This buzz phrase of the Christian right has me scratching my head. What are these “traditional American values” that are so lacking in our modern society? Looking for answers in contemporary Christian literature has left me cold. I have never found an adequate definition of what traditional values actually are. The more I read Fundamentalist Christian literature, and talk with various Christians, begging them to specifically define “traditional American values,” the more frustrated I become. Likewise, they are frustrated at having to actually try to formulate a definition, since everyone knows! I, however, for one, do not!
In my quest to understand, I have isolated three areas of thought about “traditional American values” which have helped me get a picture of what is meant when I hear televangelists, Right-wing politicians, and Fox News pundits preach and carry on about a return to these ill-defined values. The first has to do with behavior (what one does), the second with thinking (what one believes), and the third with virtues (what one is like). The implication in all the preaching of values is that those who are not Fundamentalist Christians do not share these values.
The behavioral aspect is based, it seems, on a list of Does and Don’ts. Those, it seems, who are in accord with the traditional values, behave in a certain way. Their behavior is in line with a collection of rules that, although not listed anywhere where they could be evaluated one-by-one, nevertheless exist. Presumably the list is contained somewhere in the Bible, but I have yet to find it. Abstracting from years of church-pew-sitting and dialogue with Fundamentalists, I have isolated a list of things that most people probably consider to be true American values. . . One does not commit murder. All TAV types can agree on this – all except some who consider war as tantamount to murder. One does not commit adultery. That is, he or she marries and does not engage in sex with anyone but his spouse. He or she does not commit rape, fornication (now called premarital sex), or engage in sex acts with anyone of the same gender. One does not take illegal drugs of any kind, smoke cigarettes, or drink any alcoholic beverages. One should not be seen anywhere that might cause a nonbeliever or young believer to “stumble,” such as movie houses, pool halls, and dance halls (when was the last time you ever heard of a dance hall?). I have oft noted that the use of these antiquated terms indeed indicate their traditional roots in the American temperance movements of the past.
There is a great deal of dissention in the ranks as to whether or not certain things are true American values. For example, some Fundamentalists insist that women should not wear pants or jewelry, or cut their hair. Those who do are thought of as less holy and as betraying true spiritual values, as the Bible contains clear directives against this type of behavior. There is likewise a great deal of dissention among people about gaming. Whereas, gambling is universally condemned as anti-American, anti-God, and anti-social, other forms of gaming are permissible. Card games which include the use of a standard card deck of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds, are considered sinful by many. No one believing in true American values would even touch a deck of playing cards, even though some innocent games like Rock or Uno or Pit are permissible.
Both bowling and pool have in the past been associated by some moralists, with games of the Devil, whereas golf and tennis are within the parameters of traditional “wholesome” sport. I never much saw the difference between hitting a little white ball with a stick over a green felt table, and hitting a little white ball with a club over a green grassy fairway. But there is a difference, they assure us. One is good and one is evil.
Dancing – that is, moving the body to a rhythm – has long been considered immoral by many who define their traditional values more narrowly. CNN recently did a piece on a high school in a small Missouri town that banned the senior prom, as it was sure to lead to … well, you know what! The notion that dancing leads to extramarital sex is a value still well-rooted in our country to this day. A few years ago, I recall, there was a debate among some Fundamentalist ministers regarding the legality or illegality of married Christians dancing. Whereas it was concluded that it could not be considered illegal from a moral point of view, should unmarried or nonbelievers see Christian dancing, “They might conclude that it was okay for them!” (And we all know what that leads to.) Would it be alright for a Christian couple to dance in their living room or bedroom, I asked. The subject was changed.
The second area of definition of “traditional American values” seems to be that of what one believes. Certain beliefs are considered absolutes, and are the basis for the values that are called traditional and American. The inerrancy of the Bible and the existence of the Biblical God is the foundation for what is touted by many as “traditional American values.” Of course, Europeans, Africans, and Asians, in their millions, likewise believe in God and the Bible, so I think it is a bit arrogant to call these “traditional American values,” since one clearly does not have to be an American to believe in them.
One must also believe in the US government, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the US military, and democracy. One must believe in and be willing to fight and die for the United States, and to kill other humans if necessary to defend these values. One must believe that profaning certain sacred symbols is immoral, and that flag-burners and those who speak out against the government should be punished.
Punishment for certain crimes includes the death sentence. It is thought not to be killing; but, rather, according to God’s plan, it is okay to take the life of one condemned. It is, on the other hand, murder for a woman to have an abortion. Capital punishment is moral. It is a traditional American value. Abortion is immoral. It is against “traditional American values.” These are understood. They, like opposition to gun control, are considered sacred values which go right back to the days of the “Founding Fathers.” Of course, a lot of the people of the New Right do not know why they hold these views – only that they are the politically correct ones. Nevertheless, as we all know from the headlines, these issues divide the nation. I have noticed, however – when discussing these issues with most who claim to believe them – when pinned down, they don’t actually know why. “God makes the rules,” they say. “I just read them and believe them.”
Then there is the third area that the traditional values set claim are certain virtues. In my mind, these are only real values, after all. The first “values” are really just arbitrary rules of behavior. None are exclusively American, and many are ludicrous. All cultures have their rules and attitudes about what is right and wrong behavior. Americans are not the only moral people on Earth! The second are just attitudes toward contemporary issues, which change as the times change. Go back 150 years, and the debate of the day was whether it was moral to own slaves. Go back another 150, and the issue was whether witches should be burned at the stake. These “values,” although traditional perhaps, are certainly not chiseled in stone!
I will concede, however, that the third area that the traditionalists point to as being values are indeed just that. Honesty, thoughtfulness, thrift, diligence, kindness, hospitality, and helpfulness, are indeed values. These are matters of the heart which in turn govern our behavior and our attitudes. It is my opinion that without these virtues the other two are not only hollow and empty, but are also destructive! To this list of virtues I should like to add open-mindedness and tolerance. These virtues are not often noted by the traditionalists, as they imply the denial of some other virtues. Alas, that is a problem with virtues. Indeed, some are contradictory!
“Universal” might be a better handle for these types of virtues, since they are honored and lauded worldwide. The Chinese language is rife with poems and adages extolling honesty, diligence, patience, and goodness. Likewise, in Japan, India, and Africa, people all seem to agree that these virtues are what make humans civilized. By claiming that others unlike ourselves are uncivilized, we are saying that they lack or do not accept these virtues as “values.” In fact, just about every culture I have experienced or read about enshrines the exact same set of values with few variations. To refer to them as American is pretentious. In fact, I recall leaning over the back fence of my house in Ober-Woellstadt, when I lived in Germany, and holding a long and enlightening conversation with the older man whose yard backed up against mine. He was originally from Breslau (which is now in Poland). He was ranting and raving about the decline of the morals and traditional values which were so much more apparent in Germany in the 30’s! I was nonplussed. In most people’s minds, Germany in the thirties was the epitome of terror and darkness. In his mind, people were moral, patriotic, and civilized! They were honest, hardworking, thrifty, and God-fearing. I shuddered.
It is easy to discredit the use of the word "American" when defining these virtues, or values as they are oft called. The Greeks, the Chinese, and the Polynesians could all claim these same values. So let’s just get over ourselves, and realize that there is a world out there; and that they, for the most part, share our basic values.
The word traditional is somewhat more problematic. The dictionary defines anything traditional as: a story, belief, custom, or practice which has been handed down from generation to generation, which has the effect of becoming an unwritten law. Then it specifically mentions unwritten religious codes such as those of the Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians.
The Fundamentalists claim the world is going to hell in a hand basket or some variation of that meme. I have heard the same lamentation on the lips of Chinese friends and acquaintances that I heard from my German neighbor. I heard the same thing from my father. I hear it from Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Francis Schaffer. This longing for the past – its glories, its goodness, its traditions – is likewise universal. One can read the writings of the ancient Greeks and pick up this same moaning spirit of despair. The past was so great. The present is so terrible. And the future is unthinkable!
I think there is a difference between plain old nostalgia and this more fundamental longing for the past. I still love the music of the sixties. I listen to “Oldies but Goodies.” I still sort of think of the 60s as a magical time of awakening and excitement and energy. My father’s generation thinks of it as the beginning of the end of civilization! Well, it was perhaps the end of civilization as they had known it. But it was the beginning of something new and wonderful for me! Were the 60s really such a watershed? When I listen again to the music, see films of the period, look at the styles, and recall the attitudes, I find it all a bit quaint – even tame. But most of the “traditional American values” people point right back to that time as the beginning of the end of values.
Well then, should we hearken back to the fabulous 50s instead? Is that period more likely to hold the secret to Dr. Francis Schaffer’s famous question: How shall we then live? There is, to be sure, a great deal of nostalgia for the 50s. Those were the good old days of black-and-white television, “I like Ike,” and ever-expanding tailfins. Who could find fault with the philosophy of Ozzie and Harriet, My Three Sons, or Father Knows Best? Who indeed? Many Americans longingly look back to the 50s as the “best years of our lives.” I think there is a very good reason for that. In those years after the Second World War, the United States was the only nation on earth with a viable, functioning economy. Japan was in ruins, as was Germany and most of Europe and Asia. Britain was impoverished, and the Soviet Union was spending itself into oblivion, building an atomic arsenal which opened the door to what we should remember as mutually assured destruction. MAD.
Americans were on top, and it was a time of unprecedented growth and consumption. No wonder Americans think fondly of the 50s. The Europeans have few such pleasant memories. For most it was a grim, grey time with few frills. Actually, it was not all joy and light, even in America – as one may recall. I still have vivid memories of air raid drills in school … “duck and cover,” polio, and political McCarthyism witch hunts.
Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the decline of Western Civilization and traditional values. He liked to draw a line somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century as the actual beginning of the end. I believed every word he said back then, and always sort of thought of everything before 1900 as more civilized and more Christianized than today. Now I am not so sure.
The “traditional values” people preach are about hard work and pride in one’s work. This pride and fulfillment, which results from the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” has been eroded and diluted by labor unions and laws of this century. Before that, they longingly look back to the last century when everyone had pride in his work. Funny, I don’t see that at all. I envision sweatshops … children working in dirty dangerous factories and mines. People being chewed up by mining and railroad interests in the name of progress and the expanding American frontier! What kind of a time was this for children? What about women? Not even entitled to vote, women were still dominated by the centuries of male-issued dicta of the ages. I don’t think of the nineteenth century as a fount of virtues and values as Dr. Schaffer might. And before that? Chattel slavery!
A few years ago, the Christian Broadcasting Network did a special that claimed the origin of “traditional American values” as the time of the Pilgrim Fathers. Note the male bias. In this theatrical enactment of Puritan's life of faith, healthy, well-scrubbed American extras dressed in neat, tidy, modest costumes of the past, portraying the ideal life of seventeenth century New England. They planted the crops, harvested, cooked on open-hearth fires, made their own cloth, raised wholesome families, attended simple churches, and worshiped the one true god.
Unfortunately, my vision of early colonial New England is not nearly so cheerful. The accounts of the period that I have read in many American history books, paint a far less salubrious picture. I see grim, dour people struggling in a harsh and forbidding environment. I see a narrow-minded, closed-in group trapped in a small region of rocky cold land between the wild and wooly sea and an endless dark forest which they considered the domain of the devil. It was not all peaches and cream as the literature of the period claims. It was cold, harsh, and dictatorial. And what of the much-touted values?
The most interesting documents of the period, I think, are the depositions of the accused in the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692. The actual words of the court proceedings were memorialized. The actual pleadings, statements, and charges all remain. Reading these volumes is disheartening. It was no picnic. It is a frightening study in hysteria and in the consequences of contravening “traditional” values. I have often said that if “traditional American values” means a return to Salem, count me out!
So, to quote the 60s rock opera Lonesome Stone, “Where do we go from here?” Into the sea? Back to Europe? Where? I’m not so sure I want to go back any further in this quest for a definition of “traditional” values; but I hear people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speak of “Western” civilization and values, so they are obviously harkening back to Europe as well.
After living many years in Europe, I have some indelible mental images and impressions. Among those which come to mind are the dungeons and rooms of torture in palaces, castles, and fortresses throughout the continent. When one stands by a rack and can imagine bones and cartilage popping and breaking, or imagine the pain of the thumbscrew, or the taste of the whip, the song of the axe, or the whisper of the gallows, one should not forget in whose name so much misery was perpetrated … Jesus Christ.
No, I don’t think we should keep going back. It just gets worse. Should we stop? I would. But I have heard endless Fundamentalists make references to earlier times, when they were demanding a return to “traditional values.” If they insist, we should look back ourselves. It gets fuzzy and hard to define as the centuries are peeled away, as it all melts into a blur of antiquity. I have heard Christians sigh nostalgically for “Bible times.” I am sure things were better then! But my favorite of all I read not too long ago in the L.A. Times. Republican Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy of Los Angeles was quoted as saying in the California legislature: “The Roman Empire fell because of sexual promiscuity… Every great civilization has fallen because of that.”
Amazing. Since when have Christians and “traditional values” proponents considered the Roman Empire a great civilization, whining and sniveling at its downfall? I seem to remember Christians gleefully taking credit for its demise! Well, if the Roman Empire is an example of values, the loss of which is to be mourned, perhaps we should indeed readopt some of those virtues and values and practices of the Romans. Perhaps we should bring back the lions!
Article for Free Thought Magazine