What are American Core Values?
Journalists, politicians, religious leaders, and even large companies often assert that citizen or employee actions violate “our core values.” However, these same individuals rarely define what “our core values” are. For instance, Joe Biden claims over ten times on one policy document that President Trump has undermined “our values.” His campaign writes: “Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation” (Biden, 2020). However, Biden never defines what “our core values” are. He merely asserts them. This happens time and again in the United States. The question always remains: “What are America’s core values? What is the American creed?” This short essay answers these questions.
It is often stated that America is a propositional nation – that members of this nation give their assent to certain propositions and this assent defines what it means to be an American. For example, George Will describes the uniqueness of American citizenship this way: “A lot of nations emerge from the mists of history and their basic identity is tribal, it’s rooted in groups. Ours is rooted in a great assent, an assent to certain propositions. We are as Lincoln said, ‘We are a nation dedicated to a proposition. Jefferson wrote the proposition’” (Burns, 1997). It is with Jefferson that the foundation of American values was laid.
Jefferson Defines the American Creed
Gore Vidal said, “Jefferson is American scripture” (Burns, 1997). When Vidal spoke these words he was referring to just a few lines from one document – The Declaration of Independence. Here, in concentrated form, is the cornerstone of American values. These are the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is from these words that all further expression of American values find their source.
As one commentator notes: “Those values (equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) are the closest things to the magic words of American history. Those are the words that all Americans at some very very important level believe in. They are the essential words of the American Creed. These truths are at some level unattainable and at another level mutually exclusive. Perfect freedom doesn’t lead to perfect equality. It usually leads to inequality. But Jefferson’s genius is to assert them at a level of abstraction where they have a kind of rhapsodic inspirational quality” (Burns, 1997).
But what is a creed? According to Jarislov Pelikan (2005) a creed is easier to describe than it is to define (p. 2). However, all creeds have two things in common: “creeds and confessions of faith are symbols and rules of faith” (p. 3). Consequently, the lines from the Declaration of Independence are a rule of faith for all Americans.
There is a problem with the uniquely American ideal of a propositional nation: some citizens are born in the United States who don’t accept the proposition. This is completely different from most nations, where one is a national member by blood. If I am born a Zulu, I may not like the values, beliefs, and language of my people. I can even turn away from them and adopt other values, beliefs, and languages. But I will still be Zulu. According to Halachah, Orthodox Jewish law, there are “immutable” criteria for being a Jew. Howard Sachar explains: “An authentic Jew must be born of Jewish mother and, if male, ritually circumcised, or that the person must be converted to Judaism by Orthodox procedure” (2010, p. 605). Americans have none of this. They must either agree with Jefferson’s proposition or be denied an ethnicity. Therefore, American ethnicity is transactional – it is offered but not freely given. Jewish, Zulu, and other ethnic identities are conferred at birth and cannot be taken away. But American identity requires assent.
A second problem with the Declaration of Independence concerns its assertion “that all men are created equal.” This assertion violates a number of religion’s belief systems. For example, historic Judaism’s teaching that Jews are “elected.” If Jews are elected by God at birth, then they are not created equal to other men (Ben-Sasson, 1997, pp.535-538). The same problem occurs in Christianity where scripture repeatedly and clearly teaches that some men are born “elect” and others are born condemned to unregeneration. For example, Second Thessalonians 2:13 teaches Christians that “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” We see the same doctrine asserted in Ephesians 1: “”According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” It is true, of course, that not all adherents of modern Judaism and Christianity teach the doctrine of election. And yet the verses and the Halachah rulings remain a stumbling block. It’s indicative that many churches fly the Christian flag under the American flag.
Another problem is the abstraction of the American creed. Jefferson asserts all men are equal and have the right to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but which of these four ideas is primary? As many commentators have noted, these propositions are mutually exclusive. When they conflict, which value should we choose? Which value is primary? There is no answer. However, there have been further official statements regarding American values. These statements, or definitions, of American values are investigated in the next section.
World War II and American War Aims
Norman Rockwell famously illustrated President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” as a way to express the values Americans were fighting for in World War II. Rockwell’s illustration is presented at the top of this post. Roosevelt outlined his four freedoms in an address to congress. The four freedoms are presented here with their foundational core value from The Declaration of Independence (Roosevelt, 1941):
- Freedom of speech and expression “everywhere in the world.” This idea directly contradicts numerous religious injunctions to deny freedom of speech to heretics – thereby creating conflict with traditional societies across the world. This demand for freedom of expression is not limited to North America, but rather, Roosevelt demands American ideals spread across the world. Declaration of Independence value: liberty.
- Freedom (for every man) to worship God in his own way “everywhere in the world.” Declaration of Independence core values: equality and liberty.
- Freedom from want “which means economic understandings that will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life.” Declaration of independence core value: happiness.
- Freedom from fear “which means … no nation will be able to carry out an act of aggression against his neighbor.” Declaration of Independence core value: life.
This is what American leaders declared they were fighting for in World War II. And as the list indicates, each aim was grounded in Jefferson’s declaration.
President Truman’s Further Explanation of the American Creed
In 1948, President Harry Truman sent a “Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights.” In this letter, the outworking of America’s core beliefs are expanded and clearly defined. Truman (1948) writes:
This Nation was founded by men and women who sought these shores that they might enjoy greater freedom and greater opportunity than they had known before. The founders of the United States proclaimed to the world the American belief that all men are created equal, and that governments are instituted to secure the inalienable rights with which all men are endowed. In the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, they eloquently expressed the aspirations of all mankind for equality and freedom.
These ideals inspired the peoples of other lands, and their practical fulfillment made the United States the hope of the oppressed everywhere. Throughout our history men and women of all colors and creeds, of all races and religions, have come to this country to escape tyranny and discrimination. With those who preceded them, they have helped to fashion and strengthen our American faith—a faith that can be simply stated:
- We believe that all men are created equal and that they have the right to equal justice under law. Declaration of Independence core value: equality.
- We believe that all men have the right to freedom of thought and of expression and the right to worship as they please. Declaration of Independence core value: liberty.
- We believe that all men are entitled to equal opportunities for jobs, for homes, for good health and for education. Declaration of Independence core value: equality.
- We believe that all men should have a voice in their government and that government should protect, not usurp, the rights of the people. Declaration of Independence core values: liberty and happiness.
These are the basic civil rights which are the source and the support of our democracy.
There are many important aspects to Truman’s elucidation of the American Creed that should be addressed. First, Truman claims these propositions are “the aspiration of all mankind.” Truman makes his claim universal. It’s not just a belief for Americans, the way Halachah is a legal and customs system for only devout Orthodox Jews. No, American values are asserted to be the highest aspiration of all mankind. Second, we can see that each belief of the “American faith” is grounded in core values found in the Declaration of Independence. Third, the government has the capacity to set “faith” for citizens. Formally, matters of faith were set forth by religious leaders. Now, the government establishes matters of faith.
The Supreme Court Further Defines the Logical Implications of the American Creed
In their decision regarding welfare delivered in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that core American values required welfare to be continuously delivered to qualified recipients. Justice Brennan wrote the decision. He noted (Goldberg v. Kelly, 1969):
From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty.This perception, against the background of our traditions, has significantly influenced the development of the contemporary public assistance system. Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community. At the same time, welfare guards against the societal malaise that may flow from a widespread sense of unjustified frustration and insecurity. Public assistance, then, is not mere charity, but a means to ‘promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’ The same governmental interests that counsel the provision of welfare, counsel as well its uninterrupted provision to those eligible to receive it.
A number of observations can be noted from Justice Brennan’s decision. First, all inhabitants of the United States are entitled to a basic commitment to well-being, including sustenance, regardless of citizenship. Second, Brennan explicitly makes the connection between “our traditions” and the need to meet “basic demands of subsistence.” In other words, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution have core values that demand American taxpayers pay for the subsistence of all inhabitants of the nation.Third, Brennan explicitly tied subsistence with equality of opportunity.
Conclusion: American Core Values Defined
This essay sought to answer the question: “What are core American values?” By reviewing foundational documents we found the four core values of America to be: equality, life, liberty, and happiness. From these foundational values, logical applications have been repeatedly deduced by governmental policy makers. Many more examples of American leaders referencing the core values of equality, life, liberty, and happiness could be cited (Kennedy, 1963; Johnson, 1963; Johnson, 1964; Racial discrimination in Washington D.C., 1947; Reagan, 1981; Thorne, 1982; Wilkie, 1943). These values have been used to justify welfare benefits for both citizens and non-citizens, set war aims, set foreign policy, pass legislation, and justify the nullification of religious doctrines. Whether these applications of American core values are appropriate and/or justified is for the reader to decide.
A number of problems are inherent in the four core American values. First, when the values conflict, which one should take precedence? Second, if citizens do not assent to the values, do they still have an American identity? Third, from the foundation, American leaders have sought to impose the core values of the Declaration of Independence on the entire world. The rest of the world has not independently decided to pursue equality, life, liberty, and happiness. American leaders have asserted these values for all other peoples. Are American values really the highest values of devout Muslims and Orthodox Jews? Are they really the values of everyday Maori, Japanese, Greeks, and Cubans?
Nearly a century ago, Carl Schmitt noted the dangers inherent in declaring one’s own beliefs the aspirations of all mankind. He wrote: “The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of economic imperialism. To confiscate the word humanity has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity” (Schmitt, 1996, p. 54). Perhaps, as Henry Kissinger (1994, pp. 804-836) has implied, it is time for Americans, like good neighbors, to keep our values to ourselves in matters of foreign policy. Perhaps it is time to live and let live. Perhaps it is time to know what Americans actually assert when they say “our core values.”
Put succinctly America’s core values are the inalienable right to equality, life, liberty, and happiness.
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