We have a national morality. is it Christian? Yes. Is it atheistic? Yes. Is it pagan, Greek, Native American? Yes. can it be bound in a few rational sentences? No.
Although it keeps getting dulled dulled by time and ill-usage, our awareness of morality remains keen; it seems like a knife used for both paper and cloth. Where can our morality be found? We can find it in several places, and in so doing note that–at any level–it provides compromises and contradictions. Much like the Constitution which both enshrined slavery and tried to abolish it, our national moral code both embraces Christianity and turns it into a demo; it both exalts liberty for all and it pressures people to control one another. Good people, for example, resist further taxation with moral fervor, while other good people insist on further taxation as a moral necessity.
What tenets form our national morality? One tenet is that we are “equal.” As the Declaration of Independence puts it–borrowing from deep in European and Semitic history–all “men” are created equal. In practice, we infer that slavery is morally wrong. In theory, we infer that women, immigrants and “minorities” are equal to us and to each other. We work towards a political and legal equality, even while we emphasize the right to have more money, brains, and good looks than other people. We hate “isms” and then name-call a handy “-ism” to cut other people down to being “unequal” to us: “Socialist! Marxist! Fascist! Communist”!
A second tenet is the belief in the underdog. We root for Rudy or the lone gunman of the Westerns, or the “wimpy kid.” It is, in the end, an extension of our fundamental belief in human equality–and the equalizing effect of society’s laws and culture.
Part of our national morality–a third tenet–is to believe in–and enjoy–honesty. Mark Twain and Jon Stewart, Ambrose Beirce and Will Rogers, H. L. Mencken and Steven Colbert–not to mention George Carlin and Saturday Night Live. In our morality–like that of Jesus of Nazareth, we puncture pretensions and posturings, and, eventually, the fakey politician and religious leader. Truthiness–a term apparently invented by Steven Colbert–reminds us of the effort of many media and political folks to replace honesty with sincerity, truth with unfounded but strongly-held belief.
Still another feature of our conscience as a nation involves “manifest destiny”–a constant pressure to believe that we are here to help poor, benighted savages around us, a kind of hubris in which pride, long a vice in our religious sphere, has metamorphosed into a virtue. Our conscience keeps wanting us to insist on a paternalistic (and often reprehensible) effort to look down on others so we can help them up.