Apr 30, 2001

From the Archives

Most Americans Are Concerned About the Nation’s Moral Condition

Americans have recently been battered by a variety of crises, threats and concerns. U.S. relations with China in the wake of the downed surveillance aircraft, the bombing of Iraq, riots in Cincinnati, rising gasoline prices, insufficient energy in the western states, and the faltering economy have caused many Americans to fret about the days to come. In fact, a national survey of adults by the Barna Research Group (Ventura, CA) reveals that two out of every three (65%) are concerned about the future. One of the significant reasons for that discomfort is the perceived America’s moral standing. Three out of four adults (74%) reported that they are presently concerned about the moral condition of the United States.


Concern Is Widespread

The survey data show that this anxiety spans all segments of the nation’s population: a majority of people from each of the three dozen demographic subgroups examined shares such concern. The segments which demonstrated the highest levels of concern about moral ideals and behavior were women (80% said they are concerned), people 55 and older (80%), residents of the South (80%), and Republicans (84%).

The survey indicated that the younger a person was, the less likely he/she was to harbor concern about the national morality. However, even among the Baby Busters – the generation including those of ages 17 to 35, and often described as “post-modern” or even “post-Christian” – a substantial majority (67%) registered their concern.

Religious Leanings Affect Concern

One of the most striking findings related to the religious orientation and involvement of adults. The more deeply committed to the Christian faith an adult was, the more likely he/she was to express concern about the moral condition of the U.S. In fact, the only subgroup of the eighty that were studied for which a minority noted their concern regarding existing morality was atheists. While just 6% of all adults deem themselves to be atheists, only 41% of that group is worried about the nation’s moral condition. In contrast, 56% of adults who are associated with a non-Christian faith group expressed concern; 68% of those who are associated with the Christian faith but are not born again were concerned about our moral standing; 89% of the born again population indicated concern; and 92% of evangelicals noted their concern.

Similarly, the more involved in personal faith practices an individual was, the more likely they were to have concerns. People who had read the Bible during the week before the survey were 32% more likely than those who had not to be concerned. Adults who had attended a religious service during the preceding week were 20% more likely to harbor concerns than were individuals who had not attended such an event, while those who had prayed to God during the prior week were 47% more likely to be concerned than were those who had not prayed.

Even within the Christian community differences in concern were evident. For instance, 73% of Catholics said they were concerned about the country’s moral condition, compared to 80% of Protestants. Among the Protestants, a larger proportion of those attending non-mainline congregations cited concern than did those aligned with a mainline church (83% versus 76%, respectively).


Changing the Climate Requires Moral Leadership

The impetus to examine people’s level of concern about American morality arose from the background research undertaken by George Barna, whose recent book, Boiling Point, explores the changes U.S. is experiencing and where the nation is headed during this decade. In his analysis of the culture, Barna brazenly describes the U.S. as being immersed in both “moral and spiritual anarchy.” To illustrate the point, he lists more than a dozen common examples of moral anarchy as well as various forms of spiritual anarchy.

The fact that three out of four adults are disturbed by the moral conditions of the nation is an important indication that Americans are struggling with moral fatigue and confusion, according to Barna. “People’s faith commitment impacts their moral perspectives. There is a clear relationship between a deep Christian commitment and serious concern about the moral state of America. But people are seeking more than mere public awareness or outrage over the moral demise of the nation. Amidst the confusion as to what constitutes moral behavior and how to regain a sense of societal decency, people are actively seeking moral leadership.”

Barna suggested that leaders who operate from a genuine conviction about moral standards and behavior have a window of opportunity to exploit. “Our research shows that there are few true heroes in our society anymore,” he explained. “People cannot name individuals who provide our nation with compelling moral leadership. There is a growing public hunger for leadership that transcends personal gain, economic progress or political advantage. Americans want leaders who reflect distinguished character and are devoted to a vision of a culture that transcends rampant selfishness and total disrespect. Many Americans are burning out on radical individualism and nihilism. Millions of people are yearning for leaders who will rebuild our society on compassion, decency, authenticity, and character. Millions of citizens are fatigued from the endless posturing, positioning and games played by leaders. This is one of those moments in history when genuine, fervent leaders of righteous character and with a vision to foster higher ideals can galvanize the public will for a better society. The big question is whether those who are capable of providing moral leadership are willing to pay the personal price to redirect the heart of the nation.”

Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1005 adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The data for previous years’ surveys was conducted in the same manner, using the same sampling techniques and survey questions, and also based on samples of 1000 or more randomly selected adults. 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 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” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“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; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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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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