Dr. Wayne Baker: How 10 core values can rebuild a ‘United America’

Click on the cover to visit its Amazon book page.Best-selling author Brian McLaren says, in his Preface to United America: “This is a book to be shared and translated into thousands of healing conversations across America. Our values matter, and you and I can help them survive and thrive.”

This couldn’t come at a better time. Dr. Wayne Baker’s book reports his conclusions from years of research conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The book’s full title is, United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear.

United America appears just as the Glenn Beck apologizes for “helping to tear the country apart” and says he wishes we all could focus on “uniting principles.” The problem is: Glenn Beck doesn’t know what they are.

UofM’s Institute for Social Research is known around the world for its painstaking, nonpartisan research. Now, in Dr. Baker’s book, all Americans have a roadmap to find and discuss our uniting principles.

To help promote a United America, you can …

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed OurValues.org as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. WAYNE BAKER
ABOUT ‘UNITED AMERICA’
AND 10 CORE VALUES

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist for four decades now and I can say with confidence: This book is big news. As a social scientist, you’ve proven that Americans agree on a whole lot more than most of us ever thought possible in this era of Washington gridlock, red-blue stereotypes and angry media pundits. You’re really busting some myths here, right?

Dr Wayne Baker University of Michigan author of United AmericaWAYNE: Definitely. The research we are publishing now in this book clearly shows Americans share more common ground than a lot of people thought possible. I have documented 10 core values that are strongly held by Americans; and we have strong evidence in support of that.

DAVID: When you say “10 core values,” you’re not talking about simple majorities. You’re talking about almost universal agreement among Americans on these deeply held beliefs.

WAYNE: That’s right. Before I could determine that something was a core value, it had to meet a number of characteristics. To include a value on the final list, it had to be held by a very large majority of Americans over a period of time. In some cases, these values are held by 85 or even 90 percent of Americans across four national surveys, conducted over a two-year period. If people felt strongly about a value in the first survey, but a later survey didn’t show such strong agreement, then it wasn’t a core value. These beliefs are stable over time. They are widely shared across demographic, political and religious lines. We agree on them whether we are conservative or liberal, young or old, rich or poor.

DAVID: This research involved a very elaborate process, beyond the four national surveys. I know that you explored nearly all of the past studies on this issue. Tell us more about how you reached the final 10.

WAYNE: Working with the Institute for Social Research (ISR), we started by looking at more than 100 questionnaires that researchers had used over the years to explore American values. We held focus groups, talking to people about values and about how they talk about values. We compiled a very long list of possible core values and then we pared down this list, further and further through these stages of the work. We actually held focus groups where we asked people to debate the values. Finally, we reached a list of 24 possible core values that we tested in our four surveys. After the data came back from the surveys, I asked our top data people to throw every kind of test they could think of at these conclusions. Was this research solid? Had we missed something? Were these conclusions true? After all of that testing, we know the conclusions are solid.

DAVID: And these aren’t your recommended values. They’re not your opinions about what values we should hold.

WAYNE: That’s right. I did not start with any conclusions about what I would find. If we had found that there are no core values, I would have reported that. If we had found a different list of values, I would have reported those. I’m a social scientist reporting the evidence from some of the most exhaustive and rigorous research ever conducted into American values.

GOOD NEWS FOR WEARY AMERICANS

DAVID: Your book, revealing our 10 core values, is going to be good news for a lot of weary Americans. Polls show Americans actually hate the angry atmosphere of name calling and gridlock nationwide. How have we gotten into such a mess?

I think we’ve got a clue in Glenn Beck’s recent apology. He now says: “I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping to tear the country apart and it’s not who we are and I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were.” Well, you know as a researcher, Wayne, that Americans do hope for unity. So, why did Glenn Beck do this for years? He now says: “I remember it was an awful lot of fun”—not to mention that it made him a wealthy celebrity!

WAYNE: A lot of people, today, make careers out of controversy. And, for a lot of people, these battling voices are a form of entertaining reality television. But, the polarization we see today is largely coming from media commentators and political elites in this country. And, there’s no question that the elected officials in Washington are deeply divided.

But my research was not among political elites—we were interested in what Americans really think.

TESTING OUR VALUES IN A CHANGING AMERICA

DAVID: Your findings make a lot of sense, when we look at the major trends in American life that Pew researchers have just documented. This new Pew report on “milestones” was not designed to look at values—certainly not in the way you define values. But the Pew team’s list of “milestones” did identify some major shifts underway in American culture. And, when you look at those dramatic lines moving across the Pew charts—they make sense when compared with your list of values.

Here’s an example: Pew now finds that a majority of Americans favor legalizing same-gender “marriage.” And if you describe this as a form of civil “union,” there’s an even bigger majority approving legalization. Beyond that, big majorities of Americans feel this legal change is inevitable—whether they like the idea or not. In your study, you found that “Equal Opportunity” is an almost universally held Core Value. Now that same-gender unions are largely being seen as an example of “Equal Opportunity,” the whole country seems to be shifting toward approving the practice.

WAYNE: Yes, in that milestone identified by Pew, I think we are seeing an expression of one of the values I describe in my book. Proponents are calling this a case of “marriage equality.” This change we are seeing in this issue is a good example of how people can tap into our what I have identified as Core Values to promote a particular issue or agenda.

DAVID: Another Pew milestone is the record number of 40-million immigrants in the U.S. right now. In addition to Equal Opportunity, you also name “Respect for Others” in your list of 10. Your book is going to be good news, I think, for immigrants coming to this country. But it also suggests that we are really going to be testing our values over the next few years. Can we live up to our ideals?

WAYNE: That’s a good question we all should be discussing. This Pew report also reminds us of what people around the world think about our country. Remember that the U.S. still is the global destination of choice today, if you look at the numbers of people moving around the world. Russia is second, but it’s a distant second.

In other parts of the world—think about the Middle East or Africa—immigration can result in violence, death and even genocide in extreme cases. But, in America, a very high percentage of men and women believe that we should respect others. For example, a very high percentage of Americans believe that the sacred books of any faith should be respected—and that’s not a value in many other parts of the world. Americans believe that all races should be respected—and that’s not true in other parts of the world.

DAVID: But there are big gaps between our beliefs—and what we actually do in public policy. When people read your book, they’ll find lots of examples where we’re still pretty far from our ideals. One example is racism. While most Americans say we should respect all people and provide equal opportunity—the truth is that we’re also experiencing records in the wealth gap separating rich and poor, black and white. That’s part of the discussion you’re hoping people will undertake.

WAYNE: Yes, there is an obvious gap between our values and reality. We still see vast differences in actual opportunities, by race. This is an ongoing struggle. I tend to be optimistic. I think we should acknowledge the truth about the problems we face, then talk about what we might do together based on the deep values that unite us as Americans.

DAVID: You also point out in the book that—even if we completely agree on our ideals—we will have honest disagreements about the best policies to reach those goals, right?

WAYNE: Yes, working out policies to reflect our values is the tough part. But we cannot even start on that process unless we can find common ground to talk as Americans.  The problem is that we’ve forgotten we even have common ground. That’s what Brian McLaren writes about in his Preface. One of the strong messages of this book is that we do have far more common ground than most people realize.

Usually, when we talk about the difficult issues we face, we start with disagreements and we don’t get very far. Or, we may never even bring up these issues because of the mistaken impression that we can never hope to agree.

PROVING THAT CIVIL CONVERSATIONS ARE POSSIBLE

DAVID: Readers don’t have to take your word for it. You’ve proven that civil conversation is possible—even in the Wild West of the Internet. Part of the ongoing research that went into United America is the daily OurValues.org project you’ve produced, as a department of ReadTheSpirit.

WAYNE: We have published more than 1,500 OurValues.org columns over the years. I write most of those columns. We have some very talented guest columnists who have contributed, as well. We all follow a similar approach: We take a values-related issue that’s making headlines, so we know it affects a lot of people. Then, we try to present a bit of news with each column—sometimes a new survey, or some another piece of news we’ve spotted about that issue. Then, we ask questions and we moderate readers’ comments. People who comment are not allowed to personally attack each other. If that does happen, we email the author of the comment and explain why the comment was held back. This rarely happens anymore, but when we do have to intervene, the people who post offending comments respond and agree to revise what was written. This has worked surprisingly well.

DAVID: You’ve proven the potential of civil dialogue in other was, too. In recent months, two pilot groups in two different cities helped you to test the United America book in a series of discussions. Readers can watch a 6-minute video on this page, which shows some folks in those sessions talking about values from their own perspectives.

WAYNE: The first thing we learned from those two pilot groups was: People will show up to talk about this! We had big groups show up in both locations and people were eager to talk. It is true that some people did show up the first time feeling rather anxious about what might happen. They said they were afraid this might devolve into the kinds of angry confrontations we see in the media. But people were willing to give it a try and people quickly realized that we can have civil dialogue.

It was very interesting to see how this unfolded. As we talked, week by week, people resonated with every one of these values. Most people said: “We’ve never thought about it this way before.” They’d go home and talk about this with relatives and friends and co-workers, because they were so relieved to discover that we do share core values. People kept asking when this was going to go nationwide, so they could urge friends in other cities to start discussion groups. Well, that’s happening with this launch.

In some of the discussions we held, the stories people told were very personal and very touching. A lot of people were sad to see the series come to an end. They had formed new connections with others by sharing personal stories about how these values played out in their lives. The most common one-word response we got from people in these groups was: Hope.

Help promote a United America

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed OurValues.org as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 core values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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