As a citizen and clergy person, I always try to find common ground with a wide range of community members through discussion of values that we live by. Some principles do cause division, while others have the potential, and even power, to bring people together in ways they may not have expected.
Now, as much as any other time, a discussion of values in America can take us to a place where we can determine what we can do together. Such conversations remind us to listen to one another, further defining what we can do for the betterment of our community and our nation as a whole.
Surveys from the last several years attempted to identify values that most Americans still prize. In 2013, Andrew Kohut and Michael Dimock, in a report on resilient American values for the Council on Foreign Relations, found that more than 50 percent of Americans endorsed involvement in community activities to address local issues, volunteer work for charitable causes and personal expression through prayer and some connection with God (with half of Americans doing so through a religious community).
From America’s beginnings, faith communities have infused values into our national culture. Sacred texts have the potential to lead us to consider what it means to be honest, hard-working, caring, generous, welcoming, considerate, decent, supportive, respectful and peaceful. Following the 2016 election, Andrea Weiss, associate professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York City, believed that this moment in our nation’s history called for "guidance, inspiration, and a reaffirmation of what it means to be an American."
Weiss envisioned a diverse group of religious scholars sending a letter a day to the newly elected officials for the first 100 days of the new presidential term. Through her own teaching of ancient biblical texts, Weiss realized they could be a source of both comfort and wisdom for the here and now.
Working with an advisory committee, rabbinic interns from HUC-JIR and project designers, the "American Values/Religious Voices" (www.valuesandvoices.com) Campaign was created, developed and brought to fruition. Since the first day of the new administration, a new letter has been added each day to the website, which offers readers the opportunity to receive each letter as an email.
I spoke on the phone with Weiss last week to find out more about this campaign. She said part of this effort was about learning from other people. America has been a place where people learn from and listen to each other, and she hoped people would learn and listen through reading and reflecting on the letters. She was proud of the page on the website that shows the faces of the 100 scholars, illustrating the diversity of our citizens. Through their letters, these teachers of religion are linking the principles they discuss in their classes with what it means to be an American.
The Values and Voices Advisory Committee’s "Letter 0" on the website noted that the letters intend to "contribute constructively to our national discourse, reaffirming who we are as Americans and modeling how we can learn from one another and work together for the common good."
I read these letters every day and consider the values on which they focus and how they can become a greater part of American life. I hope you will do the same, both on your own and at a local discussion series that will begin soon. I believe that local conversations on these letters could lead us to renewed and much-needed common ground.