Despite significant political differences, do most Americans actually share the same values?
Recent surveys suggests they do.
A Pew Center survey, for example, finds kindness and honesty ranked highly for both genders, and the annual Grinnell College National Poll finds substantial agreement on the values of equality, personal responsibility and tolerance.
Yet, when it comes to practical action, Americans disagree sharply. We are deeply divided along partisan lines when it comes to issues such as immigration reform, gun regulation and climate change policy.
So, what does this mean?
It says to me you can’t trust surveys, especially when it comes to values.
The problem with values is that they are not grounded in behavior. Values, by definition, are just the qualities we think important. The key word here is “think.” Virtues, by contrast, are the positive character traits we exhibit repeatedly in action.
I first learned the difference between values and virtues when I was 10 years old. My grandfather, Emmett, was a big fan of pro wrestling. He and his pinochle buddies had front-row tickets to the wrestling match every month at the Fargo Coliseum. If one of them could not go to a match, they would have an extra ticket. That’s how I found myself, one late January afternoon, seated between Dan Waters and Gus Riebe, making the 60-mile trip to Fargo in the back of a smoke-filled Chevy Impala.
When we pulled into the parking lot, Grandpa donned his Stetson and led the way into the Coliseum. The man in the ticket booth saw us coming and slid out five tickets. We were an hour early.
“Who are we cheering for?” I asked, thumbing through the program. “Always cheer for the underdog,” replied Grandpa. That was his usual refrain, whether we were talking baseball, football, politics or the local demolition derby. If there was one thing my grandpa insisted on, it was always standing up for the “little guy.”
On that particular night, the underdogs were two relatively unknown wrestlers pitted in a tag team match against “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig and “Luscious” Lars Anderson, two of the most notorious and successful wrestlers of their time.
My grandpa took wrestling seriously. It was not just entertainment, it was a moral contest between good and evil, and fans had a responsibility to do their part. When Hennig and Anderson entered the ring, he jumped up from his seat and led the auditorium in a hearty round of “boos.” As the match progressed, he continued to make his attitude known with a continuous and boisterous stream of commentary.
At one point during the match, while Anderson distracted the referee in the center of the ring, Hennig snuck around the outside, came up behind his opponent, and put him in a chokehold. The crowd roared its disapproval. The referee took no notice.
That was too much for my grandpa. He grabbed a cane from Dan Waters, ran up to “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig, and whacked him on the back of the head. The stunned Hennig whirled around and snatched the cane out of my grandpa’s grip.
While my grandpa sped back to his seat, the entire coliseum erupted in chaos. Fans were jumping to their feet, throwing cups and programs, the referee was waving for security guards, and Henning and Anderson were beating their hapless opponents with the cane. The security guards arrived, took possession of the cane, and began walking around the ring, trying to find the person responsible. As they approached us, Dan Waters — the kindest, gentlest man you could ever hope to meet — said simply, “Officers, that’s my cane.” The guards lifted Dan out of his seat, one on each side, and escorted him out of the building. Grandpa never said a word.
I was so ashamed. For all his talk of standing up for the little guy, when the moment came, he did nothing.
What my grandpa valued, Dan Waters practiced. That is not to say my grandpa was insincere. He really did believe in standing up for the little guy. But sometimes that is hard to do. Most of us fail to live up to our own standards at times.
“We stand at the crossroads, each minute, each hour, each day, making choices,” observed Benjamin Franklin. “We choose the thoughts we allow ourselves to think, the passions we allow ourselves to feel, and the actions we allow ourselves to perform.”
Values are important because they establish standards to which we may hold ourselves, and to which others may hold us, accountable. But what is really important is the daily habits we cultivate that develop into the virtues.
Surveys do not tell us very much about American character. However, they can tell us about how we like to think of ourselves.
To know what Americans are really like, we simply have to look at how we act toward one another. Do we treat one another with respect? Do we speak truthfully? Do we treat others the way we would want to be treated? Do we stand up for those who are most vulnerable in our communities?