Is morality in decline?

Most Americans see broad moral decline

Across the land, Americans see falling moral and ethical standards. It's evident on all sides - in the Oval Office, at the local multiplex, on the TV shows beamed into their homes.

A new nationwide Monitor poll finds Americans concerned that this moral miasma is making it tougher to overcome problems like violence, drug use, and teen pregnancy.

President Clinton has done a poor job of moral leadership, the survey found. But as Congress wrestled with impeachment, people generally refused to cast a stone at the president. His standards are "about the same" as most presidents', many Americans said.

Instead of attacking Mr. Clinton, they said that turning around the moral crisis should begin with strengthening the family and emphasizing spiritual values.

Widespread evidence of moral decay can be found in every American city: Sleazy movies, drug pushers, vulgar TV shows, neglected children, broken families.

Americans - viewing this picture - say they are concerned that standards of morals and ethics in the United States have slipped badly as the 20th century draws to a close, according to a new nationwide poll commissioned by The Christian Science Monitor.

Many of those surveyed express concern that levels of morality and ethics will sink even lower before things begin to improve.

The national opinion poll of 800 Americans was conducted for the Monitor by Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics (TIPP), based in Oradell, N.J. A majority of those interviewed said:

* Today's moral climate in the US is worse than it was in the 1950s.

* America's moral decline has made the crisis of crime, violence, drug use, and teen pregnancy significantly worse.

* Television, movies, and pop music are all dragging down the nation's values.

* President Clinton has done a poor job of moral leadership, though many Americans (47 percent) say his moral standards are "about the same" as most other presidents.

* Religion and the family have great impact on the nation's morals, but their influence is declining.

* Education should have a positive effect on morals, but it is failing to fulfill that responsibility.

* Religious leaders are highly rated for their moral values. But several other major groups, including politicians and business executives, get an overall negative rating on morals and ethics.

The Monitor/TIPP survey was conducted by telephone, with numbers chosen randomly by computer to ensure an accurate scientific sample. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The survey found that if Americans have one solution to the nation's moral decline, it is this: Strengthen the family.

One of those polled, Mike Hahs of San Clemente, Calif., a father of four, says that ultimately, maintaining morality is "primarily" a role for the family.

"I don't delegate the teaching of morality to schools," he says. "That's largely my responsibility."

The poll results show that a large cross section of Americans would agree with Mr. Hahs.

How serious is the problem?

From Los Angeles to New York, Americans are universal in their concerns about the nation's declining levels of morality and ethics.

In every major region of the country, a majority agree that the nation's values have weakened since the 1950s, the poll found. That view is particularly evident in the South and West.

Among distinct groups of Americans, concerns are strongest among Republicans, whites, and people over the age of 55.

Ann Echard, a second-grade teacher, and one of those surveyed, sees the impact of the country's lower standards on the children in her classroom in Bakersfield, Calif.

The moral climate, she says, is clearly "getting worse," and is being affected by what people see on TV and "even the Internet."

The results show up with children, who often reflect both physical and emotional neglect, she says, in part because their "parents are struggling to keep their heads above water," and in part simply because some parents are "just being selfish."

Ms. Echard says today's children are "much more aware of things they shouldn't know about." An example: Children are now dating at the age of 7 or 8.

That sort of activity creates problems that are often being shuffled off to the schools, rather than being dealt with at home by parents.

"Moral values should come from the home," Echard says. "If society wants to put it off on someone else, then they don't have any right to complain."

Nearly 80 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats say the country's morals have fallen significantly in the past 40 years. That view is shared by 70 percent of the nation's whites, and by 75 percent of Americans old enough to have personally experienced the 1950s and seen the changes since that time.

Only one group was divided about the view that morals are declining - non-white (primarily black) Americans. While a plurality (43 percent) say that morals are worse today, nearly a quarter of non-whites say the 1990s are better for them than the 1950s. And 18 percent say conditions are about the same.

Non-whites' differing views appear to be rooted in the progress made since the days of civil rights protests in the 1960s, when blacks were often denied basic rights, such as voting and equal access to education and public facilities.

How did we get here?

When Americans look for something or someone to blame for declining morals, they point straight at the media, particularly the entertainment media, and especially TV.

Jason Sines of Chase, Md., says: "The worst is TV." He notes that TV is readily available in the home, and harder to avoid. Magazines, movies, and other media require a trip to the store or the theater. "Unless you're setting out to get something bad, you can avoid it."

Mr. Sines says that today, with the spread of cable TV, "you see what should be classified as porn in the R-rated movies. Ten years ago they worried about swearing!"

Sines's views are widely shared. More than 3 of 4 Americans say that the values portrayed on television are getting worse.

Those views are held by Democrats (72 percent), Republicans (86 percent), independents (74 percent), men (72 percent), women (80 percent), whites (78 percent), non-whites (70 percent), and those in the East (71 percent), North (74 percent), South (76 percent), and West (80 percent).

How much impact does TV really have on people's values? Quite a bit, according to this survey.

A plurality (40 percent) of Americans say the decline of moral standards on TV is influencing the nation's values to a "great extent." The figure for TV soap operas (42 percent) is slightly higher. Another 24 percent say the effect of TV is moderately negative.

But television isn't alone. Sharing the onus are movies and popular music, along with the Internet, where pornography is easily available, video games that often emphasize violence, and current fashions of dress.

Leadership and morals

Effective leadership could help lift America out of its moral slump, those surveyed say. But many people in powerful positions aren't setting good examples.

The poll asked for the public's views on the moral conduct of five groups of prominent people. They included politicians, business leaders, religious figures, sports heroes, and movie stars.

Only those working in the field of religion scored high. About 58 percent of those questioned in the poll rated the moral standards of religious leaders as "excellent" or "good." Yet even among this group, 30 percent of those surveyed rated them as "only fair," and 8 percent gave them "poor" ratings.

Others, however, fared much worse. Sports stars, often glorified by the media, were rated "only fair" or "poor" on their morals by 69 percent of those surveyed. Movie stars ranked last, with 78 percent giving them "only fair" or "poor." Politicians also stumbled. Some 74 percent rated them "only fair" or "poor."

Business leaders, who have sometimes had image problems in the media, nevertheless outscored sports heroes, movie stars, and politicians. About 36 percent of the public gave them a "good" or "excellent" rating for their moral standards. But 56 percent rated them "only fair" or "poor."

Even though prominent groups like sports stars are held in low esteem, Americans say they are important to the nation's values.

Greg Chaney of Boston says that ideally, values would come from the home. If children don't get those values early, by the time teachers get them it could be too late, he worries.

Ms. Echard, the schoolteacher, notes that if parents neglect their responsibilities, then children will look elsewhere for guidance - "to sports stars, movie stars."

She suggests that religion "is the key. If you have no spirituality, no religion, you are really a lost soul. If there's no higher power, why have any morals?"

The president's role

Mr. Clinton is much on the minds of many Americans. While satisfied with the overall job he is doing as president (57 percent told our pollster they approved of his handling of the office), at the same time the vast majority felt he was failing to provide moral leadership.

This dual sentiment obviously troubles people.

Mr. Chaney of Boston observes that on the morals front, "Nothing has gotten better. And if our president is doing his thing, there's no hope for anyone else."

Sines of Chase, Md., says Mr. Clinton is "the leading dog in this pack of immoral things. He has disgraced our country. People overseas are laughing at us."

Yet voters don't seem ready to throw out the president.

Don Coulson of Temecula, Calif., says what happened to Clinton was simply, "He got caught." He adds: "I'd be surprised if there were five people in Congress who in the same circumstances wouldn't have done the same thing." But Mr. Coulson concludes: "I can't believe his stupidity."

This view - "everybody does it" - is reflected in answers to a question comparing Clinton's moral standards with those of other presidents.

An overwhelming 68 percent of Democrats say that Clinton's moral standards are "about the same" as most other presidents. This was one area that found the sharpest disagreement between groups in the survey. Only 18 percent of Republicans said Clinton's morals are typical of presidents in the past.

Regions also reflect different views. In the East, there is more tolerance of the president, with about 55 percent saying that his morals are no worse than those of other presidents. In the North, South, and West, only 44 to 48 percent agreed with that statement.

It seems clear that while Americans are thoroughly disgusted with the president's behavior, they have no strong desire to oust him from office.

Effect of the family

When Americans search for answers to moral problems, they often look to the family. In our survey, 71 percent said the family has "great influence" on the nation's moral and ethical standards. Another 15 percent said the family has "moderate influence."

Ordinarily that might be a good thing, but the same poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed say the family's influence is on the decline. Other forces, like TV and the Internet, are taking over.

One reason for the family's weakening influence is financial pressure, the survey found. Of those polled, 3 of 4 said financial troubles are exacerbating problems - such as divorce, neglect of children, and drug abuse - that can undermine family's role as a moral bulwark.

Our survey found widespread concern that as parents struggle with multiple jobs to make ends meet, their children's moral educations are being turned over to media companies that don't feel the same responsibilities for values.

Marilyn Russo of Chicago, a divorced mother of two daughters who are now grown, puts it this way:

"You don't have the family structure anymore. There are single moms and fathers, working all day. Kids with baby sitters. Overall, kids are left unattended. So they just turn on the TV. Even if there are two parents, they're both working."

She advises: "It doesn't take that much to sit down at the table and talk." But she adds: "We all get tired and frustrated.... You have to set your priorities,... and have faith in God."

Mrs. Russo, who looks back fondly at her own upbringing in an Italian family, recalls family dinners that "used to go on for four hours. These are things you don't forget."

Religion and education

Educators and religious leaders could take over some of the responsibilities from the family if their influence were growing. But the public sees teachers and religious figures losing influence - though not as swiftly as the family has declined as a moral force.

While 68 percent see the family's influence slipping, education was seen declining as a moral force by 58 percent. Religion was said to be a reduced influence today by 49 percent of those polled.

What to do?

The 800 people surveyed were asked: "What do you think would be the single most important factor, event, or influence that could alleviate moral and ethical problems faced in this country?"

The three most popular proposals:

* More emphasis on family and children (29 percent).

* Focus on religion and spirituality (18 percent).

* Improve education (14 percent).

There was some variation by region.

In the East (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England), the top priority by far was the family (35 percent), with religion and spirituality well behind at 11 percent. Education was the second favorite response at 13 percent.

Similarly, strengthening the family was the favorite solution in the 12 states of the North, stretching from Ohio to Nebraska, and in the West. In those regions religion was the second most popular solution.

In the South, family was the No. 1 choice of 23 percent. Religion and spirituality were close behind at 21 percent.

For many of our respondents, like Juliette Cummins, who is in the real estate business in Santa Barbara, Calif., the answer comes down to parents.

Mrs. Cummins says parents can teach the basic standards, such as "do unto others." Too often, however, the media through TV news feels it is necessary to "advertise every murder in town.... It's a kit: This is how it's done. A picture is worth a thousand words. Children are inundated with these visual concepts."

Filling young children with immoral and violent thoughts, while depriving them of close parental guidance, is leading America down the wrong road, respondents said.


The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll was conducted nationwide Oct. 2 to 7, 1998, among a sample of 800 adults, 18 years old or older. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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