Sep 10, 2001

From the Archives

Practical Outcomes Replace Biblical Principles As the Moral Standard

Americans remain concerned about the moral condition of the nation. However, a new survey by the Barna Research Group (Ventura, CA) suggests that a major share of the struggle pertains to the basis on which people make moral choices. The result is a patchwork of attitudes and values that enable people to feel emotionally comfortable with their choices but causes them to struggle with the consequences of their moral behavior.

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Three-quarters of adults (74%) say they are concerned about the moral condition of the nation. That point of view was only slightly more pronounced among people who associate with the Christian faith than among those who affiliate with other faiths or who have no faith involvement.

When asked the basis on which they form their moral choices, nearly half of all adults (44%) cited their desire to do whatever will bring them the most pleasing or satisfying results. Roughly one-sixth of the adult public (17%) bases its moral decisions on what they believe will make other people happy or minimize interpersonal conflict. The same percentage (17%) credits the values they were taught by their family as the dominant influence on their moral considerations. About one out of four adults (24%) lean primarily upon religious principles and teaching or Bible content when making moral decisions.

While many religious leaders propose that the Bible should be the basis of people’s morality, the survey showed that only four out of every ten born again adults relies upon the Bible or church teachings as their primary source of moral guidance. The percentage who identify the Bible or religious teaching as their dominant moral influence is noticeably lower among Catholics (16%) and attenders of mainline Protestant churches (25%).

Moral Choices

Upon asking people to describe specific behaviors as either morally acceptable or unacceptable, many adults indicated attitudes that conflict with the moral positions advanced by their faith-of-choice.

For instance, on the issue of abortion, 41% of all adults stated that abortion should be legal in all or almost all circumstances and 55% said it should not be legal under any circumstances or only in a few special circumstances. Just more than one-third of the adult public (36%) contends that abortion is a morally acceptable behavior. An even higher percentage of people attending mainline Protestant churches feel this way (45%) compared to 26% of those who attend non-mainline Protestant churches and also among Catholics. Among born again adults, one out of five (19%) described abortion as morally acceptable.

Americans are more accepting of homosexuality. Nearly half of all adults (48%) believe that sexual relations between consenting adults of the same gender should be legal, although only half as many say that such relations are morally acceptable (25%). Among born again adults, one-third (34%) say that sexual relations between gay people should be legal while just 9% say that such activity is morally appropriate.

From a biblical perspective, Americans are perhaps farthest off the mark in the area of sexual fidelity. On the one hand, relatively few adults believe that having an affair with a married person is morally acceptable (5%). A higher, but still minor percentage believes that having an affair with an unmarried person is morally viable (17%). On the other hand, most adults are comfortable with behaviors that have traditionally been forbidden. Six out of ten adults (58%) say that co-habitation is morally acceptable. The same percentage (58%) stated that having sexual fantasies is morally acceptable. Although the Bible states that divorce is permissible only in the aftermath of adultery, most adults reject that view: even allowing for the exception made for adultery, nearly two-thirds of all adults incorrectly state that divorce is not a sin. Again, born again adults were somewhat less likely than others to approve of these various behaviors, but surprisingly high proportions of the born again sector condoned these acts. For instance, 36% said co-habitation is morally acceptable, 39% defined sexual fantasies as morally acceptable, and 39% incorrectly suggested that apart from reasons of adultery, divorce is not a sin.

Getting drunk is considered morally acceptable among one-third of the population. Faith commitments were evident in this regard. While almost half of all non-born again adults (46%) said drunkenness is morally acceptable, only one out of five born again individuals (20%) concurred.

The matter of integrity raised interesting contradictions. One of the most unexpected contradictions deals with people’s reporting of their financial support of churches. Among adults who said they had given ten percent or more of their income to churches and related ministries in the past year, an examination of their finances showed that two-thirds of those people were lying about their generosity. Such deceit was equally likely among born again as among non-born again individuals.

Breaking the speed limit was an action deemed morally acceptable by two-fifths of all adults (39%). That proportion was rather stable across a wide range of subgroups, including born again Christians.

The use of profanity was also deemed morally acceptable by a rather large contingent: 37%. While a smaller share of the born again population endorsed profane language (22%), majorities of atheists (64%) and people aligned with non-Christian faiths (59%) condoned such speech. A majority of young adults (53% of those under 36 years of age) and half of those with a college degree also felt no moral qualms about using profanity.

One of the key indicators of the changing values of Americans relates to the nation’s comfort with pornography. Half of all adults stated that watching a movie with explicit sexual behavior is morally acceptable. That view was shared by three out of ten born again adults. In like fashion, more than four out of ten adults (43%) claimed that reading magazines with explicit sexual pictures and nudity is morally acceptable. Half as many of the born again adults embraced that perspective (21%).

The study showed that when eight core moral attitudes were tested – the moral acceptability of co-habitation, sexual relations among people of the same sex, exposure to explicit sexual behavior in movies and videos, exposure to explicit sexual behavior and nudity in magazines, use of profanity, getting drunk, and engaging in sexual fantasies – less than one out of every four adults (23%) indicated that all eight of those behaviors are not morally acceptable, while just 9% said all are morally acceptable. The complete rejection of those eight behaviors was most common among born again adults (38%), people who attend non-mainline Protestant churches (33%), and those whose political ideology is self-described as “mostly conservative.” The segments of people most likely to embrace all eight behaviors as morally legitimate included those who have a college degree and incomes exceeding $60,000 annually (15% accepted all eight behaviors as moral), those who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political matters and people 35 or younger (16%).

Fostering Changing Values

The study showed that there are several segments of the population that are more removed from traditional Christian values than others. Among those subgroups are adults under the age of 35; men; people with college degrees and above average household income levels; and individuals attending large churches.

People in the Baby Bust generation were more inclined than any other group to support behaviors that conflict with traditional Christian morals. Among the instances in which young adults were substantially more likely than their elders to adopt a nouveau moral view were in supporting homosexuality, cohabitation, the non-medicinal use of marijuana, voluntary exposure to pornography, profane language, drunkenness, speeding and sexual fantasizing.

Reactions to America’s Moral Condition

The results of the study caused George Barna, who oversaw the research project, to remark, “Americans are correct in suggesting that the moral state of the country is in decline, but they may be looking in the wrong place to find the genesis of the problem. Almost half of the population – 47% – holds a non-biblical moral view on at least four of the eight core behaviors we tested, suggesting that perhaps the moral problems of the nation are not always attributable to other people but often relate to our own attitudes and actions.

“Religious leaders and people committed to biblical standards of living will be discouraged to realize that matters are highly likely to get worse in years to come,” Barna continued. “The emerging generation of parents is the least likely of any demographic subgroup in the nation to possess – and, therefore, to transmit – biblical moral values. They will naturally impart to their children their own beliefs, and model and reinforce behaviors that fit their own values. Within the next quarter century we will likely see a state of radical moral amnesia in America.”

Barna also pointed out that the study suggests that the very notion of what Americans consider “legal” is being significantly redefined. “Notice that in several instances there is a large gap between what people say is morally acceptable and what they say should be legal. This reflects the shift away from biblical principles and Christian values as the basis of modern law. Increasingly, Americans are looking for the law to reflect their personal preferences and desires rather than a universal set of absolutes based on God’s dictates. If this trend continues – and, especially, if the law follows public opinion rather than a standard of truth – then it stands to reason that we will inevitably experience increased instability in our laws, relationships and marketplace experiences.”

When asked why this change has occurred, Barna stated that religious institutions have failed to present a compelling case for a biblical basis for moral truth. “Most people do not believe that there is any source of absolute moral truth. Even born again individuals are abandoning the notion of law based on scriptural principles. Families, who hold a major responsibility for shaping the moral values and attitudes of children, are ill-equipped to do that job in relation to a Christian worldview or on the basis of a comprehensive and coherent notion of faith-based truth. The result is that busy people, regardless of their faith affiliation, wing it when it comes to moral decisions. Religious institutions could greatly influence people in these areas, but they’d have to substantially alter their existing strategies.”

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Survey Methodology

The data on which this report is based are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults conducted in May 2001. 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 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.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

The Moral Acceptability of Specific Behaviors
all adultsmainlinenot-mainlineregularly attend churchborn again
should be legal in all or most circumstances 41%50%29%27%23%
having an abortion is morally acceptable3645262219
sexual relations between consenting adults of the same gender should be legal4849353634
sexual relationship with someone of the same gender is morally acceptable252413139
Sexual Fidelity
divorce for any reason other than adultery is not a sin6370495439
having an affair with a married person, other than your spouse, is morally acceptable53544
having an affair with a single person who is not married is morally acceptable1714121212
co-habitation is morally acceptable5854434236
having sexual fantisies is morally acceptable5854434339
Substance Use
using marijuana for non-medicinal purposes is morally acceptable2521171511
getting drunk is morally acceptable3630202320
lying about personal achievements on a resume is morally acceptable910896
said they tithed in past year but did not6567636363
using profanity is morally acceptable3729252422
breaking the speed limit is morally acceptable3939343333
watching a movie with explicit sexual behavior is morally acceptable4944333329
reading a magazine with nudity or explicit sexual pictures is morally acceptable4342252621
number of respondents1003173314381619

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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