Nov 3, 2003

From the Archives

Morality Continues to Decay

More than four out of five adults – 83% – contend that they are concerned about the moral condition of the nation. Given that 84% of all adults consider themselves to be Christian, they have good reason to worry about the moral state of the country: many of their own views conflict with the moral teachings of their professed faith. Of the ten moral behaviors evaluated, a majority of Americans believed that each of three activities were “morally acceptable.” Those included gambling (61%), co-habitation (60%), and sexual fantasies (59%). Nearly half of the adult population felt that two other behaviors were morally acceptable: having an abortion (45%) and having a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse (42%). About one-third of the population gave the stamp of approval to pornography (38%), profanity (36%), drunkenness (35%) and homosexual sex (30%). The activity that garnered the least support was using non-prescription drugs (17%).

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Faith Commitment Impacts Views

Morality perspectives vary tremendously according to people’s faith commitments.

Of the seven faith groups studied, evangelicals were the least likely to accept each of the ten behaviors as moral. Less than one out of every ten evangelical Christians maintained that adultery, gay sex, pornography, profanity, drunkenness and abortion are morally acceptable. In contrast, every one of those ten behaviors was deemed “morally acceptable” by more than one out of ten people from each of the other six faith groups studied. (The other faith segments included non-evangelical born again Christian, notional Christians, adherents of non-Christian faiths, atheists/agnostics, Protestants and Catholics.)

On average, born again Christians who are not evangelical were more than three times as likely as evangelicals to describe any given behavior tested as morally acceptable. In fact, the data showed that non-evangelical born again Christians were more similar in their moral perspectives to “notional” Christians than to evangelicals. (Notional Christians are those who describe themselves as Christian but are not born again – that is, they do not believe that after they die on earth they will go to Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.)

Among people aligned with faiths other than Christianity, half or more described each of seven behaviors as “morally acceptable” – gambling, co-habitation, sexual fantasies, having an abortion, having a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse, pornography and profanity. Atheists and agnostics were the people most likely to describe any of these behaviors as morally acceptable. In total, atheists and agnostics defined nine of the ten behaviors as morally legitimate, dismissing only the use of non-prescription drugs.

Protestants and Catholics differed to some extent on nine of the ten behaviors, with Protestants less likely to describe any of those behaviors as morally acceptable. (The only moral behavior for which both groups held the same view was regarding the use of non-prescription drugs.) The biggest gaps between Protestants and Catholics were found in relation to cohabitation (deemed morally acceptable by 50% of Protestants and 66% of Catholics), sexual fantasies (51% and 63%, respectively), and gambling (52% and 70%, respectively).

Generation Gap Evident

There were also huge differences in moral viewpoints based upon a person’s generation. In nearly every case there was a pattern of Mosaics (the oldest members of the youngest generation, currently 18 or 19 years old) and Busters (those 20 to 38 years of age) being most likely to deem the behavior morally acceptable. Baby Boomers (ages 39 through 57) were less likely to buy into each behavior, and Elders (a combination of the two oldest generations, comprised of people 58 or older) emerged as the people least likely to embrace the behavior.

Whereas at least half of the Mosaics and Busters considered eight of the ten behaviors morally acceptable, a majority of Boomers endorsed only four of the behaviors, and a majority of Elders identified just one behavior (gambling) as morally legitimate.

Also noteworthy was the fact that men were more likely than women to deem nine of the ten behaviors to be morally acceptable. (The exception was sexual relations between people of the same gender, which women were slightly more likely to condone.) The most sizeable gaps were related to pornography (men were twice as likely to deem pornography acceptable) and drunkenness.

Percentage of Adults Who Consider A Behavior To Be
“Morally Acceptable”
All Adults
*Born Again
Other Faith
living with someone of the opposite sex without being married, sometimes called co-habitation
enjoying sexual thoughts or fantasies about someone
having an abortion
having a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married
looking at pictures of nudity or explicit sexual behavior
using profanity
(Base: 1024 adults)
* indicates born again Christians excluding evangelicals

Morality Likely to Decline Further

“The data trends indicate that the moral perspectives of Americans are likely to continue to deteriorate,” predicted researcher George Barna. “Compared to surveys we conducted just two years ago, significantly more adults are depicting such behaviors as morally acceptable. For instance, there have been increases in the percentages that condone sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender other than a spouse, abortion (up by 25%), and a 20% jump in people’s acceptance of ‘gay sex.’

The author of more than 30 books regarding faith and cultural trends, Barna said that most people sense that there is a problem but do not see themselves as contributing to it. “Most of the people we interviewed believe that they are highly moral individuals and identify other people as responsible for the nation’s moral decline. This is reflective of a nation where morality is generally defined according to one’s feelings. In a postmodern society, where people do not acknowledge any moral absolutes, if a person feels justified in engaging in a specific behavior then they do not make a connection with the immoral nature of that action. Yet, deep inside, they sense that something is wrong in our society. They simply have not been able to put two and two together to recognize their personal liability regarding the moral condition of our nation.

“Until people recognize that there are moral absolutes and attempt to live in harmony with them, we are likely to see a continued decay of our moral foundations,” the California-based researcher continued. “The generational data patterns make a compelling case for this on-going slide. Even most people associated with the Christian faith do not seem to have embraced biblical moral standards. Things are likely to get worse before they get better – and they are not likely to get better unless strong and appealing moral leadership emerges to challenge and redirect people’s thoughts and behavior. At the moment, such leadership is absent.”

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Research Source and Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1024 adults conducted in October 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being “born again” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Further, respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” Being “evangelical” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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