It is hard to imagine a pollster asking a question like this today, but in 1939, Elmo Roper did just that. The pollster asked whether sexual relations for young people before marriage were all right, unfortunate, or wicked. Interviews were done face-to-face then, so women interviewed women and men interviewed men. Only 10 percent of women said this was all right for young men, while 35 percent said it was unfortunate, and 47 percent wicked. Eleven percent of men said it was all right for young girls, 52 percent unfortunate, and 28 percent wicked. Today, the National Opinion Research Center asks about sexual relations before marriage for people in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old. In 2016, 77 percent said they were always or almost always wrong; in 1986, 85 percent gave that response. Women remain slightly more likely than men to take that view, 80 percent compared to 75 percent in 2016. When asked about premarital sexual relations more generally, 26 percent of adults in 2016 described them as always or almost always wrong, down from 45 percent in 1972.
In the January edition of AEI’s Political Report, we examined Americans’ views on the country’s moral fabric. Americans have been persistently anxious about the state of moral values for a long time. Virtually every question asked over the past 80 years has found that people thought they were getting worse. In a 1938 Roper poll, 42 percent said the morals of young unmarried people were worse than ten years ago, while 37 percent said they were the same and only 13 percent said they were better. In 1968 and again in 1986, large majorities said life was getting worse in terms of morals. And in a 2017 Investors’ Business Daily poll, 74 percent said they were not very or not at all satisfied with the direction the country was going in terms of morals and ethics. This is a rare area of agreement among social liberals and social conservatives. In Gallup’s data, large majorities of both say the state of moral values is getting worse. When Gallup asked people in a May 2012 survey to describe what they viewed as the most important problem with the state of moral values, the most frequently named problem was lack of consideration of others, compassion, caring, tolerance, and respect (18 percent gave responses in that category). Ten percent said lack of family structure, divorce, and kids’ upbringing; and 10 percent lack of faith and religion.
Although we worry, we are more reluctant than in the past to want the government involved. Fifty-three percent in a 1993 Gallup poll wanted government to promote traditional values in our society. Today only 45 percent do, while 51 percent say government should not favor any particular set of values. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal question asked in 1999, 60 percent said promoting greater respect for traditional social and moral issues is the more important goal while 29 percent said encouraging greater tolerance of people with different lifestyle and backgrounds is. Today, those responses are much closer, 50 percent and 44 percent, respectively. A question asked by the Public Religion Research Institute underscores today’s emphasis on broader acceptance of different standards. Seventy-seven percent in a 2013 survey agreed that we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards, even if they are very different from our own.
Looking at specific behaviors, Gallup finds some significant movement since the turn of this century in what people view as morally acceptable. Support for gay and lesbian relations in this poll (like many others) increased, moving from 40 percent who said homosexual behavior was acceptable in 2001 to 63 percent in 2017. So, too, did acceptance of having a baby outside of marriage, which moved from 45 percent in 2002 to 62 percent in 2017. The percentage who see divorce as morally acceptable rose from 59 percent in 2001 to 73 percent in 2017. Views on doctor-assisted suicide also shifted. Forty-nine percent thought it was morally acceptable in 2001; in the latest poll, a solid majority did (57 percent).
There are other areas that show some movement, but most people still say they are not morally acceptable. In 2003, 7 percent said polygamy was acceptable; 17 percent did in the latest poll. The acceptability of cloning humans doubled, from 7 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2017. Thirteen percent in 2001 and 18 percent in 2017 said suicide was morally acceptable. There are many areas in this extensive battery where views have not changed. One of these is a persistent hot button in our politics, abortion. Forty-two percent in 2001, and 43 percent in 2017 said it was morally acceptable.
The polls provide a unique window into our anxieties and our convictions. In this area, as in so many others, our views are complicated. Americans continue to take a negative view of the state of moral values in the country, even as their views on what behaviors are morally acceptable have changed. People with different ideologies are in agreement about the poor state of moral values even though they disagree about the morality of specific behaviors. After 80 years of consistently negative assessments, it is not clear what changes (if any) might improve Americans’ dim overall views of their country’s moral values.