Real Americans

Each day–or so it seems–we are treated to news of yet another set of attitudes or beliefs that divide American citizens. Some of those divisions are beginning to seem insurmountable.

Case in point: According to a recent Pew poll, thirty-two percent of Americans believe that you have to be Christian to be a “real” American. (It would do no good to point members of that 32% to contrary writings by the nation’s Founders–like the occasional commenters who come to this blog to cite Fox News as authority for their evidence-free assertions, these are people for whom history inconsistent with their preferred beliefs is irrelevant. Or “fake.”)

According to Pew,

In 2014, Christians accounted for 70.6% of the U.S. population. Non-Christians and those unaffiliated with any religion totaled 28.7%.

About a third (32%) of Americans say it is very important for a person to be a Christian in order to be considered truly American. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) contend that one’s religion is not at all important.

Presumably, people who identify “American” with “Christian” do so because they believe that the values of Christianity are central to America’s values. (Of course, they ignore that pesky fact that there are some 34,000 different Christian denominations, and a lot of them appear to prioritize rather different sets of values…)

Adam Gopnik addressed the centrality of religious pluralism to our system of government in the most recent New Yorker.

America is not only a nation but also an idea, cleanly if not tightly defined. Pluralism is not a secondary or a decorative aspect of that idea. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, the guarantee of religious liberty lies in having many kinds of faiths, and the guarantee of civil liberty lies in having many kinds of people—in establishing a “multiplicity of interests” to go along with a “multiplicity of sects.

When I saw the Pew poll, I thought about a column I wrote not long after the 2004 election, which was widely seen as a “values” election. I’m reproducing it, because it is a list of what I consider to be “real” American values. It needs updating–the targets of American resentments have changed somewhat–but it remains uncomfortably relevant.

Let me be quite explicit about my values, which are shared by millions of others—values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, values that are absolutely central to what it means to be American.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging their civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays, or blacks, or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills recently wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

In our America, borrowing from our grandchildren so that we can pay for a costly war without taxing the President’s buddies and campaign contributors is not moral. Dividing the nation into red and blue, gay and straight, moral and immoral, welcome and unwelcome, is not moral. Excusing our own sins by pointing to the sins of others—torturing people, or engaging in “holy war” because “they” do it too, is not moral. Lying—about sex or Weapons of Mass Destruction or an opponent’s war record—is not moral.

On Election Day, claimants of the “ Christian values” label came to the precinct where my youngest son was working and said they were there to “vote against the queers.” In my precinct, when I handed a Democratic slate to a voter, he accused me of being a “friend of Osama.” A friend’s son registering voters for Baron Hill in a church was called a “fag lover.”

The people who live in my America need to reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism and values from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different.

Unfortunately, that column remains pertinent.


  1. I share your views and values—-passionately. But I’m afraid this analysis, both from 2004 and now, is dangerously inaccurate. What the Pew poll says to me is that about 1/3 of the country also shares these values. But, at the other end of the spectrum and more importantly, about 1/3 of the country absolutely does not. They don’t believe in civil liberties; they don’t believe in dissent; they don’t believe in science; they don’t believe in the value of plurality. In fact, they find all of those concepts offensive. And it’s naive to ignore that reality. Fortunately, there also is the middle 1/3 who truly are in the middle. Those are the people with whom we at the progressive “extreme” can hope to find common ground.

  2. Many Americans have forgotten that the original pilgrims came here to escape being forced to accept and live by the Catholic religion practiced by the king of England. They have also forgotten that the war against enforced Catholic religion for all was still being fought during most of the 20th Century by Ireland trying to escape that enforced Catholic doctrine. Due to the unbelievable number of different “Christian” religions, no matter how “unChristian-like”, in fact no matter how “unreligious” they are, it is no wonder people see this as a Christian county regardless of the hatred, all forms of abuses and denial of rights and infighting between the factions of one religious title we see daily. Branch Davidians, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints come to my mind and FLDS is very active in the southwestern part of this country. The Jehovah Witness Christian religion in Europe basically supported Hitler during the Holocaust. While Hitler did not espouse Christianity, his hatred of Jews and other religions gave tacit support to Christians. Fine “Christians”, right? The Crusades, the genocide of Jews during the scourge of the Black Plague throughout Europe due to the belief – by Christians – that Jews caused the Plague. The Weaver family at Ruby Ridge was a one-family plus one friend “Christian” religious sect set upon by almost every branch of the “Christian” United States government in a shootout resulting in the deaths of one government agent, Vicky Weaver and her 13 year old son. A massive government days-long siege (including tanks) against one family in their hilltop home due to a police setup to buy one illegal sawed-off shotgun from Randy Weaver. The Civil War was Christian against Christian; not only between the north and south, pro-slavery against abolishionists but within families and between friends and neighbors. Christians one and all!

    “The people who live in my America need to reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism and values from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different.”

    I live in Sheila’s America and am trying to fight Trump & Co., to reclaim the vocabulary and REALITY of patriotism and values we are watching be destroyed day-by-day and some days hour-by-hour since January 20, 2017.

    If you didn’t read my last post late yesterday evening; CVS has fired all undocumented employees. How many other big businesses are doing the same, how long have they knowingly been hiring undocumented immigrants and how many law-abiding immigrants, documented and undocumented are living in fear and possibly in hiding? To all intents and purposes, it appears that only Hispanic immigrants, no matter their legal status, are being “rounded up” by ICE. ICE reported the White House did not order this action; this statement is as true as Trump’s statement that his failed immigrant ban was NOT anti-Muslim. Another Christian action by our Christian government? I believe there are only two Muslims in Congress but, how many Jews, Atheists and agnostics as well as those who espouse no religon, are supporting Trump’s many inhuman actions due to their fear of reprisal, loss of political position and loss of campaign donations rather than protecting patriotism and supporting civic and human values?

    God bless America! But whose God?

  3. Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

    My how times have changed in a few short years-for the worse to my way of thinking. I don’t believe it was ‘our’ side that changed, either.

    Another excellent article Ms Kennedy. Thank you so much.

  4. As much as I admire the notion that American values are great, it seems that our values aren’t particularly reflected in our actions and seldom have been. We have had a revolving door of those who are unwanted here. We have hated the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Gays, and always the Jews. We brought African Americans as slaves and they were okay as long as they were slaves. We hated them as free men and women. Now we hate Mexicans and Muslims, and still African Americans, and of course, the Jews.

    There is some better part of our nature that wants to believe in a higher moral purpose for our nation and for ourselves. We don’t seem to understand that a higher moral purpose takes work.

  5. Shelia – You are spot on with your commentary of yesterday and its application to the realities of today and I have a solution to offer later in this response. The question becomes why is your then commentary still relevant to today in all its particulars? It is, of course, because we have digressed rather than progressed during the interim as our politics has become just another market commodity up for sale (with the aid of gerrymandering, McCutcheon and Citizens United). It seems that even our public exercise of politics has been de facto privatized.

    You should be in charge of drafting a new Constitution that is more explicit in just what is being treated by its language so that those who interpret this musty old founding language in all of its then grandeur would not be a playground for “interpretation” to fit the wants and demands of the rich and greedy class of today. It would be a much longer document but you are clearly up to the job as Executive Director of a Constitutional Commission charged with such a rewrite.

    If our founding fathers who pledged (among other things) their “sacred honor” in a fight to the finish in establishing our soon-to-be new country anchored in democratic values were on the scene today they would have great difficulty in defining what is sacred and what is honor as personified by today’s occupant of the Oval Office, a draft dodger, liar, greedhog and serial adulterer wallowing around in some narcissistic haze. Jefferson, Adams, Madison (and perhaps Washington and Lincoln) must be spinning in their graves at 100 million RPMs.

    So anyway, Sheila, here’s the deal (in this my lame attempt at humor this Sunday morning): Since Trump is out to lunch in running the country, you could use your good offices as a former Republican with the vice president, a churchgoing Hoosier, urging him to set up a Constitutional Commission charged with a rewrite of our Constitution and with you as its Executive Director. Can’t be done? Yes, it can. Just tell him you have seen the light and are now a Baptist and will favor his appointment of Jerry Falwell, Jr. as vice president when Trump is impeached and removed from office. That should get the job done. Fantasy? No more than the fantasies our current president and vice president are experiencing in their own worlds divorced from reality, so let’s make it unanimous along with Alice in her Wonderland, Sheila. Go for it! What the heck! What’s to lose?

  6. After reading your 2004 column, I believe that as a country we have digressed rather than progressed. It makes me both angry and sad.

    Last week I posted this comment on facebook because I felt a strong need to say it and let people know what I really think….

    “Instead of the love of money being the root of evil, I have come to believe that the love of any of the world’s religious doctrines is actually the root of evil.
    They all involve religious leaders that create rules that their followers must believe in and obey. The leaders and their religion’s very existence depends on obtaining and holding power over their followers.
    The worst evil comes from those religious leaders and believers that claim that you must have the same beliefs they have or you will surely go to hell. This is an evil abusive power grab of the worst kind.”

    I am sure that I shocked many of my ‘friends’ who consider themselves to be Christians because they attend church, even though they fall into the trap of judging others who have different beliefs than theirs. It really does seem that many, if not most, wars have been started because of religion.

    Side note – Tomorrow I am starting a new job that will require a 2 hour a day commute, so I may be MIA on this blog or, at the very least, I may have a sporadic attendance. I will try to at least keep up on reading it. I truly enjoy learning from all of the intelligent people who visit and comment on this blog .

  7. I watched the Superbowl, so I am a “Real American”. I also put my hand over my heart while pledging allegiance to our flag which is a sign of a true American.

    As for religion, it’s time we implement a tax on this institution which has clearly been involving itself in politics. They’re stealing money intended for public schools, and they’re using their lobbying arms to inflict government programs which deliberately inflict harms against other Americans. The new federal RFRA will do tremendous damage.

    Once Trumpism ends in four years, I hope Americans will have the fortitude to do what’s right, and that includes putting all religion back in its humble place. Those institutions who’ve used their clout to influence government should see taxation to help fund government services. And, it should be a retroactive tax.

  8. Hello! My Name is Vern Turner, and I’m Running for…


    Vern Turner

    Remember when Jimmy Carter was just starting out running for President? This was his opening line of introduction that ended with “President”. Well, it occurred to me that his grassroots approach to meeting his future constituents would work for anyone trying to get elected to public office, even a Democrat. Now, we Democrats have been accused of practicing identity politics by currying the favor of certain ethnic and racial groups while taking much of the white, middle-class voters more or less for granted. This didn’t work out the way we’d hoped in either the presidential election or for the seats in Congress and state houses. The white people who felt ignored by Democrats voted for Republicans, and with the quirky-ness of the Electoral College, we ended up with perhaps the most dangerous, most mentally disturbed and foolish man ever to be put in the White House. As the first weeks of this new administration roll by, we see daily scandals of ethics violations, overt racist edicts, conflicts of interest and just plain incompetence at every turn; especially with the egregious cabinet choices made by this great mistake no in the oval office.

    I had to re-read the biography of Harry Truman to re-discover how he overcame the prohibitive favorite, Thomas Dewey, to win the 1948 Presidential election. Truman got on the train. He whistle-stopped his way across the entire nation, each time giving his popular, folksie, home-spun speeches to anyone who would listen. He engaged the people and encouraged them to support the same values we progressives hold today. He won by a large margin in both the popular vote and in the Electoral vote. Dewey and the Republicans were as stunned as we were when this current president was put in office.

    O.K., so what would a whistle-stop tour sound like today? Here I go visiting the people from everywhere expounding the values and changing the framework of the campaigns passed.

    “Hello. My name is Vern Turner, and I’m running for President. How can my administration serve you best? What do you want to know about a better approach to government?”

    VOTER: “Do you believe in big government like all liberals?”

    “I’m not a liberal, I’m a Democrat, and I think government works best when it is funded by you the people and not by big business. I also think government should be just the right size to serve our basic needs as a people and a nation. By that I mean, that bloated bureaucracies should be overseen by independent groups with authority to trim and re-organize where waste or redundancy exists. For example, The Department of Homeland Security was born in 2002 and has grown to the third largest government agency in the country. It’s become a dust bin for anything and everything related to national security including the addition of the Secret Service, but many offices were never closed. Do we need it? Yes, but how did we do before 11 September 2001? Our intelligence community provided several warnings and hard data of the impending attack that were ignored. Would HS have done any better? We can’t create bureaucracies to cover for incompetent or corrupt governance.

    “If you also mean to use ‘big government’ as code for welfare and humans services, I have to ask you what you think about supporting your fellow American who is not as skilled as you, is not as well-educated, not as healthy or not as well-employed? Should we just let them keep struggling, remain ignorant or just let them starve or die? Most major religions also advocate for the ‘poorest or least among us’. Data shows that the number one reason for inner-city crime is poverty. Poverty is a function of jobs, or lack of them. Hold that thought, because I will come back to it.

    “One of the philosophical changes I promote is our investment in our people and the supporting infrastructure instead of an overburdening military. Don’t get me wrong. I want our military forces to be very well-equipped, trained and ready for anything. But, when our Marines have to go to pawn shops to buy spare parts for their rifles and half our aircraft are grounded for lack of spare parts, it tells me that our defense budget is not being spent correctly or supervised adequately. Yes, many of our aircraft are decades old, but, with proper upgrades and maintenance, nothing else in the world matches them in mission performance. One of the things many politicians ignore is follow-up costs on a program. They ignore it because it isn’t “sexy” enough for their campaign speeches. This strikes me as odd, because the number of jobs created for support programs like spare parts is almost as high as those needed to build the new equipment in the first place. Keep what we have operating effectively, and we can spend less money on new programs.

    “Investment in our people should be our number one priority. What does that mean? It means fielding a healthy, skilled workforce every day. It means providing jobs and education for jobs that put people into gainful employment. Healthy, skilled and gainfully employed people become higher level consumers and taxpayers. High consumerism means more demand for more things and more sales tax revenue. That demand creates pressure for more jobs to meet those demands. In the short term it wouldn’t hurt to re-deploy something like the Marshall Plan for our decaying cities. This plan supplied the materiel and expertise to rebuild the cities we bombed into dust in World War II.

    “The current president has wailed about our rust-belt cities having tombstones for factories. He’s right. But why is that the case? It happened because our capitalists chased the lowest wages for products demanded by our people. Coincidentally, corporate profits have never been higher, and executive salaries exploded. What happened to your share of that benefit of moving good-paying jobs away while providing nothing to replace them? Did your stock portfolio triple? Did you have to seek tax shelters? How much did you place in the carried interest category on your tax bill? Well, corporate America has entire departments committed to avoiding paying taxes. How are you doing with your tax-avoidance strategy? Can you afford your tax lawyer or CPA?

    “My point, here, is to suggest that we put all that idle money to work rebuilding our cities, roads, bridges and all the rest. As with the old Civilian Conservation Corps, training programs for necessary skills will prepare thousands of idle or unskilled people for these infrastructure jobs as well as for the exploding renewable energy job market.

    “Whether we like it or not, taxes are the cost of civilization. Those who shun taxes or lobby lawmakers for special tax breaks and dispensation not only cheat you and the nation, but they also add to the poorness of our nation while they reap the benefits and the luxury. Some form of this type of society has always existed, but in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we had the lowest inequity between the classes in world history as a percent difference. But with the advent of supply-side economics during the Reagan years, the trend shifted and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the top 1% of earners now own more wealth than the bottom 60% of all other citizens in the country. The top 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 35% of our working classes. These numbers reflect third-world data indicative of ruling juntas, dictators and despots. In our case, the despots are the Wall Street bankers and financiers who only hoard wealth, but almost never invest it in our people, the people like you.

    “Why do our schools always have to struggle for funding? Why are our teachers STILL the lowest-paid profession in the country? Do you want your children to be taught by the lowest bidder? Why would anyone not want only the best for their children? Even as it is, the quality of our teachers is way above the level of their relative earnings in any other profession. When we realize that a teacher lasts, on the average, five years or less, we can clearly see that they cannot support their families on what we the citizens choose to pay them. Why are the vocational schools being abandoned or dropped from public education? Well, they cost a lot for equipment and maintenance, plus liability insurance rates go up. Add to that the drive by Republicans and their friends on Wall Street, to privatize schools and make them into profit centers. It won’t happen overnight, so how do you feel about having your tax dollars taken from the school you send your kids to and given to the private academy up on the hill? So, instead of investing in our children, and thus our future, we short-shrift their education and hope somebody else picks up the slack.”

    VOTER: “Where do you stand on abortion?”

    “I’m against abortion. But I’m also pro-life, pro-woman and pro-choice. I know the other guys have framed those words to mean something they are not. By being pro-choice, I mean that every woman has the right to manage her own body’s well-being as she sees fit…just as men have that right. Currently, the law of the land says a woman has the legal right to terminate a pregnancy at hers and the doctor’s discretion. By defunding agencies that help poor women, the source of most un-wanted pregnancies, the problem of poverty, ill health and social stress is exacerbated. Poor women don’t go to the doctor for regular checkups because they can’t afford it. Until we have a single-payer, universal health care system, organizations like Planned Parenthood must fill that niche for these women. Ask yourself: What would you favor if your daughter became pregnant and the father was not responsible enough to support a family at age sixteen? Where would you like your daughter or spouse to go to have PAP or breast exams if you were unemployed or broke?”

    VOTER: “Where do you stand on gay marriage?”

    “It is the law of the land to permit people to marry whoever they like. If people have certain religious, moral or personal problems with same-sex marriage, that is up to them. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. You have that freedom too, so why would you want to impose your values on people you don’t know? The Constitution still gives us the freedom to practice any religion we choose, but it does not give us the right to impose our religion on someone else. That’s why the Pilgrims left England.

    VOTER: “What do you think we should do to prevent voter fraud?”

    “As soon as there are valid data that shows that there is in-person voter fraud, I’ll address that problem. Until that time, this is a moot point. Right now, this topic is just another wedge issue to justify voter suppression. EVERY study, including those from Republican and Democratic research groups shows virtually no illegal voting or ballot fraud. In fact, in 2010, the National Republican Attorneys Counsel discovered that of all the ballots cast from 2000-2010 (300 million of them), only 57 ballots were deemed fraudulent for any reason. In fact, in that same year, the Republican attorney general of Indiana was indicted for ballot machine tampering and fraud.

    “This argument is a total red-herring sponsored mostly by those Republican-dominated states that want to suppress voting from certain racial and ethnic groups. It seems to me that our most sacred freedom in this country is the vote. It’s what our democratic republic is founded on. It defines us as the greatest experiment in governance in the history of the world. To do ANYTHING, especially things based on lies, and false reports, that threatens the vote for any citizen is anti-American, anti-citizen and anti-freedom.”

    Now, I’m back on the train to stop at the next town of 5,000 people to answer the same questions with the same amount of vigor and conviction as I did here. I’m running for President.

  9. Hello Todd. Do you repeat the part of the pledge “one nation under god” or do you skip it like I do. It was not a part of the original pledge but was added during the Eisenhower administration.

  10. I will take issue with JoAnn on her history reference to people coming to North America to escape Catholic suppression. While that may have been true for some, many left to escape Anglicanism after Henry VIII.
    True to form, the religious groups did much the same to “outsiders” of different faiths who came to the New World. Intolerance of others’ faith, Christian or otherwise, is deeply rooted in our culture. The Founders recognized that when they drafted the Constitution and more so, the Bill of Rights.
    It is sad but true, that christian values equate with patriotism, when, in fact, the insistence of conformity to a single faith’s rigid rules is about as unpatriotic as you can get. The government of the U.S. with the enthusiastic support of its citizens/voters have been forcing Christianity and its demands on people almost since our separation from England. Everything from women’s suffrage to forced sterilization to lynching has been defended by those “christian patriots”.
    Why must we declare for any god at all? JoAnn’s question makes the case very well. Whose god?

  11. I have to correct JoAnn as well. I asked my British spouse what religion were the pilgrims fleeing from and it was Protestant, not Catholicism. The Irish where Catholic but the folks from the UK in England were protestant.

    And I didn’t know that “east coast liberal” meant Jew. I just never connected those dots. Thanks for the lesson.

    Vern – very interesting platform. I would vote for you.

    Nancy good luck on your new job. That’s a long commute and there’s no way I could do it. Be safe.

  12. Thanks, Sheila! Another top-notch blog!

    Thanks to all here who keep replies fairly brief. I am not inclined to read those that just go on and on.

    Nancy, I wish you the best in your long commute to your new job!

  13. Reading the comments about the history of religion in the US, I’ll contribute an excellent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance”. It’s not only a good article but also it’s reasonably short.

    The idea that the United States has always been a bastion of religious freedom is a reassuring storybook version learned in elementary school—and utterly at odds with the colorful historical record.

  14. Spot on as usual Sheila! If there is a God, I’m certain she is pissed. I don’t want anyones’ religion shoved down my throat!

    Irvin, I will not say, “under God”. You are indeed correct, that was added in ’50’s. I also read that it was pushed by the K. of C.

  15. Vern Turner, you laid out your case very well. Hoosiers used to be pragmatists more than Democrats or Republicans, but in recent years, have sacrificed common sense for belief in some “ism” or another. Your “platform” would return us to a much healthier exercise of government.

    I’d vote for you, too.

  16. I always had the impression that the Church of England had moderate tendencies after eliminating the foreign and Catholic attempts to seize control of the state and then, during the English civil war, stop any more attempts at regicide. This moderation meant that Puritans, who were much more Calvinist than Anglican, were allowed to embark to America, as long as they were not involved in the seizure of the state. Cromwell, although apparently religious, was clearly highly interested in political control.

  17. There’s not much need for me to add to these comments so I’ll just toss this out: there’s no news in fox!

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