Whose America? Whose Values?

What with the charges and counter-charges about the war in Iraq, the use—actually, abuse—of Executive Privilege, and locally, the uproar over property taxes, this little tidbit hasn’t gotten much ink. But it is a telling indicator of the wildly different definition of the term “American values” held by today’s citizens.


Sessions of Congress begin with a prayer. (A religious exercise that is itself a dubious one in a nation committed to freedom of religion and conscience). The prayer is often offered by guest clergy invited for that purpose, and a couple of weeks ago, that guest was a Hindu cleric.


You know what’s coming, don’t you?


The “usual suspects” screamed bloody murder; Family Research Council President Tony Perkins opined that “In God We Trust” refers only to the God worshipped by Christians and Jews (as a Jew, I can attest to the fact that our inclusion in this formulation was long in coming and is even now quite begrudging). Worse, three members of the rabid anti-abortion group Operation Rescue stood up in the congressional gallery and interrupted the invocation by bellowing out “Jesus is America’s true and only God” and similar sentiments.


When the hecklers were ejected, Religious Right leaders immediately played the “victim” card, insisting that this was yet another example of government’s “anti-Christian” bias.

(Why do I doubt they’d have complained about bias if the cleric had been Christian and those who were disrupting the prayer Hindu—but consistency has rarely been the defining characteristic, let alone the purpose, of these rants.)


I probably paid more attention to this episode than many people, because my most recent book, God and Country: America in Red and Blue, was an exploration of the larger phenomenon of which this is evidence: the fact that Americans occupy different realities.


When I think of America’s foundational values, I think of individual liberty, tolerance—even celebration—of all kinds of diversity, equal treatment under the law. When people like Tony Perkins or James Dobson think of American values, they think of Christianity, and not even all Christianity. Just their version.


These wildly different realities begin with wildly different definitions of liberty. To AVA members and others like us, liberty is the right to decide for ourselves what we believe and how we should live. To Christian Right true believers, liberty means “freedom to do the right thing,” as they define “the right thing.”


In my book, I wrestled with the central challenge posed to our Republic by the existence of these dueling worldviews: how do we talk to each other? How do we come together to engage in the grand experiment of self-government?


I make some suggestions, but the jury is out.