American society has become more intrigued by moral issues in recent years, as evidenced by the fact that 55% of adults discuss moral issues with others during a typical week. But a nationwide survey by The Barna Group indicates that Americans have also redefined what it means to do the right thing in their own lives.
Researchers asked adults which, if any, of eight behaviors with moral overtones they had engaged in during the past week. The behaviors included exposure to pornography, using profanity in public, gambling, gossiping, engaging in sexual intercourse with someone to whom they were not married, retaliating against someone, getting drunk, and lying. A majority of adults had engaged in at least one of those eight behaviors during the past week.
Cussing is Common
The most common of the eight behaviors evaluated was using profanity in public. Nearly three out of every ten adults (28%) admitted to using such language. Two out of every ten adults (20%) had gambled in the past week (including the purchase of a lottery ticket) and almost as many (19%) admitted to intentional exposure to pornographic images. Slightly more than one out of every ten adults had gossiped (12%), gotten drunk (12%), or lied (11%).
The least common of the activities tested were having sexual intercourse with someone to whom the respondent was not married (9%) and 8% said they had engaged in some form of retaliation during the prior seven days.
The survey showed that admission of adultery was far less common than was admission of sex among unmarried adults. Just 1% of married adults said they had sex with someone other than their spouse during the past week. In contrast, 21% of single adults indicated they had sex with someone during the prior week.
Young Adults Ignore Traditional Morality
One of the most stunning outcomes from the Barna survey was the moral pattern among adults under 25. The younger generation was more than twice as likely as all other adults to engage in behaviors considered morally inappropriate by traditional standards. Their choices made even the Baby Boomers – never regarded as a paragon of traditional morality – look like moral pillars in comparison.
For instance, two-thirds of the under-25 segment (64%) had used profanity in public, compared to just one out of five Boomers (19%). The younger group – known as Mosaics – was nine times more likely than were Boomers to have engaged in sex outside of marriage (38% vs. 4%), six times more likely to have lied (37% vs. 6%), almost three times more likely to have gotten drunk (25% vs. 9%) and to have gossiped (26% vs. 10%), and twice as likely as Boomers to have observed pornography (33% vs. 16%) and to have engaged in acts of retaliation (12% vs. 5%).
Liberals Differ from Conservatives
On average, adults who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on sociopolitical issues were twice as likely as those who describe themselves as “mostly conservative” to participate in activities that conflict with traditional moral perspectives. In particular, liberals were five times more likely to participate in unmarried sex (20% vs. 4%), more than three times as likely to view pornography (30% vs. 8%), more than twice as likely to lie (21% vs. 8) and to get drunk (17% vs. 7%), and twice as likely to engage in retaliation (13% vs. 6%) and gossip (17% vs. 9%).
Men Behave Differently Than Women
Men were significantly more likely than women to engage in six of the seven behaviors evaluated. The biggest gaps between the genders related to getting drunk (22% of men had done so in the past week, compared to 3% of women), use of profanity in public (33% vs. 24%), and gambling (23% vs. 15%). Men were also twice as likely to have had sexual intercourse in the past week with someone to whom they were not married (13% vs. 6%).
The only behavior more common among women was gossip. However, the margin of difference was not statistically significant.
The Influence of Faith on Morality
Examining people’s faith perspectives revealed that evangelicals were the group most likely to follow traditional morality while atheists and agnostics were the faith segment most likely to reject those ways.
Among evangelicals, profanity (16%) and pornography (12%) were the most common transgressions. Fewer than 5% of evangelicals had engaged in gossip (4%), inappropriate sex (3%), gambling (2%), lying (1%) or drunkenness (less than one-half of one percent).
In contrast, among skeptics (atheists and agnostics) participation in the eight behaviors ranged from a low of 11% (retaliating) up to a high of 60% (using profanity). While evangelicals averaged 6% participation in each of the eight behaviors mentioned, skeptics averaged five times that level (29%). Other common acts among skeptics included exposure to pornography (50%), gossip (34%) and drunkenness (33%).
People associated with faiths other than Christianity were twice as likely as evangelicals to engage in the behaviors explored. They were most likely to use profanity (33%), view pornography (32%) and lie (18%).
Within the Christian community, there were few differences between Protestants and Catholics in relation to the moral behaviors tested. Catholics were somewhat more likely to gamble (25% vs. 18%) and to get drunk (16% vs. 7%).
A New Moral Code
According to George Barna, who directed the survey, the results reflect a significant shift in American life.
“We are witnessing the development and acceptance of a new moral code in America,” said the researcher and author, who has been surveying national trends in faith and morality for more than a quarter-century. “Mosaics have had little exposure to traditional moral teaching and limited accountability for such behavior. The moral code began to disintegrate when the generation before them – the Baby Busters – pushed the limits that had been challenged by their parents – the Baby Boomers. The result is that without much fanfare or visible leadership, the U.S. has created a moral system based on convenience, feelings, and selfishness.
“The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances. It is not likely that America will return to a more traditional moral code until the nation experiences significant pain from its moral choices.”
About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in May 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
“Evangelicals” are born again Christians. In the survey, people qualified as evangelicals if they met the born again criteria (i.e., said they had have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and 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) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their religious 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; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 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 is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Adults from the Mosaic generation are ages 18 to 24. Baby Busters are ages 25 through 43. Baby Boomers are ages 44 to 62.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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