All That We Can Be

American Mythos

Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short

Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press, $29.95, 298 pp.

Our national conversation about values has a superficial quality. Typified by the red state/blue state framework into which nearly all matters of public import are now forced, this conversation is driven by easy labels and generalizations. On issues ranging from abortion to welfare reform to same-sex marriage, polling data drive the battle for the reins of public policy. But when it comes to assessing values, focusing on an individual’s categorical answers to a fixed line of questions has its limitations. Despite endless talk about the values that make up our collective American identity and the extent to which they will be threatened (or rescued) by a particular policy proposal or cultural trend, rarely do we consider how those values are discerned, distilled, and reflected-or not-in the lives of individuals and their communities.

Missing from the conversation is an acknowledgment that the American identity does not unfold primarily on the national stage. The pundit-dominated major media suggest that our lives are shaped by an array of free-floating big issues; but in reality, the national stage is just one dimension of a story that must be told vertically. American life...

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About the Author

Robert K. Vischer, a frequent contributor, is professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and the author of Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State (Cambridge University Press).