Full Transcript of Episode 15: American Views on Morality
Lizette Beard: Podcasting from Nashville, Tennessee. This is “Keep Asking,” the weekly podcast that helps you dive in a bit deeper and wider into the research, providing insight into today’s church and culture.[00:39] Welcome back to our listeners. I’m Lizette Beard and here’s my Lifeway Research co‑hosts, Scott McConnell and Casey Oliver. In today’s podcast, we’re talking about American views on morality. Guys, today’s topic is so big. [00:44] I wanted to come up with something like a quote that can tie it all together for all our listeners. But I had a hard time landing on just one, so I want to toss a few out there, and get your feedback on them, all right? Everybody in? [01:00] The first one is, “You have to know that as long as you love who you are, your morals, your values, that type of stuff, you’re OK.” Niki Minaj.
Number two, “The minister of the Gospel is really the yardstick by which the nation measures its morals.” Jimmy Swaggart.
And number four, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor known for some particularly cruel practices of persecuting Christians.
Any of those really resonate?
Casey Oliver: [01:47] Honestly, before you gave me the attribution, the fourth one was the one that I felt like, “Man, that’s really compelling,” because I think about that idea that what we don’t need is necessarily to know more about morality—it’s not that we really needed a good teacher, that’s why Jesus came.[02:05] We’re not good people. That’s why Jesus came. He came to save us, so I felt like that was actually a really compelling until then you told me that it’s…
Casey: [02:11] I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it now.
Lizette: [02:16] Yeah.
Scott McConnell: [02:17] All of those sound like things we’d hear every day, and I think the fact that people are coming from those different places gives a reason we run into indignant people every day, because they can’t believe that we’re thinking something completely different.
Lizette: [02:40] It was a little bit of a rabbit hole that I could have spent hours in. In history, this is certainly not something new. People can have some very compelling, beautiful ideas. Then they’re like, wait, they were a terrible person…
Lizette: [03:03] I would not agree with their morals and practice. I thought that was just fascinating to get an idea of just how people can be all over the place and come from their own perspective. Tell us what did we learn about Americans and morality?
Casey: [03:24] There’s so much to cover. I don’t really know where to start. I can just start at the beginning, the order that we ask these questions. One of the things we found was that about 8 out of 10 Americans are concerned about the moral behavior in the United States, which I think is a number that’s most of them.[03:46] If you actually parse that out a little bit and said, “Hey, what are you concerned about?” you might have pretty quickly some different perspectives there.
Scott: [03:54] We often hear a lot of evangelicals speaking up on this topic and just lamenting where the country is going. While their number was lower, it’s still fascinating that 72 percent of the non‑religious, those that we don’t really refer to as nones (atheists, agnostics, have no religious preference), 72 percent of them agree with this that they’re concerned about the moral behavior of the United States.[04:20] It seems like everybody is seeing, not literally everybody to the number. The majority of people are seeing, and they’re not really comfortable with that.
Lizette: [04:29] All right. One thing that stands out is, in your question, it’s I’m concerned about declining moral behavior. In my mind, there’s a sense that we’re asking them, “It used to be better.” There’s a looking back.[04:51] Anything stand out as far as…where people are coming…parts of the country. In the Midwest would more likely be aggrieved than the west? Have the West just been more tolerant? It’s still a lot in the West, 76 percent.
Casey: [05:06] It’s hard for me to know as a thirty year‑old, how much of that is nostalgia for something that was never really there versus how much it was, “Oh, yeah, you can point to…”[05:19] I think that there are plenty of things you could point to and say, “This is concerning to me about the direction our morality is heading as a nation,” but you just wonder, “Is it just different areas that our nation is immoral than 20 years ago?” as opposed to, it’s more immoral than 20 years ago. I don’t feel like I can evaluate that, because I was 10, 20 years ago.
Lizette: [05:41] Really, you can stop with the age stuff, because I’m wondering how we ever let you in.[05:49] My mom will talk about when they used to never lock the doors to the house or never lock the car. You may even leave the keys in the car. Now my mom, who lives in the middle of 15 acres, not only locks her doors, but will lock the door between the garage and the house, locks her screen door. I’m like, “Nobody can find you out here.” [06:13] Certainly, there’s things we know that were extremely immoral.
Scott: [06:21] It does seem that immoral behavior finds its way to the surface faster today through social media, through technology. Not only can you not get away with anything, but it’s probably on video or audio, and you’ll see it again. Some of that may just be we’re more aware of what’s going on around us, rather than it being hidden.[06:42] Some of the young people are a little lower on this question, 7 out of 10 of them noticing it, but it’s still something the majority of Americans are noticing.
Lizette: [06:53] OK, what else?
Casey: [07:00] We asked three questions about laws regulating moral standards. We had 44 percent believe it’s better to have fewer laws regulating moral standards, whereas just over half believe too many laws regulating moral standards have been removed. Probably if you’re libertarian listener, you might be like, “That’s not how I feel.”
Beyond both of those, where I think probably our listeners are in different perspectives, is whether it’s really good to have a lot of laws about morality or less good. I think what was neat was that third question, which is that 63 percent believe implementing laws to encourage moral behavior is not effective.
[07:40] Whether you think they should be there or not, it’s encouraging to me that, on some level, Americans are aware that people need to be transformed from the inside out, rather than just forced to behave better. That’s not really effective in addressing the deeper issue.
Lizette: [07:55] I’m just going to be real. I’m totally OK with some laws out there that are keeping people in line, because I don’t want them to get completely unhinged. I have some conflicting feelings. I might want laws about speeding to be loosened up a little bit, but other laws, I’m like, “Tighten it on down.”[08:20] My qualitative researcher side really wished we had open‑ends to where people could give us their thoughts. I think that would be fascinating. I’d like to see us maybe incorporate that in on something. I think when people have a strong feeling their landing on these, it would be fascinating to see how different. People could be agreeing on the question, but could be coming at it at totally different sets of laws.
Scott: [08:50] That’s totally true. The general pattern on these are a fairly split audience of wanting fewer laws or saying that too many laws have already been removed. The reality is, on the legislation side, that most states have more laws than they’ve ever had on the books, just because that periodic clean‑up that needs to happen hasn’t happened recently for most states, so they have multiple laws addressing the same thing.[09:24] While we notice that marijuana might be legalized in certain places or physician‑assisted suicide might be legalized in a handful of states, so we see some of these headline issues, where the laws are receding. There’s still a lot of laws on the books. We’re a very regulated society. We have more people in prison than ever before. [09:49] I think there’s several reasons, as you were saying, behind why somebody might respond one way or the other.
Casey: [09:54] That feels almost a little like congressional approval ratings to me. You see the number’s really low, but if you could ask the follow‑up, “Why? Why aren’t you happy with how it’s going?” You’d immediately get really divergent answers there, probably.
Lizette: [10:11] Absolutely. I heard you all talking about this, and you seemed the most fascinated with the question about where did they get their morals from, the source? What was the big deal there?
Casey: [10:31] When we’re saying what most shaped their beliefs, the number one answer was “parents,” with 39 percent, followed by “my religious beliefs,” with 26 percent.[10:45] As of this recording, we have a three‑week‑old child. Being aware of what a great responsibility and great privilege that is, to be able to encourage our children, and a testament to that “Train up your child in the way he should go.” Not just to pass moralism onto them, but hopefully to actually really pass on your values about a passion for Jesus, and loving and obeying Him. [11:11] It’s also worth noting that there are other influences, as well. Friends are another influence, even if most people aren’t saying that’s the one that most influences them. Wherever you are, stage of life, you have that ability to help somebody go down a better path.
Lizette: [11:28] I find the response on “My feelings about things I want to do,” that seems very honest.
Scott: [11:40] We see it a little higher among young adults. Those between ages 18 and 34, it’s more than one out of five.[11:47] Actually, among the youngest it’s almost a third are indicating that “What I want to do is driving what I think’s right and wrong.” Some of that may come with age, that they’ll wisen up, but it may be a little bit of a shift in our culture of where our morals come from.
Lizette: [12:06] You can see it in all sorts of movies, TV shows, the “follow you heart.” That’s almost driven in like a doctrine for folks. You want to yell out, and scream, “No, that’s not always a good idea.”
Lizette: [12:27] You need another measuring stick, a plumb line, because your heart can tell you to do crazy things.
Scott: [12:39] We do see that more than a quarter of Americans are saying that their religious beliefs are shaping their beliefs about moral standards. That’s even higher, about 10 percent higher, among African Americans.[12:52] We see that, culturally, different parts of our society are starting in a different place. How they’re responding to some of the rules around them and how they respond to whether something’s right or wrong can completely come from a different place.
Lizette: [13:14] I don’t know if I want us to jump off here too much, but when you look at how strong of an influence that can be ‑‑ parents, religious beliefs ‑‑ and then think about the mixing of religions in our culture, and the tension that that can be bringing, or the confusion, it goes back to some things we talked about in the different worldviews.[13:40] If you’re really holding strongly to what your parents believe, your religious values, it’s inevitable you’re going to have a very strong sense of “I’m right about this, because people I trust, a culture I trust…” and a huge reaction to people who may differ. [13:58] Even if it’s not on the big things, but little things can really jump out. That is something we’re going to have to be increasingly aware of, and sensitive to as we navigate that, without letting go of biblical beliefs. But navigating a diverse culture.
Casey: [14:19] Remaining convictional without being obnoxious about the way that we’re convictional.
Scott: [14:27] As Americans are noticing a decline in moral behavior, we also see some pretty dramatic shifts, some shifts that happened very rapidly on whether something is a particularly moral behavior or not.[14:41] Given that fewer people are looking to an unchanging standard, like a religious belief, then we should expect those shifts to happen more and more rapidly. [14:52] Because even your opinions about what your parents told you, what they taught you growing up’s not going to change, but your beliefs about what they taught you could change today. Especially if your moral standards are based on feelings, those can change by the moment. [15:15] As we look at our culture and what might happen to it in the days ahead, we do need to brace ourselves for some rapid changes.
Casey: [15:24] That leads into that last question we asked, as well. Obviously those who are holding to a religious conviction, they’re probably more likely to be thinking of an absolute standard of some sort regarding morality.[15:39] We asked about, “Whether something is morally right or wrong for you depends on…” and we listed a whole bunch of options for them in terms of deciding that. About half of them said, “Nothing specific. What is right and wrong does not change.” [15:50] The deontological, Kantian ethic of…I was going to work it in. I told you.
Lizette: [15:57] There you go.
Scott: [15:58] Is that related to Deion Sanders in any way?
Casey: [16:02] He started it.
Lizette: [16:03] It’s Dionne Warwick.
Casey: [16:06] That idea that it’s not about the consequences of what happens as a result of the action that makes it right or wrong. Some things are just right, and some things are just wrong.[16:16] We also see some more utilitarian ideas there, in terms of whether the majority of people agree on it, whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Those are other ideas. [16:27] Then there’s some very consequence‑driven ones, in terms of whether a person gets hurt or not, whether there’s a law against it. Some consequence minded ones, and some that are the same no matter what the consequences are, some things are right, and some things wrong.
Lizette: [16:42] I don’t have that one…I guess I do. That was a “select all”?
Lizette: [16:53] They could pick. Even though that’s the highest, only 52 percent said, “Nothing specific. What is right and wrong does not change”?
Casey: [17:03] That’s right. That goes to Scott’s point before. That means that about half the people out there, that it can change, and it probably does.
Lizette: [17:13] I don’t want to be freewheeling here, but a part of me wants to question that 52 percent, and say, “Oh, come on. You budge on this.”
Lizette: [17:30] Then I want to go to the other 48 percent and say, “What kind of atmosphere are you just floating around in that there’s no absolutes?”[17:48] I can check off more of these than I’m comfortable admitting. Maybe that’s what I want to say.
Lizette: [17:53] I’m like, “Yeah, there are things where I’ll budge because of that, or this.” And you wonder how much time can you spend reflecting? Let’s line out a few core things that we’re not going to do this.
Casey: [18:09] Even that idea of cost‑benefit analysis, if that’s one of my main goals, I think I’ll be terrible at it. It’s so hard to actually going into an action, say, “Well ideally all of the potential ways that this is going to hurt the person that I’m saying this to, friend, who then gets influenced by it to say it is tough to see that whole picture of…[18:34] There’s no act to possibly evaluate all the potential cost and benefits of any of my actions. Even just trying to get some of them, I suppose something we think about sometimes when we’re making decisions about right and wrong.
Scott: [18:46] We see young people doing that the most. We see more than a third of those 18 to 24 are looking to whether the benefits outweigh the cost when they go to make a decision. We see the opposite is the case when we ask about the statement whether the right and wrong does not change.[19:07] People under the age of 35, it’s in the 30 percent range that are indicating that that’s what’s driving their morality. Those above 45, it’s in the 60 percent range, twice as many. Older adults are looking to a single standard, whereas younger adults, those in their…essentially millennials, it’s less than a third. I believe there’s an absolute standard to look to. [19:36] That sets as up for a very volatile moral future as a nation.
Lizette: [19:46] It’s tempting to think of 65‑year‑olds. Part of me wants to put them all the way back to the builder generation but that’s…I don’t have the exact years but we’re talking about boomers now, and people who were hippies.
Lizette: [20:03] That hippie generation, who as a generation stretched the boundaries and brought about a lot of change. It’s a little odd to think they’re holding to more absolutes than the younger generation, or is it that because they’re older than they were at that time. You’re just more aware of those absolutes. I’m just throwing things out there. I’m just tossing things out into the wind.
Casey: [20:38] It’s so hard not to, with this data, especially this question. I feel to not start hypothesizing about why is that. The one I was looking at even was, this is maybe changing subjects lately, but they…which ones that they select.[20:53] Some people said, “Whether a person gets hurt,” and 32 percent of people said that was something that mattered to them, but then whether an institution gets hurt, only 10 percent said that was something when they’re evaluating. I felt I came up a billion theories as to… [21:09] Is it that institutions sometimes feel they’re against us rather than for us whereas we normally have less of an adversarial relationship with people? Is it just because there’s not that personal connection where we don’t care about what happens to the people we’re not as close to as much? We feel it’s distant. I feel I can’t say any of that from the data I can say there’s a difference. [21:30] More people care about saying that they’re harming a person when they say they’re harming an institution.
Scott: [21:36] What my mom used to say, “It’s all fun in games until someone gets hurt.” I thought that was just a lesson on consequences. It turns out that there’s a lot of Americans where that’s their moral compass. Even among the non‑religious, it’s pretty much their primary compass. Almost half of them are indicating that that’s the thing that’s driving their moral standards.[22:03] In one sense, that’s a good thing. It’s honoring life. It’s honoring the dignity of people. It’s not honoring to God, it’s not honoring the fact that human beings are not the superior species of the universe. There is a God that deserves our respect and our honor and we glorify.
Lizette: [22:33] Even the level that people…How do you define hurt? I very much picture a dog chasing its tail because that’s just an endless…There are people who get hurt about everything and listen, I’m not letting that be my moral compass…
Lizette: [22:46] because some people just need to get their…Maybe I’m thinking of feelings, maybe I’m not coming across as a sensitive as I hope you in this. Also, there are people who are not hurt hardly at all and you don’t want to say, “Well, whatever they’ll put up with, is OK,” because…No, that mob boss shouldn’t be helping shape what is OK for you.
Casey: [23:06] On the flipside of that, too, I think that I’m a person and a lot of times we think of, maybe not we, but people think of…sin as this arbitrary guidepost that God puts up to say, “Well, just don’t do that,” so we’re not supposed to do that.
Lizette: [23:20] He has some of those, right?
Casey: [23:21] Yes, but they’re for our good, too. That one we’re following that it’s to our benefit. We’re glorifying God on that. Indirectly, when I say, “When a person gets hurt,” I’m not necessarily aware of fact when I sin that’s…I’m hurting myself and my relationship with God and there’s all sorts of consequences that are internal that aren’t necessarily immediately evident to me from that.[23:49] Sometimes it can be, if that’s all we’re thinking about, it’s like, “Oh this is…” Nobody lost an arm at the end of this decision.
Casey: [23:56] But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t real consequences from that either.
Lizette: [24:05] These are important, but then for me, it brings home the fact that it is an endless loop of “I can’t be moral enough for God.” Certainly, as my colleagues, you would like me to keep trying…
Lizette: [24:19] and to stay on top things if at all possible, but in our own strength…
Casey: [24:27] Whatever standard we pick, we’re going to fail.
Lizette: [24:29] Let’s just focus on God’s standards.
Lizette: [24:32] But we’re all going to fall short. Just even this, we’re having this podcast moment, that’s very comforting to me because at times is you’re looking at this, I’m like, “I need to be thinking more about this, I need to be doing this.”[24:49] Yes, I need to continue thinking and growing and maturing, without being lackadaisical, it’s like, “Oh, Jesus covered that.” Continue growing in obedience, but it’s in response to that, not to earn that or to achieve that. I just felt like I needed to…
Scott: [25:09] Good work.
Lizette: [25:11] Spiritual moment. I like to keep you guys on your toes
Lizette: [25:16] Anything else we need to wrap up. We’ve gone over a little bit. This was fun ‑‑ a little philosophy, ethics, maybe…Just exciting days to come for the podcast.
Lizette: [25:30] Anyway, we like to thank everyone for joining us. If you would like to quiz us on morality, philosophy, anything deontological, tweet us @smcconn, @StatsGuyCasey, or @LizetteBeard.[25:41] You can also check out our research releases at LifewayResearch.com. Looking forward to next time. Goodbye.
Americans Worry About Decline, Can’t Agree on Right and Wrong by Lifeway Research