More than two thirds (69 percent) believe that American values have declined, and they point to political corruption, increased materialism, declining family values, and a celebrity-obsessed culture as the culprits.
Religious freedom is named as a core value, and yet fewer Americans are embracing any religion. Overall, 89 percent of Americans now say that they believe in God, down from 98 percent in a 1967 Gallup poll. The youngest generation shows an even sharper decline to 81 percent, though people often become more religious after they have children or start a family. By all measures - from basic belief to weekly attendance -- religion and religious life are trending down in importance in American life.
And while a huge proportion laments the decline of traditional family life, calling its loss damaging to society, most Americans -- and especially the young -- favor alternative lifestyles, from living together unmarried to having children out of wedlock and supporting divorce. And majorities of those 18 to 29 approve of unmarried men and women living together, have no issues with smoking marijuana or homosexuality, and classify themselves as pro-choice. The older generation, which has been rising as a proportion of the population, is far more conservative in outlook, expressing opposition to all of these social matters.
But there are well-documented changes in social tolerance as well. The rise in overall acceptance of homosexuality is probably the biggest single change in social values in the last 30 years. Fifty-three percent say homosexuality is now morally acceptable, up from 38 percent in 2002. Narrow majorities oppose pornography and smoking marijuana, and huge majorities oppose cloning, underage drinking, other illegal drug use, and steroids. Forty-one percent find marijuana use acceptable, as compared to 11 percent for other illegal drug use.
Americans strongly favor life support for as long as people want to be kept alive, even at government expense. Likewise, assisted suicide is seen as morally objectionable by 60 percent to 37 percent.
One surprise comes in the area of guns. The public is split down the middle on the need for more gun safety laws, but 72 percent backed an absolute right to self-defense, even if that means using deadly force. Growing percentages oppose any outright bans on handgun ownership, with 64 percent in opposition, up from 51 percent in 1980, though there are doubts about concealed handguns.
When it comes to personal liberty and freedom, the Americans in this poll reaffirm the basic tenets of the Bill of Rights. The core American values of freedom - particularly freedom of speech and freedom of religion -- are reaffirmed as nearly two-thirds say those are the values that put America in a stronger position than others in the world. Slightly fewer -- about half -- point to the free enterprise system, principles of equality, and our constitution as setting us apart. Some values are seen as less important - such as the importance of being a melting pot and of enabling upward mobility. Young people place equality as a value nearly as important as freedom of speech and religion, while the older generations placed equality after capitalism as a core value. The free enterprise system runs deep as a value for those 45 and older, but the younger two generations are far less rooted in that system.