Americans: Still Pretty Judge-y

In a survey covering a range of moral topics, U.S. respondents expressed strong doubts about bioethics issues, sexual mores, and a perceived decline in the country's morality.
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Reuters

Oh, America, land of hot-dog-eating contests and sugar-related self-doubt and tweeting nuns. Never change.

And in the past decade, it certainly hasn't seemed to—at least not in terms of how its citizens think about moral issues. In a survey released last week, Gallup reports that people in the U.S. haven't changed how they feel about most social and ethical issues during the last ten years. In general, Americans think the state of the country's morality isn't great: In answer to the most vaguely worded question ever—"How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today"—78 percent said "poor" or "only fair." And 74 percent said things are only getting worse.

The most interesting thing about this isn't that Americans are exceptionally grumpy about their neighbors' moral fiber—it's that they've always been this way. Since 2002, the polling organization has found that roughly three-fourths of respondents feel pessimistic about the state of morality in the United States. They felt most positive about it in 2004, when 27 percent of respondents said "moral values" were improving; but 2006 through 2008 were the darkest years, when only 11 percent said the same. 

But this measure only hints at a vague discontent among the masses. Opinions on specific ethical issues are much more telling about the nature of American judginess. 

People had the strongest and most consistent views on sexual ethics: Pornography, sex between teenagers, polygamy, and affairs between two married people were among the most unpopular in a long list of ethical issues. Ever since Gallup has been gathering data on these issues, roughly 65 percent of people have disapproved of teen sex and pornography use, 85 to 90 percent have rejected multi-person marriages, and 90 percent have condemned infidelity. 

The one area where sexual mores seem to have changed is gay relationships. At the beginning of 2004, only 46 percent of respondents thought gay sex should be legal; in another poll that year, only 42 percent of people said they saw it as morally acceptable or believed that same-sex marriage should be legal. A decade later, opinions have shifted somewhat: This May, 55 percent affirmed gay marriage, 58 percent said gay sex is morally okay, and 66 percent agreed that it should be legal. But even though it seems like people have gotten a lot more used to LGBT relationships, roughly 40 percent of people still feel uncomfortable about them.

On other issues, Americans' moral sensibilities are more surprising. People feel slightly more uncomfortable with animal abuse than they used to, including testing live subjects in medical experiments and wearing fur—nearly 40 percent of people said these things are wrong. The respondents seemed deeply uncomfortable with science-fiction-y bioethics issues, including the 60 percent of people who disapproved of cloning animals and the 83 percent who said the same about humans. Over the past decade, these numbers have only fluctuated slightly; cloning, it seems, is consistently creepy.

The real take-away is that Americans are a judge-y people.

The real take-away here is that Americans are a judge-y people. Thirty percent said they don't believe in pre-marital sex, even though, as of 2006, 95 percent of  Americans were doing it. A third of people dislike gambling and even more disapprove of unwed mothers. Divorcées get a little bit more of a pass than they did ten years ago, when more than a quarter of respondents said their separations were immoral; but still today, only 69 percent of people think they're always morally okay.

Religious affiliation probably has something to do with shaping these views, although it's unclear exactly how. Roughly 86 percent of respondents believe in God, 80 percent say religion is "very" or "fairly" important to them, and 44 percent describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. In answering a rather polemical poll question, 57 percent said they believe religion "can answer all or most of today's problems," while 30 percent said religion is "largely old-fashioned and out of date." About three-quarters of people believe religion is becoming less of an influence in American life, a view that has grown steadily since December of 2001—three months after 9/11—when roughly three-quarters of people felt the opposite way. 

But even if religious life in the U.S. were becoming less robust—and it's probably not—it most likely wouldn't matter. Whether you're having sex, shopping for a mink stole at Neiman Marcus, or setting up your state-of-the-art home cloning machine, Americans will judge you, and do so eagerly.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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