The Pew Research Center has provided some timely food for thought as we enter our traditional holiday season.
According to a new report comparing attitudes in Europe and America, only 49 percent of Americans now feel that American culture is superior to others. This is down from 60 percent in 2002.
For those who may find this troubling, there is more reason for concern in that only 37 percent of young Americans, ages 18- 29, say American culture is superior.
What the study does not examine is what we mean by culture.
I happened to hear a discussion on one of the cable shows about this report, and the discussants were bewailing the prevalence of reality shows, Kim Kardashian and Facebook.
But I think this is a misreading of culture. Culture is about the prevailing core attitudes of a society. And, when we look further into this same study, we find that American attitudes are distinctly different from their European counterparts and that these attitudes very much reflect what is uniquely American.
For instance, 58 percent of Americans feel that individual freedom is more important than government “guarantees that nobody is in need.” Only 36 percent of French and 36 percent of Germans feel this way.
Only 36 percent of Americans agree that success is largely determined by “forces outside our control.” But 72 percent of Germans and 57 percent of French agree with this.
And 50 percent of Americans believe religion is very important, in contrast to 21 percent in Germany and 13 percent in France.
Americans are distinct from Europeans in our beliefs in the importance of individual freedom, personal responsibility and religious faith.
Can it be an accident that these values that are so prevalent in American culture today are in line with the principles stated in the nation’s founding document 235 years ago? That our Creator endowed us with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and “That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men.”
Distinctly American is our credo, but also that being American is defined by free choice and a set of principles rather than blind circumstance of geography or genetics.
But to point to the fact that American culture is distinct does not necessarily prove that it is better.
Considering economic performance, there is little comparison between our nation and Europe. Per capita GDP of the U.S., the economic output per each individual in the country, is $47,200 in the U.S. compared to $32,700 in Europe.
The average per capita GDP in the European Union is less than that of America’s poorest state, Mississippi ($32,764).
One hint that there might be something special going on here is that our problem seems to be limiting the number of people that want to come in, rather than preventing people from escaping.
According to the State Department, more than 5 million people are now waiting to immigrate to the United States in various family and employment categories.
Although American attitudes are distinct, they are changing and trending in the direction of Europe. So, if you think this is a problem, and I do, there is reason for concern.
I consider my own experiences and know that nowhere else in the world could I live the life I have been living.
Where else could a young black mother on welfare conclude she was on the wrong path, walk away from it, get her degree, build a business and a non-profit organization that includes on its board of advisors a former U.S. senator and attorney general of the United States and a former counselor to the president of the United States and U.S. attorney general?
My work is inspired by my conviction that America is truly exceptional, and I pray every day that we do not lose our way.