What I'd like to know is exactly what values we are talking about. The assumption, after all, is that there is some well-agreed upon set of cultural principles that we all think should be protected. Is this assumption true, and if it is, what does it consist of?
Are we talking about the traditional Western values of wisdom and virtue that comes from reflection on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? Are we talking about the belief in a divine order that reflected in nature itself that was reflected in the Declaration of Independence's invocation of "unalienable rights" and that we ignore at our peril? Do we mean the body of soul-nourishing wisdom that was handed down to us by the great thinkers of the Western tradition?
Or do we mean the debased ideological prejudices that now dominate the two poles of our national discourse, one in the form of political correctness and multiculturalism that preaches tolerance and diversity but marginalizes anyone who disagrees, and another in the form of a right-wing liberalism that views every cultural entity in terms of a materialistic commercialism? The latter gives lip service to religion, but doesn't really practice one, and the former disavows religion, but practices a secular one.
When we talk about "American values" do we mean the misogynistic rap music and pornography that constitute America's chief cultural export to the rest of the world? Or do we mean the literary heritage embodied in the works of authors like Nathanial Hawthorne, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O'Connor, and the political philosophy behind our form of government that we find in the Federalist Papers and that was lived out by the likes of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—a heritage that our own academic class now sneers at?
It would be nice to know exactly what the people who use these political slogans actually mean by such expressions.
As for me and my house, we abide by the principles as set forth by the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk, who, in his book The American Cause, discussed the three orders: the Political, the Economic, and the Moral Orders that constitute American civilization.
The Political Order
America's Political Order is one of ordered liberty closely tied to a belief in a federal republic. The history of political philosophy has been a chronicle of the tension between order and freedom, and most political heresies have clustered at one or the other end of this spectrum: The right has often overvalued order, and the left freedom. Today, however, order is out altogether. There are two forces in politics, both of which are on the same side of the battle field.
We have liberals who believe in unconstrained freedom, and so-called "conservatives" who believe basically the same thing--as Allan Bloom once put it, left-wing liberals, and right-wing liberals. Like the left-wing liberals before them, the right-wing liberals have basically abandoned the "ordered" part of "ordered liberty."
Self-professed conservatives still voice their support for a decentralized form of government (which is what federalism means), but many of them will look the other way when the U. S. Supreme Court dictates the debased values of elite culture by fiat from the bench on issues like same-sex marriage on the radical individualistic grounds that it "doesn't affect my family."
The Economic Order
American conservatives (but not liberals) still support a free economy, but at the same time they have acquiesced in the distortion of the free economy by large corporations who, allied with the federal government and grown fat on corporate welfare, have aggrandized power unto themselves at the expense of economic freedom. They are Monsanto capitalists. And they're not conservatives.
The Moral Order
"The United States is a Christian nation," says Kirk, and he's right--in the sense that the values we have traditionally practiced in this country are derived directly from the Christian tradition and the teachings of the Christian Church. The people who point to Thomas Jefferson's attempt to eliminate the miracle accounts from the Bible (with an actual pair of scissors, producing what is now called the Jefferson Bible), forget the part he didn't clip out: the Christian system of ethics, which he fully accepted, as did basically everyone else involved in America's founding.
Kirk also believed (with T. S. Eliot, another great conservative thinker) that "civilization grows out of religion." Our traditional moral order is derived exclusively from the Old Testament teachings of Moses and the New Testament teachings of Jesus. And although the secular technocratic elite of today purport to possess a more enlightened ethic, all they have really done is to take certain specific aspects of the Christian ethic and isolated them from the rest. Charity and brotherly love (although focused on government, rather than individual action) are still valued, even if they are now isolated from traditional beliefs about sexuality, marriage, and the family.
As Chesterton pointed out, it isn't the vices that are wandering loose, causing damage, but the virtues, isolated from each other and out of balance with the whole of Christian teaching.
That's what I think "American values" means. That's what I think most people would fight and die for. What values these other people champion, I am not sure. Do they think people would go die in a ditch in some third world country for someone's right to protest at a college because others are not giving their ideology enough sympathy? Or for someone's right to change their gender? Or, other end of the spectrum, for the right purchase the consumer goods they would like to have.
I really don't know. And I wonder if the people who reject the traditional beliefs about what our culture consists of do themselves.