May 25, 2016

From the Archives

The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code

Christian morality is being ushered out of American social structures and off the cultural main stage, leaving a vacuum in its place—and the broader culture is attempting to fill the void. New research from Barna reveals growing concern about the moral condition of the nation, even as many American adults admit they are uncertain about how to determine right from wrong. So what do Americans believe? Is truth relative or absolute? And do Christians see truth and morality in radically different ways from the broader public, or are they equally influenced by the growing tide of secularism and religious skepticism?

A majority of American adults across age group, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and political ideology expresses concern about the nation’s moral condition—eight in 10 overall (80%). The proportion is closer to nine in 10 among Elders (89%) and Boomers (87%), while about three-quarters of Gen-Xers (75%) and Millennials (74%) report concern. Similarly, practicing Christians (90%) are more likely than adults of no faith (67%) or those who identify with a religious faith other than Christianity (72%) to say they are concerned about the moral condition of the nation. Though measurable differences exist between population segments, moral concern is widespread across the demographic board.

Much less widespread, however, is consensus on morality itself. What is it based on? Where does it come from? How can someone know what to do when making moral decisions? According to a majority of American adults (57%), knowing what is right or wrong is a matter of personal experience. This view is much more prevalent among younger generations than among older adults. Three-quarters of Millennials (74%) agree strongly or somewhat with the statement, “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know,” compared to only 38 percent of Elders. And Millennials (31%) are three times more likely than Elders (10%) and twice as likely as Boomers (16%) and Gen-Xers (16%) to strongly agree with the statement.

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When it comes to religion’s impact on this question, active Christian faith is associated with greater disagreement on the above moral sentiment: The proportions of practicing Christians who disagree (59%) and agree (41%) that the only truth one can know is whatever is right for one’s own life are the inverse of the general population (44% disagree, 57% agree). The difference is even more pronounced when practicing Christians (41%) are compared with adults of no faith, two-thirds of whom agree (67%) that the only truth one can know is whatever is right for one’s own life.

A sizable number of Americans see morality as a matter of cultural consensus. About two-thirds  of all American adults (65%) agree either strongly or somewhat (18% and 47% respectively) that “every culture must determine what is acceptable morality for its people.” Again, Millennials (25%) are more likely than Elders (16%), Boomers (14%) or Gen-Xers (16%) to strongly agree with this view.

While most American adults agree that culture plays some role in establishing moral norms, a majority also agrees “the Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception” (59%). There is broad agreement across age groups, which is surprising when one considers the notable generational differences on other questions related to morality. When it comes to faith groups, practicing Christians (83%), as one might expect, are much more likely to agree with the statement than others, especially those with no faith (28%). In fact, more than half of practicing Christians strongly agree (56%).

Two-thirds of American adults either believe moral truth is relative to circumstances (44%) or have not given it much thought (21%). About one-third, on the other hand, believes moral truth is absolute (35%). Millennials are more likely than other age cohorts to say moral truth is relative—in fact, half of them say so (51%), compared to 44 percent of Gen-Xers, 41 percent of Boomers and 39 percent of Elders. Among the generations, Boomers are most likely to say moral truth is absolute (42%), while Elders are more likely than other age groups to admit they have never thought about it (28%).

Practicing Christians (59%) are nearly four times more likely than adults with no faith (15%) to believe moral truth is absolute. Those with no faith (61%), meanwhile, are twice as likely as practicing Christians (28%) to say it is relative to circumstances. Americans who adhere to a faith other than Christianity are roughly on par with the national average on this question.

Dig deeper with Good Faith

The New Moral Code1
Americans are both concerned about the nation’s moral condition and confused about morality itself. As nominally Christian moral norms are discarded what, if anything, is taking their place? Barna’s research reveals the degree to which Americans pledge allegiance to the “morality of self-fulfillment,” a new moral code that, as David Kinnaman, President of Barna argues, has all but replaced Christianity as the culture’s moral norm.

The morality of self-fulfillment can be summed up in six guiding principles, as seen in the table below.

What the Research Means
“The highest good, according to our society, is ‘finding yourself’ and then living by ‘what’s right for you,'” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group in Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. “There is a tremendous amount of individualism in today’s society, and that’s reflected in the church too. Millions of Christians have grafted New Age dogma onto their spiritual person. When we peel back the layers, we find that many Christians are using the way of Jesus to pursue the way of self. . . . While we wring our hands about secularism spreading through culture, a majority of churchgoing Christians have embraced corrupt, me-centered theology.

“So, there appears to be a dichotomy at work among practicing Christians in America,” Kinnaman continues. “Most believe that the Bible is the source of moral norms that transcend a person’s culture, and that those moral truths are absolute rather than relative to circumstances. Yet, at the same time, solid majorities ascribe to five of the six tenets of the new moral code. Such widespread cognitive dissonance—among both practicing Christians and Americans more generally—is another indicator of the cultural flux Barna has identified through the past two decades. But it also represents an opportunity for leaders and mentors who are prepared to coach people—especially young people—toward deeper wisdom and greater discernment.”

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About the Research
August 2015 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from August 17 to August 21, 2015. A total of 1,000 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 66% percent.

July 2015 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from July 3 to July 9, 2015. A total of 1,237 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Busters/Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier

Other faith: identify with a non-Christian faith, or identify as a Christian but report beliefs not aligned with historic, orthodox Christianity
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian

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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