Value Clusters: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Now?

Contributed by Linda Seger, ThD

Why is it that some people we know seem so in tune with our values and attitudes, and with other people, we might wonder what planet they come from? They seem to see the world so differently from the way we see it. Values that we consider to be common to humanity are now under discussion. Some of their values seem so contrary to what we think are basic beliefs about how to be a decent human being who will help create a better society.


Although on the surface it might seem that values are individual issues, beliefs and attitudes, values are actually clusters. A belief in one particular value implies that you probably believe a whole set of related values. It also implies a policy. For instance, a universal belief among all Americans is that all people deserve fairness, justice and equality. How that fairness, justice and equality are distributed will differ based on your value cluster. If you are a progressive, you might want policies and laws that protect against discrimination, sexism and systemic racism. If you are a conservative, you might not want any government intervention, believing each individual should be given the freedom to choose how to treat others. Progressives might counter by saying that, historically, when society is left to its own devices, racism and sexism often thrive as was evidenced in the deep South during Jim Crow. Conservatives might counter that a culture must change of its own accord. The government cannot legislate morality.


Political parties have platforms and people in that party tend to believe similar values and also support similar policies. Conservatives focus on individual rights including the right to own guns, to not wear masks or get vaccinations if they don’t want to, and believe in the freedom to pursue their economic dreams without government interference. Progressives tend to think in terms of the community, the society, and globally asking, “How does my individual action influence the larger society? Does it do harm or does it do good? Who does it benefit and who does it hurt?” I will sacrifice my right to own a gun if it means another person might live. I will wear a mask if it means not jeopardizing the health of others.


We sometimes say that a particular group or community belongs to our tribe, or that we are in tune with certain people or groups. We might say I’m comfortable with my tribe and I don’t have to censure myself when I’m with them. But then sometimes we shift. Sometimes we move from one value cluster to another as we gather experiences and knowledge and insight.

Drawing of Peshtigo, Wisconsin from the Peshtigo Historical Society

I grew up in a small all-white town in northern Wisconsin - Peshtigo, population 2500. We had what was commonly called Small Town Values. We were nice and decent. Almost everyone was middle-class. In school we played well with others no matter their economic class or religion (about half of the town was Protestant and half was Catholic). Almost everybody was Christian except for one Jewish family. The mother, Joyce, was in my mother’s bridge club and friendship circle. My mother had huge respect for her and she was one of my favorites of my mother’s friends. These Middle Class Values included honesty, hard work, and to some extent, fitting in and not making waves. In retrospect, I don’t know how Joyce felt about “fitting in” with the Christian culture, but she did mention that they had a Christmas tree so her children would feel comfortable with their Christian friends at Christmas time.


Linda (right) and her sister

Yet, we were part of a liberal Lutheran Church and I had a visionary mother whose horizons did not stop at the city limits. I was encouraged to explore and to think and to even question. My intrinsic racism at the time came from never being exposed to Blacks or other races or religions, and it was developed by small comments here and there. When driving through the black section in Milwaukee we were told to lock our doors. Yet that liberal-leaning Christian faith, a liberal-minded pastor, a generally broad-minded mother, and a liberal education in college and graduate school, began to move me into questioning how things are and how things can be. Just as I was changing in my attitudes, my mother was also. She became a Democrat and she once said to me “Martin Luther King Jr. is not replaceable. You can replace a president but not the greatness of someone like him.”


The questioning of the old authorities might develop as we move from one context to another. We might have a desire to become authentically ourselves, to be willing to broaden our horizons, and become open to other ways of thinking.


As we move from one value cluster to another, we might find that not only do we question our belief systems of the past, but we move into a new value cluster where other people question, perhaps even challenge us. My attitude and values were questioned by classmates and by a minister, by reading books and by teachers. One only has to be assigned to read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail to get a jolt that can quickly move us into a whole new set of values.


Eventually, a whole lot of our belief systems become consistent and fall into place. As the song Simple Gifts says, “And when we find ourselves in the place just right, T’will will be in the valley of love and delight.”



This movement from one value cluster to another can put a strain on friendships and past relationships - whether with individuals or groups. One of my friends said, “I had to leave a relationship because I knew too much.” She had had too many life experiences, had read books, learned to question, and sat in classes on psychology and religion which expanded the way she looked at the world. She had become wise during a very long process of living. She knew too much to stay in an unworkable relationship and in the value cluster that relationship implied.


That often happens. We broaden our minds and say we can't stay where we were last year or where we used to be in our childhood.


Although we might not want the divisions to be so sharp and so firm between our value clusters and the values of friends from the past, there is a point where they might diverge. It is not just our experiences that diverge, which might have the potential to deepen a friendship. It is our basic values that diverge. If we have moved into a position of inclusion and our friend has moved into a position of exclusion saying, “There is no other, there is only us,” can we stand by without comment when our friend makes comments or takes actions that excludes and discriminates against others?


Progressives have a great deal of trouble understanding the Pro-Trump Value Cluster and vice-versa. Many in the Pro-Trump cluster want to protect white privilege and even want to support the superiority of the white race which leads to the hatred and anger that is part of white supremacy. This means The Other is sometimes demonized, sometimes rejected, made fun of, and sometimes not given the same constitutional rights as they are.

The Trump Value Cluster often expresses fear and a belief they are victimized, which sometimes leads to conspiracy theories such as QAnon or the Big Lie. They feel threatened by pluralism, homosexuality, women having too much power, and by popular books that express different beliefs, experiences and values. In Tennessee, a schoolboard recently banned the book Maus, the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel detailing the horrors of the Holocaust. Round Rock school district in Texas banned Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi, which explores the roots of racism in America. The all-White Central York school board unanimously banned various children’s books on race including books about Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai and only rescinded their decision due to mounting national pressure.

Rev. Billy Graham in 1966

When I went through a two-year Fundamentalist stage, I learned to look up to Billy Graham. I was told to memorize The 100 Most Important Bible Verses. My Christianity was partly defined by how many people I could convert. As I changed, I still respected Billy Graham as a good human being (and I did quite a bit of reading about him which continued to reinforce that opinion), but I was no longer part of his tribe. That tribe included a number of tele-evangelists who, to me, did not represent the core values of Christianity.


My new value cluster still put an emphasis on Christ, but it emphasized the thousands of verses where we are commanded to do justice and show mercy to those who are oppressed, marginalized, broken-hearted, the poor and the needy, the widows and orphans. I learned to recognize that social justice was a core value of Christianity and that the ills of society unequally hurt some people more than others. I was profoundly changed by taking a class about Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who I deeply admired changed as well and now include people like Rev. William Barber, Bishop Michael Curry, and Sister Simone Campbell.


Even though I moved from a conservative value cluster into a more progressive one, there are some who have moved the other way. When Bill Clinton was exposed as having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, there were a slew of moderate Democrats who lost faith in their party. They felt that the moral values espoused by their party had been undermined by Clinton’s infidelity. Likewise, there were many Republicans who were equally appalled by Trump’s comments about women and sleeping with porn star Stormy Daniels while married to his current wife, Melania, causing them to abandon their party.


We move from one value cluster to another. Sometimes we break ties with the former cluster. Sometimes we try to live in that area where our values and theirs intersect. Sometimes we disengage slowly and sometimes quickly. But there is some point when many of us say, as Luther said, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” And we can no longer go back.


________________________


Linda Seger has a ThD in Drama and Theology, an MA in Religion and the Arts, an MA in Feminist Theology and an MA in Drama. She is the author of seventeen books including Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Millions of Christians are Democrats. Her website is lindaseger.com.

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