Foundational Values: A More Perfect Union

Summary

The United States has a single foundation: The Constitution. It outlines our legally shared values:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Any appeal to principles not contained herein are not shared values. For example, we are not a biblical nation. We are a Constitutional nation. Argumentation of law must only appeal to legally shared values.


During each political season, we are inundated with campaign slogans and rhetoric which appeal to foundational American values. We hear reference to our being a Judeo-Christian nation, appeals to biblical authority, nostalgic recounting of the founding fathers’ personal beliefs, or even the eulogizing of small-town American values. The values of some Americans are identified as real, while others are demonized as un-American.

From this basis of branding values, many attempt to both discredit the ideas of others and to lend authority to their own. Their position is necessary, they’ll argue, given the core values they’ve defined.

The problem? Frequently these defined foundational values are not legitimately shared. Agreeing to a shared set of values is fundamental to any productive argument. Discussion of a topic, absent agreement on the foundational values, is most often pointless.

Imagine a bicycle built for two; if the riders don’t agree on the purpose or direction of travel, their odds of arriving at a mutually acceptable place is unlikely. If one rider attempts to define his own values as universal, in this example by seizing the front seat of the bicycle, they’ll simply be imposing their non-shared value on the other. Their values, then, are no longer shared, they’re authoritarian; one party attempting to force their values on the other.

Most argumentation we hear and participate in occurs absent an attempt to identify and agree to foundational values. This creates a swirl of clamor and argument with no chance of agreement. Think of talk radio. Think of the blogosphere. Think of talking religion or politics almost anywhere. We’re pedaling rapidly but going nowhere.

Put in logical terms, every formal argument must begin with an agreed upon premise. Logical arguments are often constructed such that given certain premises, the conclusions follow necessarily.

Most argumentation we hear and participate in occurs absent an attempt to identify and agree to foundational values. This creates a swirl of clamor and argument with no chance of agreement. Think of talk radio. Think of the blogosphere. Think of talking religion or politics almost anywhere. We’re pedaling rapidly but going nowhere.

Do the people of the United States have a legitimately shared set of values? Yes, enumerated in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution is a legally binding expression of our shared values. It is the only legitimate source that we may reference regarding such values, and any attempt to appeal to other documents or ideals is illegitimate. Period.

The preamble to the Constitution succinctly defines the fundamental purposes and principles of the document: this is an explicit list of our shared values. It defines the group (We the people), the purpose of our coming together, and the role and scope of government. It efficiently and eloquently states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The articles of the Constitution define the particulars of how to achieve the values enumerated in the preamble. The Bill of Rights provide a basic, but purposefully incomplete set of personal rights that government cannot infringe; a limiting force on the scope of our government.

What about the Declaration of Independence?

Values Venn Diagram

There are many who claim that our shared values require an acknowledgment of God, and not just god in the generic sense, but that we are a Christian or Judeo-Christian Nation. Frequently, the Declaration of Independence is quoted as a source of those shared values. This is a common source of confusion, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of that document.

The Declaration of Independence is not a legally binding document for the citizens of the United States. Its purpose was to declare a break from the British Monarchy, to release the people of the thirteen colonies of the United States from the rule of the Magna Carta. It was a divorce decree written to the King of England.

As such, the Declaration of Independence had to speak to the language of the law of Britain, whose ruling document was the Magna Carta, which, differing from our Constitution, contains multiple references to God and the British form of governance. It outlines a legally plausible case for separation from the obedience to those laws, to that King.

To prove the point, I’ll pose this question: how would we amend the Declaration of Independence? The question itself is nonsensical. The Declaration exists external to our governing laws. It is not a living document, as is our Constitution. It has not been enacted into law within the context of our governing system. Therefore, it cannot be included in what we consider our legally shared values. It is a document that served a singular purpose at the time it was written. Like the Articles of Confederation which preceded the Constitution, it is not a legally binding document on the United States.

The Declaration is an important, complex and beautifully written document, but it does not define, in any legal manner, what the shared values of our country are.

The Declaration is an important, complex and beautifully written document, but it does not define, in any legal manner, what the shared values of our country are. It is analogous to divorce papers between a married couple; if either party were to marry anew, those divorce papers would have no relevance to the vows of the new marriage.

What else isn’t included in our shared values? The pledge of allegiance. The statement “In God We Trust” on our currency. The bible. The ten commandments. The Star Spangled Banner; or even the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s “God bless the USA.” All of these may be inspirational, may fill us with a sense of pride, and may even inform our own understanding of this nation; but they don’t define the core, agreed upon principles that form the foundation of our laws.

We have jointly agreed to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide common defense, promote general welfare and secure liberty for ourselves and our children.

There is plenty of room to argue the best way to do each of those things, but so long as we have a solid foundation from which to begin our discussion, we’ve a better chance of reaching a meaningful agreement.

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  • Robert Cruickshank

    This raises two questions:

    1. Are the values laid out in our preamble still shared by the population? You’re right that it is the legally legitimate source of values, but we may have witnessed over the last 30-40 years a development where a large section of the population no longer sees those values, or that statement, as legitimate.

    2. Is the system of government laid out in the Constitution still the best way to express those values? Or have we outgrown that system, as its shortcomings become more and more significant, acting as obstacles to fulfillment of the promise of 1787? (My answer to that question is “yes”.)

    I see a country that has evolved out of the system laid down in 1787, which itself is value-neutral, and with a lot of people who reject the values of the preamble, which is a much more serious problem.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Robert, I’m not sure those values were ever shared, not in any ultimate sense. I think the Declaration of Independence is likely what united early Americans, and many Americans still believe that document defines our shared values.

    At the risk of revealing my hand, I think the shared-values problem lays largely at the feet of the religious, whose devotion is to what they see as a greater cause; the Declaration speaks plainly to them, and so they highlight those values.

    I still believe in our Constitutional system of government. The problem with our values is that in many ways, we don’t actually share values. The great work of us all is to persuade our neighbor that our values must be shared if we are to arrive a mutually agreed upon destination. The question is, do we want to be united in a more perfect union? I think this is the problem you’re identifying?

    I don’t think we are value-neutral; I think we are value-contained. In other words, we recognize the limitation of setting values expansively, leaving to individuals the freedom to choose their own values.

    Which form of government do you currently prefer? How would you change ours?