It's not important what a person believes—it's how he or she behaves that matters.
--King Mongkut, Thailand 1860 (paraphrased)
There is a big difference between idealism and ideology and between values and beliefs. Values are universal concepts like fairness, justice, freedom, equality, respect, compassion, and service—and they are universally "good" and humanizing. Beliefs, on the other hand, tend to be rigid and dehumanizing, and can range from myths such as a literal belief that "God created the earth in seven days", to deadly doctrines and prejudices such as Hitler's decree that "Jews are an abomination of nature".
One of the most unfortunate qualities of beliefs and ideologies is that they do not usually respond to empirical or factual evidence that contradict them. Instead, they tend to shape the interpretation or selection of evidence, as demonstrated in recent years by the Bush Administration's selective use of intelligence to propel us into a supposedly justified pre-emptive war in Iraq. Our core human and American values, on the other hand, provide a touchstone against which society can test, evaluate, and judge the policies and actions of peoples and governments.
Values tend to unite us, while beliefs and ideologies usually divide us. Core human values of fairness, justice, freedom, and equality are found in virtually all cultures and religions around the planet. But these values are often subordinated or ignored entirely when they conflict with beliefs. Some "pro-life' activists, for example, may espouse "Christian" values of love and compassion while justifying violence against abortion clinics and doctors on the basis of the belief that life begins at conception, or that the life of an unborn child is "more valuable in the eyes of God" than that of a living adult.
A fundamental reason the United States has been respected and admired by people of other cultures for over two hundred years is that we have a form of government based on the protection and promotion of core human values. Since the penning of Jefferson's magnificent words "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" America has been seen as a place where people are (or should be) free and equal, and where the rule of law provides justice and fairness for all. The protection of the values commemorated in the Bill of Rights and later amendments to the Constitution has created an environment of opportunity that is the envy of the world.
But there is a dark side to the coin of freedom: rights have been abused, or extended as privileges where they don't belong; and power has been used in ways and to ends contrary to our basic values. How can the words "Proud to be an American" be applied to corruption in the political system, the undue influence of corporate lobbyists, the unfair and sometimes brutal exploitation by US corporations of foreign labor and natural resources, the prosecution of unjust wars, or the use or even tacit sanction of assassination and torture as instruments of our international policy? There is a big difference between loving what America represents and loving how some American administrations, agencies, and corporations have conducted their business at home and abroad.
When Michelle Obama famously said that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, conservatives upbraided her as unpatriotic. But her critics, the same kind of people who espouse the jingoistic "my country, right or wrong", failed to understand—or willfully misunderstood—that being critical of an administration, a president, a policy, or certain actions of the US military, is not the same thing as being unpatriotic. Since the era of the Viet Nam War, large segments of the US population have been critical of—and many have felt a burden of shame about—some of the policies and actions of our government and some of our corporations. This does not make these people unpatriotic; quite the opposite. Those who are cognizant of our shortcomings, who recognize where our core American values are not being upheld, and who speak out and work for a more perfect union, should be celebrated, not condemned. Such people are the conscience of our nation. They are the ones who protect our country from falling victim to the kind of mindless nationalism of a Nazi Germany.
It is also important to look at facts rather than depending on ideology in formulating policy. It was very interesting to hear Cindy McCain speak at the 2008 Republican National Convention as she cited one core American value after another, then, offered tax cuts and "smaller government" as the party's ultimate strategy for upholding those values. Certainly it is possible for taxes to be "too high," and for government to grow "too large," but those terms are relative to the times and conditions, and to whom is being taxed or served by government. During President Eisenhower's administration, tax rates for the super rich were higher than at any time in history, yet our economy grew at unprecedented rates and the middle class prospered, while under the "tax cuts for the rich" pushed through by the Bush administration the middle class has suffered and our economy fallen on hard times. Recognizing, of course, that there are many factors at play in the complex workings of a national economy, it is at least safe to say that the simplistic approach of "lower taxes and smaller government" is not substantiated by history or by factual evidence as a certain path to prosperity. Likewise, the Clinton administration's ideological embrace of free trade, regardless of its obvious potential impacts on labor and the environment (Ross Perot famously saw it coming) should serve as a warning that all people and all political parties are prone to confusing idealism with ideology, and subordinating values to beliefs.
Our challenge now, as human beings and as Americans, is to move forward with strength and conviction in a highly conflicted world while remaining vigilantly self-reflective. We must ensure that in pursuing our life-affirming and freedom-loving ideals we do not fall into the dehumanizing trap of ideology, and that in trying to live by our values we do not fall victim to the dark side of our own beliefs.