Whatever else may be said about the national debate over war with Iraq, it may be provoking a new level of moral reflection. We appear to be asking, "What are our guiding moral values?" Different people would suggest different values. My list is not intended to be exhaustive but evocative. Moreover, it is intended to point to values that seem both urgent and at risk at this time in our nation's life.
My hunch is that the mounting resistance or ambivalence about war with Iraq owes to a deep reservation many people hold about what the Bush administration has articulated as its doctrine of pre-emption, that is, that we can attack those who have not attacked us but might do so.
This strikes many as simply wrong. While history will confirm that the United States, like many nations, has initiated armed conflicts, we have never done so on the scale being contemplated. Historically, Americans have been slow to embrace war. We value peace and restraint.
Another value deeply woven into the American soul is stewardship, the notion that we don't own the Earth or the land and have the responsibility to steward a trust. It is surely an oddity that so many contemporary conservatives seem not to recognize "conservation" as a cognate of their chosen identity.
Conservation, care, aversion to waste are or once were American values, something Republican President Theodore Roosevelt understood. I gather SUV owners are feeling put upon (I don't blame them so much as the auto makers), but generations to come will undoubtedly scratch their heads in wonder at how vehicles that get 13-15 mpg and pollute unnecessarily were embraced with such abandon, not to mention tax subsidies, at this historical juncture.
Neighborliness also seems part of the American experience. Often we express this in face-to-face ways but Americans have also, for a long time, understood that we care for our neighbors by offering some kind of social safety net. We aren't a people who go our merry way while some are without home, health or food. Or are we? No human society will ever be without people who are in need of help, sometimes short-term, often longer. And yet, year after year now, more threads are pulled out of our safety net, whether by "reforms" or budget "efficiencies."
Fairness, I would argue, is another core American value. True, America has never been fair for some, particularly Native and African Americans. Yet fairness has still been an ideal, albeit imperfectly realized. One expression of it has been the notion that our collective bills, aka taxes, should be borne fairly by all. And yet there is little doubt that facing this value, the order to "about-face" has been sounded. We continue to march in the opposite direction with tax packages that place a disproportionate burden on those who have the least. Washington state adds to this flaunting of fairness with what is arguably the nation's most regressive tax structure.
Character is not easily defined, but it is the kind of thing that we know when we see it, or when we do not. Character is congruence between the inner and the outer person, the private and the public being. Character is a life rooted in enduring values, not in what is hot today but forgotten tomorrow. Character, at least sometimes, means choosing what is difficult rather than what is convenient. In many ways, the contemporary and ubiquitous cult of celebrity is the stark opposite of value of character.
A person and nation that have character will recognize their own limitations, failures and need for correction and grace. Katherine Lee Bates captured this in her line in "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies" (America the Beautiful): "America! America! God mend thine every flaw." It is perhaps no accident that "God Bless America" has been favored over Bates' more tempered national hymn in recent years.
Too often today leaders seem either unwilling or unable to assess our nation and its life critically and to assist us in holding ourselves to account with a developed capacity for self-examination. Abraham Lincoln, the president whose moral stature looms largest, refused during the Civil War to claim that God was on his side. Rather he prayed that, "Stumbling and struggling through human life, trying to discern the signs of the times, we might perchance tilt from time to time toward God's side."
Finally, I contend that a core value of America has been modesty. We are not, by and large, people interested in flaunting ourselves. Yes, there have memorable exceptions. But a decent self-restraint expressed itself in how Americans lived materially, sexually and in civil society. Such modesty is close to the aforementioned virtue of character, but like that virtue, modesty may be honored today, if at all, largely in the breach.
Peace or non-aggression, stewardship, neighborliness, fairness, character, modesty and a capacity for self-examination. These describe the Americans whom Alexis de Tocqueville examined and celebrated in his famous 19th century essay. Do they describe America today? Do we know what our core values are? Or have we lost something in the march to greatness, power and pre-eminence? When a person or nation loses its moral compass, it becomes very difficult to find the way home. It may be time to move forward to the basics.
Anthony B. Robinson is senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church: United Church of Christ in Seattle. E-mail: email@example.com
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