What Traditional Values Mean to Me

October 3rd, 2008

A comment on Facebook yesterday got me thinking what American “traditional values” are all about. We hear it a lot, and I suspect it means something different to different people.

Here’s what it means to me.

It starts with an ethic fundamentally informed by the central tenets of Christianity — which are also excellent standards of decency by secular standards. We are called to have a relentless drive to care for the repressed, poor, downtrodden. As Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of these, so you do to me.” It means extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all, in our own neighborhood and around the world. It means taking good care of the resources we have, acting responsibly, and affirming and supporting others so they can do the same. It means that, as our founding fathers emphasized, remembering that all people are created equal, are equally deserving of a good life, and deserve liberty and freedom. Finally, it means a constant realization that we are creating a human institution, and will always have an imperfect answer to these ideals, but that we can — and must — recognize our faults and strive to make things better.

How do these apply to our time?

We must start with the poor, the repressed, and habitually think of their situation in everything we do. That means remembering that when we drop a bomb in Afghanistan to kill a terrorist, we also usually kill 50 innocent bystanders, and devastate their families. It means remembering that illegal immigrants from Mexico come here because all they want is refuge from drug wars, food on the table, and a roof over their head. It means showing compassion in deportation proceedings: when illegal immigrant parents have a child born in the United States, the child is an American citizen and can’t be deported, but deporting the parents will create an orphan. It means actively helping the repressed people of the world, whether they be in Sudan, Georgia, or AIDS victims in Africa, Muslims in New York. It means reducing taxes on the poor, giving them the skills and tools they need to make their way in life. It means caring for those with alcohol drug addictions, helping them to summon the strength to get past those problems, rather than locking them up or throwing them out on the street. In days past, this might have meant sharing firewood with the family down the road that was at risk of freezing in winter. Today it might mean assistance with winter heating bills.

Remembering that all people are created equal means that we must provide good education for everyone, whether they live in suburban California, inner city Detroit, or rural Appalachia. We owe quality health care to everyone; those without means to pay for health care, or to pay for a car to get to a clinic, should be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal access to medicine.

Remembering that all people are created equal also means that we must provide equal justice under law, and give everyone a fair trail. We must abandon the death penalty, because we have a shocking number of people on death row — hugely disproportionately black and poor — that have been shown innocent of their crimes thanks to advances in DNA testing. We must maintain the integrity of checks and balances in government, and support judicial oversight over search and seizure. We must avoid warrantless wiretapping because it subverts judicial oversight and corrupts our justice system by making the exercise of power secret. We must denounce torture, and refuse to employ it, because no human, being created equal, deserves to be treated in such a way — and we have been applying it to innocent humans.

We owe the opportunity to grow up in a loving family, in a safe community, to every child. We must make sure that gangs no longer have the run of our streets, that drugs aren’t displacing hard work as the currency of the community, and that adoption is inexpensive and practical for more families, rather than costing thousands of dollars. Doing so will help every child grow up knowing that they are valued, are important, rather than being unwanted and therefore abused or neglected.

Extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all starts with being a good example — that shining city on a hill that Reagan talked about. We have to run an open, just, and fair society ourselves. We must not fear those that are different than us, just because they’re different. We have to recognize that citizens of Iran, Russia, North Korea, Palestine, and the United States fundamentally are humans, created equal, seeking the same thing: a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. Being able to coexist peacefully means starting from that point, and being willing to talk to them, and yes, even their leaders, regardless of how distasteful they may be.

Acting responsibly with our resources starts at home — things like not driving up credit card debt, not living outside our means. The same applies to government: massive deficits each year are exceptionally irresponsible and place us at great risk both at the present and in the future. We also have a duty to care for the planet and the environment in which we live, which means actively working to curb the things we do to harm the planet and cause global warming.

What about recognizing our faults? Perhaps the most patriotic duty asked of Americans is dissent. It is never easy, but is essential to keeping our democracy functioning. This country has a long history of successes, and also a long history of failures. We failed so many by keeping slavery legal for so long, and discrimination and lynching legal for even longer. We failed that Native Americans by forcing them from their lands and treating them with brutality. We have, to some extent, risen above these failures thanks to the ability to recognize them and try, to the best of our ability, to fix them. This is what the civil rights movement was about, and why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke out against a society that said some couldn’t eat in a restaurant because of the color of their skin, or who were repressed because of their economic status. He recognized that problem in America, and by speaking out against it, helped to change this country for the better.

Today we have to recognize the things we are doing wrong, and try to change them. We are torturing potentially innocent people. We are discriminating against Muslims and homosexuals in our midst. We are giving extraordinary power to big media companies through changes in copyright law, to big communications companies through failure to enact network neutrality laws. And we are labeling people that disagree with war as unpatriotic.

Notice some things I didn’t mention, such as abortion. It’s not really relevant, and the lines we are fed by both sides present us with this false pro choice vs. pro life debate. In reality, it seems to me that both sides want the best for the children: for every child to grow up in a loving family, where he or she is wanted. We all know from research that laws banning abortion do not actually reduce it. So we ought all to come together and try to make it more rare by providing more support to single parents, by making it easier to adopt children, by trying to make the perceived need for an abortion to go away.

So, in this election, I look at the candidates and it seems pretty clear which one is promoting traditional values and which one isn’t. Obama is actively trying to reach across the aisle and find common ground. Even in his convention speech, he suggested ways to work together on abortion like I just mentioned. In the debate, he listened carefully to his opponent and acknowledged when he thought McCain was right. This is a necessary first step in working together to move forward. McCain subsequently released an ad mocking Obama for this.

What about caring for the poor? Again, Obama’s tax policies, education policies, and health care policies take care of them far better than McCain’s. About responsibility? McCain supported these deficit-busting budgets of the last 6 years, supported the oil-centric energy policies, and has been only lukewarm towards dealing with global warming. McCain and Palin mock Obama for trying to help poor Chicago neighborhoods 20 years ago, for being willing to just talk to our supposed enemies, for actually reaching across the aisle.

So yes, I am a values voter, and that’s why I can’t possibly do anything but vote for Obama.

Categories: General, Politics

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Comments Feed21 Comments

  1. Lisandro Damián Nicanor Pérez Meyer

    It’s good to see that someone analizes his/her vote like this :-D

    Reply

  2. Kumar Appaiah

    Fantastic write-up. While I am not an American, I think most of the points you outline apply to every other country as well, IMHO.

    Reply

  3. Reed Bailey

    Thank you John. I truly could not have written it better. Compassion, cooperation and communication are keystone to leadership. I believe Obama and Biden exhibit these skills. Voting for Obama is voting a for true, real change in leadership.

    Reply

  4. Anonymous

    When illegal immigrant parents have a child born in the United States, the child is an American citizen and can’t be deported, but deporting the parents will create an orphan.

    Is this typical? Citation needed.

    Reply

    terah Reply:

    Yes, that’s typical. It happens ALL the time! A child may be at school or daycare when their parent is deported and so they don’t even get a chance to say goodbye to their parent.

    Reply

  5. John Goerzen

    Thank you everyone for your kind words.

    I would add to the anonymous question about deportation that this is common, and is a really bad situation. Any child born in the United States is an American citizen, usually regardless of the nationality of the parents. That means that American law prevents deporting that child, which is of course an American citizen and thus legally here. It also means that child would not be a legal resident of Mexico, since the child is an American citizen.

    It is an incredibly unfortunate situation that happens all to often. It sometimes happens by the hundreds when the government conducts these mass raids. Church groups, community groups, and the like often have to step in and try to provide some sort of support for these abruptly orphaned children.

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most despicable things our government does in the name of upholding the law. And it’s a prime example, in case we need any reminder, that upholding the letter of the law is not always the ethical choice.

    Reply

    Karen in Wichita Reply:

    American-born children with Mexican parents don’t have dual citizenship? (Or whatever you call it when you get to declare one or t’other.)

    The really interesting thing I read was that pretty much everybody gets deported to Mexico… even if they’re, say, Honduran. So hey, not only are you separated from your kids, you’re dumped in what’s still a foreign country. I don’t get how that makes any sense at all.

    There are other complications, too: I know of someone who is Mexican, and whose (American) husband is an abusive, unemployed alcoholic. They have two kids. Do *that* math… it’s ugly.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I am not very familiar on the law here. But I can venture a couple of guesses.

    To start with, even if the children have dual citizenship, the US government can’t deport them because they are US citizens.

    The right of citizenship based on parents’ nationality is called jus sanguinis. Some countries recognize it; some don’t, and laws may vary on whether or not both parents have to be citizens of the country. I couldn’t find what the scoop is in Mexico with some quick Googling.

    So in some cases, say with Swiss parents, a child born in the US may automatically have dual citizenship. But that’s not always the case.

    Terah tells of raids that happened in Indiana where one time the INS raided a place where both of an infant girl’s parents worked. The girl was still breastfeeding and at a babysitter — and the parents never showed up to pick her up that evening because the INS got them. It’s cruel.

    You’re completely right that the US often deports people to the wrong country. That isn’t supposed to happen, but it does all too often.

    Your example is complicated too. I’m sure the woman feels like she has little recourse from the abuse. And what a legal mess if there would be a divorce.

    Reply

    Rodrigo Gallardo Reply:

    Not that it matters at all for your argument, but yes, Mexico does give national status both for being born in Mexico or for being born to (a) Mexican parent.

    If you know spanish, the relevant law is here:
    http://info4.juridicas.unam.mx/ijure/fed/9/31.htm?s=

  6. Bob

    [i]What about caring for the poor? Again, Obama’s tax policies, education policies, and health care policies take care of them far better than McCain’s. About responsibility?[/i]

    This remains to be seen, neither candidate has mentioned what will be cut and what will be added to their budgets due to the lovely “bailout.”

    Reply

  7. cliff

    But as far as I know those here legally have never been deported.
    We should change the law about just being born here makes you a citizen.
    I have a friend who worked in a packing plant 18 years. He started at $30000 per year. In the 18 years they sped the line up X 4 and his last year he made $16000. He and all of the other leagal citizens were run out by cheap labor from across the border. Although most of the workers had fake ID’s (stolen) All of the workers had the ‘documents’ the government required. The company can’t be faulted because it’s stepping on individual freedom to ask the government to investigate a SS #.
    No one worried about the ‘freedoms’ of the citizens or the fact that they couldn’t work that cheaply because they had health insurance to pay, and real estate taxes to pay to the school for education of their kids and ‘others.’
    I’m for the first candidate to ironclad the borders.
    For the above reasons the argument that they are doing work no one else will do doesn’t hold water. They can work cheaper. Of course they can. We educate them and their health costs end up on my health insurance bill. They line up at HSS to take more of my tax dollars.
    If you want SOME laws obeyed and not others it makes no sense. You can’t say “I’m for human rights” but ask the government to ignore other laws.
    I remember agreeing with one other thing you said but the sun is coming up and I’ve got to get to work. So I can pay my taxes.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Cliff,

    I agree with you that the “they take jobs Americans won’t” argument doesn’t make sense. I also agree that we need to have a rational immigration policy, not just wide-open immigration, for the protection both of the USA and the countries of origin of people. A mass wave of immigration would cause a crisis both places.

    One problem we have is that our legal immigration system is so bad that it literally can take decades for even someone wealthy to work through it, let alone someone without the resources to pay a lawyer.

    The people that are here illegally usually do wind up paying taxes, whether they be payroll taxes, or property taxes (perhaps indirectly if they are renters).

    My complaint, though, mainly has to do with how we treat the people that are here illegally, and their families. It’s a tricky situation and our federal agents have shown too little compassion in too many cases.

    Reply

  8. John Hughes

    “We are torturing potentially innocent people.”

    Are you implying that it’s allowed to torture “guilty” people? It’s not the guilt or innocence of the victim that makes torture wrong.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Not at all, and I completely agree with you.

    But I wanted to stress that part, because not everyone does.

    Reply

  9. Simon

    I always worry when people claim their ethics are founded on religious tenets, since most religions have a lot of very weird ideas (many Christian groups amongst them).

    Whilst I agree with the conclusion, you ignore the other side of the equation. Money spent by government is taken from people who earn it, or have it, by threat of force – this is a form of theft, democratic or otherwise.

    Does “good healthcare to everyone” include those who choose to abuse their bodies? At what point do you draw a financial limit? What about folks who are plain lazy, and will free ride on whatever provision is made, is this fair on the hard working tax payers?

    There are limits to government involvement. At some point the harm of taxation defeats the benefits of government spending. Clearly the soviet communists went too far. I’d argue much of Europe has gone too far in trying to get the state to do too much. America perhaps hasn’t gone far enough down this path, but it is a thorny road.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I agree that there must be sensible limits on government expenditure, for sure.

    Healthcare is one of those where I think we need to make it simple and equal. Do we, for instance, refuse to treat ailments on someone that smokes today, as well as someone that gave it up 20 years ago? I think that refusing service based on behavior is too slippery a path to set upon.

    Rather, revenue can be raised to pay for it other ways: for instance, taxes on tobacco products. Many states do that already, in fact.

    Reply

  10. Matt

    I know it sounds nice to you, but, Christianity means an oppressive, theocratic, brutal, bloody regime to many of us non-Christians. We judge by the history of Christianity, not by the words, which are empty in contrast.

    It is hard to connect Christians with the values you espouse when they spent much of the last two thousand years murdering and pillaging those who were different from them (and even those who were not so different).

    The association of Christians with the perverse conservatives of this country only goes to show that most of them are incapable of even understanding the consequences of the tenets of their own religion.

    I’m glad you are able to make the logical conclusion for yourself, but you are in the minority. Most people are not smart enough to make the connections themselves, and are easily manipulated by religious authorities with ulterior motives.

    And finally, the Constitution explicitly prohibits the favoring of any religion in law or office. Because the founding fathers made the same observation about practitioners of religion as I have above. There is nothing more traditionally American than the Constitution itself.

    Stick with the values, but don’t drag Christianity into it. It only gets ugly.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    There is no denying that there have been plenty of people that have killed in the name of Christianity. That doesn’ mean they were following the teachings of Jesus. I understand why you suggest that, and it’s unfortunate. Just as all this talk about creationism and reading the Bible literally throughout — really a modern invention post-Enlightenment — is serving not only to alienate people from a faith that embraces logical thinking, but also to put people’s attention at a needless controversy.

    I am a Christian and an American. There have been an awful lot of bad things done in the name of both of these — just as you could find in the history of any long-standing country, religion, or place. That doesn’t mean it gets at what those entities are really about.

    When you see people volunteering at a homeless shelter or volunteering to go to Vietnam during the war — as an aid worker — that’s what Christianity it all about.

    At the same time, the separation between church in state in the American constitution is a good one and should be preserved. I usually don’t argue from this perspective, but when talking about “traditional” values it is hard to escape.

    Reply

    Michael Goetze Reply:

    “a faith that embraces logical thinking”

    And which faith would that be? Surely not Christianity!

    Here’s a link which quotes extensively from the New Testament, which I think speaks for itself: http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/dovewing.htm#CRITICS

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m not sure whose faith this article is criticizing — perhaps some sort of fundamentalism. It most certainly is not any faith I know.

    Criticism, discussion, and disputes over Biblical inerrancy, meaning, and relevance have been happening for centuries, continue to happen, and are encouraged by theologians, seminaries, and many churches.

    I remember when I was in high school. A recruiter from a local Mennonite college (a very well-regarded college nationally) came by to talk about selecting a Christian college.

    He explicitly said something like this: “Our Bible and religion courses will test your faith They will test your belief in God, or your belief in atheism. At the end, our goal is for you to have strengthened yourself, by developing a strong, reasoned, faith that is personal to you and has withstood testing — or to have revised your own faith, whatever it might be.”

    This is not the language of unquestioning belief.

    That article goes on to say that “the New Testament has given its adherents the impression that any and all critics are frauds bent on misleading the unwary” and cites as evidence Matt. 7:15: (“Be on your guard against false prophets; they come to you looking like sheep on the outside, but on the inside they are really like wild wolves”).

    They are completely mistaking the point. I read that verse to be *encouraging* logical thinking. Evaluate what people are saying. Does it really make sense if someone says that it is our religious duty to launch a crusade against the middle east? Is that compatible with the teachings of the Bible? Are we basing our understanding of teachings on a sufficiently broad reading of the Bible so as to have made a well-reasoned, well-grounded decision?

    I see it as a warning to avoid religious fanatics, and to do so *by questioning everything*.

  11. Ian Duncan

    Well said John! I read your blog from Planet Haskell, but as a young voter I agree with you 100%. Thanks for the encouragement of seeing (I’m assuming) another Christian that doesn’t vote Republican because that’s the socially expected option.

    Reply

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