To save America, we must examine our values

To save America, we must examine our values
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With a rising tide of systemic threats, the “idea that is America” is threatened with drowning, and we must act now to save it. We must meet critical challenges — in values, politics, economics, technology and education — simultaneously and urgently. Americans have united in the past when facing threats posed by wars and adversity. Now we must unite to confront what threatens the survival of our idea. America’s future rests where it began, in the hands of “We the People.”

To start, we must reexamine and rededicate ourselves to our values. Public consensus around a set of values is essential to enacting major political, economic and educational reforms. Our values define us; they reveal themselves in how we treat one another, how we govern ourselves and interact with other nations. In a society, we try to live our lives together guided by common values, in part because we know they do for us what laws cannot. They make shared sacrifice voluntary, compromise acceptable and consensus respected. Values help preserve and protect our idea.

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What are America’s values? Here are some admirable traits when we are at our best:

 

  • Honesty: We recognize that truth and truthfulness are the foundations of trust in one another, our institutions and rule of law. Truth can be unwelcome, and difficult to discern, but we believe it can be found and is worth searching for.
  • Generosity: We are first to help those in need. We empathize with people who are treated unjustly and rise to their defense.
  • Patriotism: This is a love and devotion to country and alliance with other citizens who share the same values. American patriotism is fueled by an awareness that a life of individual liberty is not some free gift. Sustaining it requires effort and sacrifice.
  • Humility: We acknowledge that we, and our country, are works in progress. We know that our values are ideals held in consensus, not unanimity. When we fail to live up to them, we admit it to ourselves and vow to do better. We are aware that striving to follow the better angels of our nature is part of what makes us Americans.

A reexamination of these values should begin at home, and any gatherings where serious thoughts and feelings about life can be expressed and heard. The place doesn’t matter — family, friends and people we trust, learn from and listen to are essential. America is a religious country and our religious leaders are in a unique position to help. If they are to do so, they must respect our commitment to freedom of — and from — religion, and the separation of church and state in how we govern ourselves. Discussions of American values should not be a means of promoting a particular set of religious beliefs.

Our conversations should center around questions such as these: What is important to us in life, and why? What are truth, trust, justice, equality, fairness, civility, tolerance and dignity?

The results of a widespread reexamination of values will not be some flashy thing, some declaration of interdependence. This reexamination can, however, provide us with clarity about how we want to live together, govern ourselves, and what we want our country to stand for.  

If we begin at home and with friends, from there it can spread in innumerable ways and take on different, more powerful forms. Educational institutions, the media and political gatherings can take it up and move it along. We need it to sweep across the country, and go viral online. Participation should be seen as the act of patriotism that it is.

I have no illusions about the difficulty and practicality of this. How far removed from the real lives of many Americans is a discussion of something as abstract as values? Are we too self-absorbed, complacent and poorly informed to attempt this? In our daily lives, do we ever talk about what “our idea” means to us? Are we taking for granted freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, what probable cause and due process mean to protecting our liberty? Do we know what we have to lose, and does that matter enough for us to begin changing direction?  

I hope so. The time to decide is upon us; we will all answer this question by our actions or inaction. We must start by undertaking the difficult, unprecedented task of collectively examining ourselves and then rededicating ourselves to living by our values. For example, if we can’t declare a truce, then we at least need to take some energy out of the ongoing class and cultural war.

We must listen more to those with whom we disagree, and ask that they show us the same civility. Our listening must be accompanied by humility, remembering that no one has all the right answers. We can only govern ourselves through consensus and compromise — and both require listening with humility.

We must also listen with respect, compassion and empathy. Many of our fellow citizens feel they’ve lost control, that their life decisions don’t really matter. Some are fearful of America’s changing demographics and diversity. They all must be heard.

And we must rebuild trust. Those who feel the American Dream no longer exists need to know that America will not leave them behind, that the rest of us really do care about more than just ourselves. To rebuild trust, this must be true.

Anchored in, and guided by, our values, we can begin the hard work of really reforming our political, economic and education systems. This is a pledge we must make to one another, to stand up and speak out. Yes, raising the subject of America’s values in our families and communities is risky. What are you willing to risk to save the idea that is America?

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He also directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment, and homeland security.