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Is America bitterly divided? Has America lost its traditional values? Many politicians and religious leaders believe so, as do the majority of Americans, based on public opinion polls taken over the past several years. But is this crisis of values real?
This book explores the moral terrain of America today, analyzing the widely held perception that the nation is in moral decline. It looks at the question from a variety of angles, examining traditional values, secular values, religious values, family values, economic values, and others. Using unique data from the World Values Surveys, the largest systematic attempt ever made to document attitudes, values, and beliefs around the world, this book systematically evaluates the perceived crisis of values by comparing America's values with those of over 60 other nations.
The results are surprising. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with most other societies, and that the culture war is largely a myth.
The gap between reality and perception does not represent mass ignorance of the facts or an overblown moral panic, Baker contends. Rather, the widespread perception of a crisis of values is a real and legitimate interpretation of life in a society that is in the middle of a fundamental transformation and that contains growing cultural contradictions. Instead of posing a problem, the author argues, this crisis rhetoric serves the valuable social function of reminding us of what it means to be American. As such, it preserves the ideological foundation of the nation.
"Anyone concerned about American values in the larger world will be impressed by the elegance and clarity with which Baker treats this complex subject."—Choice
"Is America experiencing a crisis of values, as popular media and politics claim? In a word: no. Wayne Baker . . . give[s] the most comprehensive empirical analysis of the topic to date."—Contemporary Sociology
"Wayne E. Baker tries to explain why a gap has opened between the public perception that the U.S. is sharply divided and the empirical reality that it is not. . . . America's Crisis of Values is an important book that ought to be included in any seminar designed to provide background reading for our elected politicians."—Alan Wolfe, Christian Century
"Wayne Baker has produced a thoughtful and engaging work. Scholars interested in public opinion, values, and the discourse surrounding the culture wars in the United States should read America's Crisis of Values."—James A. McCann, Perspectives on Politics
[A] deeply provocative book. It raises many questions for further investigation, and it will reward careful study."—Barry Schwartz, American Journal of Sociology
This book is an attempt to regard old questions about moral values from a new angle. By doing so, I hope to clarify the widespread perception at the turn of the millennium of an American crisis of values.
I chose the words "perception" and "American crisis of values" intentionally. I use "perception" because I do not begin this treatise with the assumption that there is a crisis, only that many Americans perceive a crisis-real or not. The reality of a crisis and the perception of a crisis are separable questions. For example, it is possible that many Americans believe society is divided when it comes to the most important values when it is not. I use "American crisis of values" rather than "a crisis of American values" because the discourse about moral crisis covers a much wider range of values than the five that make up the core values of the American ideology (liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire). Thus, I will explore the question of values over a broad moral territory, including traditional values, secular values, religious values, family values, economic values, and others.
In this introductory chapter, I briefly describe the perception of a crisis of values inAmerica, citing some of the leading voices in public and intellectual debates, as well as the voice of the American people heard through national surveys and studies. Next, I present three ways to think about a crisis of values: as a loss over time of traditional values, as an unfavorable comparison to the value systems of other societies, and crisis as a division of society into opposed groups based on competing moral visions. These are, respectively, the trend hypothesis, the comparative hypothesis, and the distribution hypothesis. I introduce these hypotheses here as an overview but reserve their theoretical justification and empirical testing for later chapters. Finally, I discuss the concept of America as an "imagined community" and consider what a crisis of values means for the twin problems that confront the imagined community of a nation-state: the problem of legitimacy and the problem of social integration. I conclude this chapter with an overview of the book.
The Widespread Perception of Crisis
The perception of an American crisis of values is real; scholars, journalists, politicians, and other participant-observers of American culture have chronicled it for some years. Popular versions include Allan Bloom's indictment of American education in The Closing of the American Mind; the caustic effects of runaway individualism described by Robert Bellah and associates in Habits of the Heart, a theme reiterated by Francis Fukuyama in The Great Disruption; William Bennett's remedial moral education program in The Book of Virtues designed to lift America out of "moral poverty"; Robert Hughes's acerbic account of the "fraying" of America in Culture of Complaint; John Miller's condemnation in Egotopia of the physical and moral "ugliness" of America's consumer society; the loss of virtues and character, portrayed variously by Gertrude Himmelfarb in The DeMoralization of Society, Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character, and James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character; and Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" metaphor of America's declining social capital and his call for civic reengagement. "Americans once proudly emphasized their uniqueness," observes Seymour Martin Lipset, "their differences from the rest of the world, the vitality of their democracy, the growth potential of their economy. Some now worry that our best years as a nation are behind us." America, it seems, has fallen from grace.
There does not appear to be a lack of hard evidence of the decline of American society. For example, in The State of Americans, Urie Bronfenbrenner and associates review a mass of statistical data and paint a portrait of "societal chaos" in America. Other attempts to chart the course of American society reveal the same trends, such as those reported in The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, an effort to track the moral and ethical trends of our times much as the government's Index of Leading Economic Indicators tracks economic trends. This cultural index is a composite of twenty-two different trends in American society, including measures of political participation, trust in others and confidence in the federal government, church membership, participation in voluntary groups, violent crime, and family statistics. The statistics used in this index are consistent with those reported in sociological analyses of census and other data, such as reported in State of the Union, edited by Reynolds Farley. (Recent reversals of some of these trends are typically dismissed as misleading or simply too modest to indicate true reversals.) To these telling statistics one can add any number of sad and tragic events from the closing years of the century, ranging from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying under oath about his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky to the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered thirteen and wounded twenty-three more.
For many, such statistics and events represent the descent of American society into moral confusion, perhaps even moral anarchy. It is a question of values. Values are concepts people use to make choices, to decide courses of action, to explain and justify behaviors, to judge and to be judged. Values are "modes of organizing conduct," defines Robin Williams, emotionally invested "principles that guide human action." My main concern is moral values-fundamental values about right and wrong, good and evil, noble and base-that live in the hearts of people and are embodied in institutions. Moral values form "the core of the individual's internalized conscience." Violations of moral values evoke shame, remorse, and guilt in the offender who holds them. And because they represent central values of society, violations of moral values invoke strong sanctions from the community-censure, ostracism, condemnation, and punishment in many and varied forms. It is this capacity-the will to make moral judgments and to invoke strong sanctions-that many social critics claim Americans have lost.
Bronfenbrenner and associates conclude their book with the grave interpretation that "values commonly judged as 'good' seem in decline, including honesty, a sense of personal responsibility, respect for others anchored in a sense of the dignity and worth of every individual." Similarly, Bennett and associates argue that America has "experienced an astonishing degree of social regression." Today, they conclude, "[l]arge segments of America are characterized by moral confusion, indolence, indifference, and distraction." Bennett sounds a dire warning in a 1995 Heritage Foundation address: "Current trends in out-of-wedlock births, crime, drug use, family decomposition, and educational decline, as well as a host of other social pathologies, are incompatible with the continuation of American society as we know it. If these things continue, the republic as we know it will cease to be." He repeats the warning in his 1998 best seller, The Death of Outrage, lamenting President Clinton's misconduct, the decline of America's values, and the nation's incapacity to make moral judgments. America, he says, has lost its "moral compass." The lost compass is a common metaphor in popular literature. For example, Stephen Covey asserts, "Our moral compass is thrown off, and we don't even know it. The needle that in less turbulent times pointed easily to 'true north'-or the principles that govern in all of life-is being jerked about by the powerful electric and magnetic fields of the storm."
Most Americans seem to agree, as reported in various national surveys and studies conducted from the mid-1990s through 2003. In 1993 and 1994, for example, 62 percent of Americans reported that "Americans are greatly divided when it comes to the most important values." Men and women felt exactly the same way; African Americans were only slightly more likely than whites to feel that the American people are greatly divided when it comes to the most important values (69 versus 60 percent, respectively). In 1995 about 86 percent of Americans agreed that "there was a time when people in this country felt they had more in common and shared more values than Americans do today." The 1996 Survey of American Public Culture reported that 90 percent of Americans felt that the country was not improving overall; 52 percent said the country was actually in decline. Almost 90 percent of middle-class Americans feel that "it has become much harder to raise children in our society," reports Alan Wolfe in his 1998 Middle Class Morality Project, and 67 percent say that, "compared to twenty years ago, Americans have become more selfish." A Pew survey of religion and public life, conducted in spring 2001, found that 55 percent of Americans felt that religion was "losing its significance" as an influence on American life. This figure dropped to 12 percent in mid-November 2001, two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but rose again to 52 percent in March 2002, six months after the attacks. In the same March 2002 survey, three of four Americans said "no" in response to the question, "Do you think people in general today lead as good lives-honest and moral-as they used to?" The same proportion of Americans said "no" to the question, "Do you think that young people today have as strong a sense of right and wrong as they did, say, fifty years ago?" And, in a May 2003 Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans rated the "overall state of moral values in this country today" as "only fair" or "poor." In the same poll, 67 percent of Americans said they "think the state of moral values in the country" is "getting worse."
These private feelings of decline, discord, and division are given public voice by those who believe America is engaged in a "culture war" over its future. Sociologist James Davison Hunter came up with the first systematic statement of the culture war thesis. Many resonated with the statement and made it part of everyday discourse. For example, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan proclaimed, "There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a culture war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America." Buchanan's claim cannot be dismissed as mere hyperbole or conservative political rhetoric; it represents a major and pervasive theme in discourse about American society. "Images of U.S. society as polarized into warring moral camps are increasingly evoked by political leaders, media pundits, and scholars alike," observe Nancy Davis and Robert Robinson. Indeed, about 1,500 articles referring to the American culture war appeared in the media between 1993 and 1996, as well as countless references to the culture war on talk radio and television and in political speeches, public debates, and everyday conversations.
The perception of a "crisis of values" is clear and widespread; the causes of the perception are not. We are experiencing, conclude Bronfenbrenner and associates, "nothing less than a transformation of America's culture by forces not well understood, in directions many of its people do not want." Understanding these not-well-understood forces is a goal of this book. Rather than adding my voice to the din of alarm and concern about the symptoms of America in decline, I report what Americans actually say about moral values. I explore the murky realm of underlying causes of the perception of a crisis of values. By doing so, I hope to provide a fresh explanation of the root causes of the question of values in American society. Following Max Weber and Clifford Geertz, I view this as an exercise of interpretation. As Geertz argues, "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning." My objective, therefore, is to interpret the changing webs of significance spun of values in American culture.
Three Ways to Think About a Crisis of Values-Loss, Unfavorable Comparison, and Division
The various social critics I cited above are an eclectic mix of perspectives, levels of analysis, and foci of interest. Some are empiricists, analyzing and interpreting data, while others are theorists or social commentators. Some focus on symptoms; others focus on underlying causes. Despite its variety, three key themes run through this literature: three ways to think about America's crisis of values. I describe each theme below, which I formulate as hypotheses and test empirically in later chapters.
The first way to think about the crisis of values is a loss over time of traditional values, and with it the capacity or will to make moral judgments. What are traditional values? Many societies have existed in the course of human history; some historic "traditions" would not qualify as "traditions" in America today. For example, as Ronald Inglehart and I wrote, "Infanticide was common in hunting and gathering societies, but became rare in agrarian societies; homosexuality was accepted in some preindustrial societies; and women are believed to have dominated political and social life in some preindustrial societies." We note, however, that data on preindustrial societies nonetheless reveal some common characteristics that can be considered traditional values: the importance of religion and God; absolute standards of good and evil; the importance of family life; deference to authority; the dominance of men in social, political, and economic life; and intolerance of abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and suicide. The opposite of these traditional values are secular-rational values, sometimes called "modern" or "postmodern" values. Here, "secular" means nonreligious, while "rational" refers to the "rationalization of all spheres of society" (as Weber put it), including the use of reason, logic, science, and means-end calculations rather than religion or long-established customs to govern social, political, and economic life. (This use of "rational" does not imply that traditional values are "irrational.") Secular-rational values include the lack (or low levels) of religious beliefs and beliefs in the importance of God; relative standards of good and evil; gender equality; lack of deference to authority; and acceptance of abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and suicide.
Traditional values and secular-rational values are the poles of a single fundamental dimension of cultural variation, as extensive research using the World Values Surveys has shown. If American society has lost its traditional values, then we should observe a significant movement along this dimension. This movement would correspond to the "secularization" of culture in America. I call this the trend hypothesis of the crisis of values, for it represents the replacement over time of traditional values by secular-rational values.
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List of Illustrations ix
Chapter One: A Question of Values 1
The Widespread Perception of Crisis 2
Three Ways to Think About a Crisis of Values—Loss, Unfavorable Comparison, and Division 6
Threats to America as an Imagined Community 10
Chapter Two: America's Values in Global Context 17
Two Dimensions of Cultural Variation and Change 18
Global Cultural Maps 22
Loss of Traditional Values 35
Unfavorable Comparisons with Other Societies 38
Why Have Some Values Changed and Others Stayed the Same? 42
Chapter Three: Culture War 64
The Culture War Thesis 65
The Polarization of Americans 73
Linkage of the Hierarchy of Beliefs 85
The Connection between Social Capital and Moral Visions 95
Is There an American Culture War—Could There Be? 103
Chapter Four: Dynamics of Crisis 110
Tides of American History 112
An Interpretation of the Dynamics of Crisis 134
Chapter Five: The Search for Meaning 159
Mixed Systems, Cultural Contradictions, and Cognitive Dissonance 161
Rising Spirituality and the "New Age" 166
The Special Role of Absolutism in America 173
An Integration of Opposites 180
Summary of Key Findings 183
Appendix A: World Values Surveys 189
Appendix B: Statistical Tables 197