Don’t Outsource Your Values to Presidential Candidates

Last night’s Iowa Caucus result represents an attempted pendulum swing for the country. Senator Rick Santorum’s surprising surge and victory, in spite of a few votes short of Governor Mitt Romney, is reminiscent of Mike Huckabee’s victory four years ago. The conservative base of the Republican Party finds a candidate that speaks to their agenda for the family, fiscal policy, and foreign affairs. The question remains, will the rest of the Republican Party, and then the country, solidify behind such a vision and elect a new president later this year?

Cultural pendulum swings are an inevitable part of any society. Our two party system attempts to represent different governing philosophies, but inevitably represent certain worldviews and claims on how American life should look for the individual. Mix into the equation the arts, practices of young people, entertainment selections, technological developments, scientific advances and demographic trends, and the degree of change from what many have known can be daunting. One begins to wonder, “Have we swung too far? Can we ever go back? What is next?”

The political genius built in to the American system allows for such swings and evolution without breaking the center, killing off the far left or right, and so far, ensuring an orderly transition of power. Yet, such swings are difficult for an individual to experience and a malaise can creep in, especially during economically tough times, as one wonders where our society is going. The unknown is more daunting than an identifiable, if disagreeable, place.

The good news is we are not alone in this cultural exploration, articulation of our values, and claim on our future life together. There is hope found in the fact that one, people have crossed these treacherous cultural waters before, and two, as individuals we have the freedom to define our future with our leaders, rather than in spite of them.

A recent Facebook phenomenon has been the posting of Queen Elizabeth II’s annual Christmas broadcast from this past year along with her first message in 1957. Her message of fifty years ago reassures us in 2012 that there truly is nothing new under the sun, as observed by King Solomon in the Old Testament. In 1957 the Queen said the following:

“Because of these changes, I’m not surprised that many people feel lost and unable to decide what to hold on to, and what to discard; how to take advantage of the new life without losing the best of the old.

“But it’s not the new inventions which are the difficulty. The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside; morality and personal and public life made meaningless, and self interest set up in place of self restraint.”

It is as if these words spoken over half a century ago could be repeated today by one of the candidates for president.

David Brooks, author, commentator for the New York Times, and, I believe, America’s twenty-first century philosopher, recently reassured us that in spite of American culture’s flirtation with the vulgar, American young people have an inherent understanding of what is right, best, and will bring our culture back to a place of stasis.

He says,

“Now we are incredibly anxious. We have these traditional values; American culture, which has been around since de Tocqueville, and yet, (we think) ‘Maybe it’s winding down? Maybe it’s sclerotic? Maybe the Chinese have something we don’t have? The Indians? The Brazilians? What kind of people are we?’ I do think that is yet to be written.

“I’ve got kids and kids are surrounded by rap music, by Katy Perry, by Kesha. It’s about brushing your teeth with Jack Daniels; it’s the party, the rap lifestyle. Should I be worried that this is the culture in which they are surrounded? That is a very complicated question. We are not passive consumers of media. As the culture has gotten more vulgar, young people’s morals are, in many ways, improving. So, just don’t think that because they are listening to gangster rap or something they are bad people. That is not the case. We have a sense of fantasy. And so, (they think), ‘Ok, that’s what I do for fun; that’s fantasy. But, I’m still going to be an honest, decent person.’” (on Charlie Rose, December 21, 2011)

How will American culture be shaped in 2012? While the President and his opponents seek to shape that answer by the values they represent and the policies they pursue, may we recognize that culture is shaped each and every day by our personal decisions, our own family values, and the organizations and movements with which we affiliate. As a young Queen Elizabeth exhorted in 1957: “We need the kind of courage that can stand up to the subtle destruction of the cynics.”

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