What Are American Values These Days?

The Republican strategist and the Democratic pollster reflect on which core beliefs are still central to our lives.

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Penn: My hope this July 4th is that we focus as Americans on reviving our sport values — values that have made us great and can rekindle our optimism for the future as they have done many times before. From Jesse Owens’s victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid in 1980, great athletic events have crystalized our faith in the country.

These days, sports are marred by scandals that go far beyond cheating, and it seems that every feel-good sports moment has its nefarious counterpart. Sports have always represented American values of fair competition, community, hard work, and the American Dream. But Americans believe our values are in decline, and while this is most clearly attributed to a lack of faith in political and economic institutions, perhaps our athletic institutions best demonstrate why we as a nation have become pessimistic about our values.

To take one example, in the same study, Americans found the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes to be the least morally acceptable behavior in a list that included prostitution, underage drinking, human cloning, and illegal drug use. Every time a scandal hits the sports world, it shakes our trust in our athletic institutions and people who are seen as role models, especially by the Millennial generation. According to the values poll, 45% of Americans age 18–29 say that celebrities and professional athletes have a fair amount or a great deal of influence on developing their beliefs of right and wrong. This is higher than the 42% of the same group who say the same of political leaders, and only slightly lower than the 51% who say that religious leaders have the same amount of influence on their values. We need to hold athletes (as well as other public figures) to a higher moral standard if we are to reverse the pessimism and restore faith in values that American sports have in the past, and can once again, embody. The Olympics will provide our athletes a new opportunity to shine and rise above it all in our best tradition.

(MORE: Olympics News, Photos and Videos)

Hughes: In a fascinating survey of American values that Mark Penn conducted for The Atlantic/Aspen Institute, one stands out: Americans’ steadfast belief in the existence of God. Eighty-nine percent — almost nine in ten Americans — answered yes when asked the straightforward question: Do you believe in God? And while that number is down from the 96% who responded affirmatively to a Gallup Poll in 1944, it is by far the strongest affirmation of any value in the entire survey.

The question highlighted some partisan and generational differences, with 92% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats, 84% of Independents, and 81% of younger voters ages 18–29 answering yes. Yet no matter how you slice or dice the numbers, our shared belief in an Almighty God remains a value that unites most Americans this Fourth of July holiday — even during these pessimistic and anxious times.

Faith in God was central to the framers of America’s Declaration of Independence, which claimed rights for all men because those rights had been “endowed by our Creator.” All people are equal and equally valuable — not because of a political or moral judgment, but because God created us that way.

(MORE: Have We Evolved To Be Religious?)

That core American belief in God acknowledges a higher purpose to the universe, an important recognition that our life is not just all about us. As Scripture counsels, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).” And the core beliefs shared by God-fearing people of many different faiths spring from that understanding: we have a moral responsibility to care for ourselves and each other; it is wrong to murder, steal, lie or commit adultery; we should honor our parents and love God and our neighbors.

Yet the survey also contains warning signs about how Americans act on our stated foundational belief.  When asked what values are most important in their lives, Americans place “family values” first with 41 percent and vague “moral values” second at 31%, with religious values trailing in a distant third at 17%. Only 48% of Americans today say religion is “very important” in their own life, compared to 75% in 1952. This question shows big generational differences, with majorities of those over age 45 saying religion is “very important,” while only a third of Americans age 18–29 say religion is very important to them. And while 37% of Americans attend religious services almost every week, almost half — 49% — say they do so seldom or never.

(MORE: Why We’re Still Catholics)

This survey is a wake-up call for America’s churches, synagogues, mosques — and for Sunday school teachers like me — to make our teaching more relevant, to turn our shared national faith in God into action that makes a difference in all of our lives.