Research Paper

Values and Beliefs of an American People

Long before America received a name, there existed a dream of a good land that man might discover for himself, a land full of material riches and spiritual hope. The prospect stirred man’s vivid imaginations as well as their explorations, and they were willing to sacrifice for their visions and ideals. The earliest of American writings were solely concerned with the dream of a new world and the sacrifices necessary for the first attempts at its realization.
During the course of the American Revolution the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from the mother country. As a result of their victory in the fighting and sacrifice that followed, the United States of America came into being. With the Declaration of Independence, the United States proclaimed that it was a nation based on the values and on the beliefs of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the people stated in one loud voice that they would sacrifice their lives for these ideals – for a greater cause.
The United States today is far different from the country newly become independent in 1776. At the birth of the Republic, an underlying layer of strong religious beliefs shaped the attitudes of the population. People were more sure of their moral standards and values, and they understood that these ideals were certainly more important than any single man. As an example of the importance placed in beliefs, the coin still bears the motto “In God We Trust”. On every dollar bill the great seal of the United States reads “Annuit Cæpits” (“He has Our Undertakings”). Also, on the great seal the olive branch and the arrows held in the eagles talons reflect both the nation’s commitment to peace and its willingness to fight if necessary. These all symbolize the importance of fighting for one’s beliefs. Yet modern Americans rarely think about the phrases on the money the handle daily, and few understand why the founding fathers put them there. Few actually believe that the Deity takes a particular interest in their country. In the nineteenth century, science became a rival of and then victor over religion. Beliefs and values became obsolete as an increasing demand for facts and “reality” arose. The intervening centuries have seen to many changes in the surrounding world to leave intact the ideas the words express.
The importance of man’s firm values and beliefs have become less important as an understanding of man and of his role in the universe has emerged. Man used to play the central role in a divine cosmic drama. His ideas were certainly worth dying for since the divine intention had the universe created with the deliberate purpose of providing man with a stage on which to play his part in a life eternal. Now science has reduced him to an insignificant point in space. Successive discoveries in physics, astronomy, geology, and biology revealed the ancient age of the earth and the immense spaces of the universe within which the is but a tiny speck.
Far from being the purpose of creation, man is now only an insignificant, quite recent, occupant of a small planet in one of many solar systems floating about in the unimaginable distances of immense galaxies. Man now realizes himself as but one of many beings, a product of a blind process of natural selection, a species like others that briefly passes across the face of the spinning globe.
Contemporary Americans, like our ancestors of 1776, still feel the will to believe. They long avidly to find a purpose in life in general and in their existence as a people in particular. But, unlike our ancestors, we are by no means clear to what we can believe. The men that believed in the Declaration of Independence had taken up arms, they said, to defend certain natural and unalienable rights, with which all men, created free and equal, had been endowed by their Creator. Among those rights were those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and history has taught us that many men died for their belief in these rights.
Modern Americans are no longer visionaries and have no great mission. We are now a nation of consumers. Now the use of leisure time has become an important status symbol