Sunday, August 03, 2008

Where Did You Get Your American Values?

One two-part question in last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll needs serious scrutiny. The question seemed simple:

“For each of the following candidates, please tell me whether that person has a background and set of values that you can identify with, or whether he does NOT have a background and set of values that you can identify with.”

Evidently the question has been asked several times over the past few months. There has been no significant variation in the response over time regarding Senators McCain and Obama. In this latest instance, 58% of respondents say that John McCain “has the background and set of values that they identify with”; it was 47% for Obama. Likewise 34% say John McCain does NOT have the background and set of values that they identify with, compared to Obama’s 43%.

But there’s a significant problem with the question. The question assumes that background and values are undeniably linked, as if they are of one piece. When Americans are asked this two-pronged question, it forces the illogic that background determines values and that different backgrounds lead to different values. That configuration does not reflect reality.

Take my wife, Laura, and me. I am a black man; she is a white woman. I grew up in a military family moving all across the US and sometimes outside the US. I lived for the longest in Hawaii. She lived her entire childhood in Indianapolis. I grew up in an intact family with both of my loving parents and my loving siblings. Laura: not so much. My favorite place to be while growing up was in school. Laura often wasn’t even sent to school.

As young adults I was working with suburban white kids in the Northwest while Laura worked with inner city black kids in the Northeast. I went on to live 18 years as a single adult while Laura was married for 11 years, a single mom for 3 years, and by the time we got married, she’d been a parent for nearly 13 years.

So our backgrounds were remarkably dissimilar, but we have been happily married these 13 ½ years by the grace of God, who allowed our dissimilar backgrounds to yield remarkably similar values.

So getting back to the poll in this presidential election: Who in America can say they identify with Barack Obama’s background? Few people can say they grew up in Hawaii, fewer still that they lived for a couple years in Indonesia. Who can say they have a black Kenyan father and a white American mother? Who can say they have an Arabic-derived name. Who can say that, though they look black, they have been raised by a white mother and white grandparents? How many can say they graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. How many can say that by choice they worked with churches for hardly any pay after college and that they came to Christian faith as an adult because of that work? Who can say they taught law school for nearly 10 years?

Each of these characteristics represents small categories of people. It goes without saying that most Americans look immediately at Barack Obama and say, “I can’t relate to his background.”

But the fatal flaw in the poll questions is the suggestion that background and values are the same or at least inseparably tied. They are not. While background might influence values, specific values do not come from only one type of background.

So responders to the poll question need to be able to separate background from values. The question allows for no such separation. To answer, these responders are almost forced to reason, “Well my background is nothing like Barack Obama’s. So my values must not be either.”

Such reasoning, while unavoidable for the purpose of answering the question, does not reflect reality in this campaign. Most Americans actually do share Barack Obama’s values, at least the most important ones. Like Barack Obama, most Americans believe in God and the power of that faith in our lives. In fact, like Obama most Americans somehow identify themselves as Christian. Like Barack Obama most Americans believe that that government should serve to protect us—to provide security at home and to protect our interests abroad; that war is hell, though sometimes necessary. America and Obama agree that the family is the foundational institution of society and that marriage is between a man and a woman. America and Obama both believe that abortion should be eliminated except when the health of the mother is at stake and that somehow we should look out for the most vulnerable. Obama and most Americans agree that we should work together to solve our problems and that all people disserve to be treated with dignity.

These are the values Barack Obama shares with most American people, although he reached them through a biography that most Americans cannot relate to.

Next time NBC/WSJ would do well to split this background/values question or to eliminate the background part altogether. It tells us nothing and only obscures the real intent of the question: Does this candidate share your values?

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