jeering and some cheering.)

Back in the era of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin had a firm opinion about the tradeoff: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

A few years after 9/11, almost half of Arab Americans (47 percent) and a majority of the general population (55 percent) in the Detroit region said they were willing to trade freedom for more security from terrorism. My team and I wrote about this in our book, Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9/11.

Nationwide, how do Americans feel about the tradeoff? This is one of the issues I explored in my national surveys, and the results reveal a clear division of opinion. Over a third (35%) of Americans say they are willing to give up any freedom the government asks them to give up in order to protect the country’s safety.

But just over half (51%) disagree. They aren’t willing to give up any freedom the government asks them to give up for the sake of more security. Only 14% are neutral on the issue.

Are you willing to trade freedom for security?

What is your reaction to the government’s once-secret surveillance program?

Do you consider Edward Snowden to be a traitor—or a patriot?

Divided America: Is ‘liberty’ what you really want?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Divided America
Two images of Lady Liberty from World War I

THE MANY FACES OF LIBERTY: This summer marks the centennial of World War I. Here are two popular images of Lady Liberty used on posters during WWI.

Today is the start of the Memorial Day weekend, with the official federal holiday on Monday. It’s a time when we pause and remember the men and women who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It is often said that they died to preserve our liberty. But is liberty really something you want?

This week, we’ve explored several areas where Americans are deeply divided. These include divided beliefs about God as the source of moral authority, the traditional family model, America’s moral destiny, and the tradeoff of freedom and security. Today, we consider beliefs about the value of liberty. You might be surprised to learn what Americans think about it!

Liberty means freedom from restraint—being able to do whatever you want. In my surveys, I asked about this meaning of liberty in two different ways. I intentionally didn’t use the word “liberty” because I wanted to avoid having the word (rather than the definition) influence responses.

Here are two statements. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each one?

“Freedom is being left alone to do what I want.”

“Freedom is having a government that doesn’t interfere in my life.”

Almost four of ten Americans (39%) agreed with the first statement, a figure that barely changed over the four surveys. Just under half (48%) disagreed, however, saying that they did not endorse this idea. Only 14% were neutral.

I found a similar pattern for the second statement. About half agreed with it. Over a third (35%) disagreed, and only 15% were neutral.

Liberty is in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but beliefs about it are sharply divided.

We do find agreement, however, when we talk about freedom of expression and freedom as the right to participate in elections and politics. These are widely shared core values, as I describe in United America.

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, what does “freedom” mean to you?

How about “liberty”?