American Culture and Values

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This essay will discuss how American culture and values, and in particular religion, have shaped the contemporary American political system and also the political behaviour of its citizens.

In order to understand the modern American mind it is prudent to first of all examine the history of ideas which has shaped the modern country. When the Pilgrim Fathers landed on their chosen territory they were very clear about their intentions. They wanted to set up a new country which would embody the Protestant Christian ideal – the Bible would be their ultimate guide. However, these first settlers were also well educated people who took on ideas from the enlightenment thinkers.[1] In particular, John Locke, the British idealist philosopher, was to influence their form of government and written Constitution.[2] The Constitution is therefore regarded as an enlightenment document.[3] Within just a few years, the settlers had tamed the land, erected many churches and within a mere six years of their arrival had set up a university to rival those of the best British institutions – Harvard University of Boston, New England. This was a truly magnificent feat and proves what a strong emphasis the community placed on the value of education. However, it is estimated that only one-fifth of the population were religious and the non-religious majority only managed to assert their views over the running of the colonies due to their strength in numbers. Having said that, the Puritans without doubt held the greatest influence over the shaping of the initial American society.[4]

The Puritans wanted to create, in the words of John Winthrop’s speech aboard the Arbella in 1630, “a Citty Upon a Hill”[5]; a truly great civilisation that would be looked upon as the epitome of good governance and holy living by their European counterparts. In spite of this, the second and third generations and indeed the later settlers did not generally hold these strong beliefs. Europe had also cast its eye elsewhere. They therefore ‘had to make meaning out of their own experience, contrive New World explanations of themselves, work out a peculiar American destiny.’[6] Nevertheless, the Protestant Ethic still ran deep and indeed still does to this day – most Americans see themselves as a hard-working people. They also have very strict laws concerning alcohol consumption and gambling.[7] McGiffert summarises this Protestant Ethic, ‘as [befitting] a religion of a rising middle class... [inculcating] the code of economic virtues – industry, probity, sobriety, charity, and the like.’[8] Sardonically, George Haskins writes that, ‘the early social and political structure was to endure for several decades, but it gradually crumbled as primitive zeals began to wane and the religious aspects of life were subordinated to commercial interests.’[9] This, to put it briefly, is the story of America.

Perhaps the value that underpins all modern day American politics is the Americans’ belief in their own exceptionalism. According to Michael McClendon, Claus Offe’s view is that, ‘America is the younger sibling to Europe and just grew up differently... America, he believes, is a cultural and political hegemon that refuses to question its values or have them questioned. It sees its duty to project itself on the world and cares little for external validation or moral legitimacy.’[10] John Torpey compares various historical views of just what this exceptionalism is. And it is certainly clear that opinion is divided as to whether this exceptionalism implies superiority or the contrary. Perhaps Martin Lipset and Alexis de Toqueville put it best; that the concept is double-edged, they ‘are the worst as well as the best, depending upon which quality is being addressed.’[11]

One particular aspect of American politics that is unique amongst modern western societies is their lack of any significant socialist movements. There are no revolutionary...
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