Brent Bozell's culture column this week unfolds the new polling numbers for the MRC's Culture and Media Institute on the American people's impression of moral decline and the media's role in it:
A new cultural-values survey of 2,000 American adults performed by the polling firm of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates for the Culture and Media Institute reveals a strong majority, 74 percent, believes moral values in America are weaker than they were 20 years ago. Almost half, 48 percent, agree that values are much weaker than they were 20 years ago.
Why the pessimism? Is the answer right in front of them, in their own children, or their children’s friends? Or is the answer more indirect, gleaned from staring at the popular culture? For most, a major leading indicator of moral decline is the media. Clearly, Americans look into their television sets, and are getting a high-definition dose of Hollywood’s take on values. Fully 68 percent of Americans in the survey said the media are having a detrimental effect on moral values in America.
Americans place heavier blame on the entertainment media, but they blame the news media as well, with its emphasis on sex, violence, and ditzy head-shaving celebrities. Why do even supposedly serious news outlets devote hours of air time to airheads like Paris Hilton, whose ticket to fame was her old-wealth surname and her talent on “private” sex tapes?
The agreement is remarkable across political and religious subsets. Not only do 73 percent believe the entertainment media has a negative effect on America’s commitment to moral values, that’s a sentiment shared by Republicans (86 percent) and Democrats (68 percent); conservatives (80 percent) and liberals (64 percent), even religious types identified as orthodox (82 percent) and mostly secular progressives (62 percent).
Brent notes that most people put parents first on the line for keeping children on a stronger moral path:
The media are a major influence on shaping our cultural values, and America knows it. Almost two-thirds of the people surveyed (64 percent) agree the media are an important factor in the culture. It sometimes seems almost impossibly pervasive and immune to complaints as they cross every new frontier of excess.
But they’re reasonable in knowing that the media is ultimately not the most important factor. Good parents can be a much more direct moral influence than the TV or the multiplex or the radio. Of those who are asked who is most responsible for moral decline among young people, 57 percent of the people surveyed blamed parents and families first, and only 21 percent blame the media first. Parents need to be a gatekeeper to children’s entertainment, to guide them through its treacherous passages, and not merely let them hitch-hike along the road alone.
There's other numbers here that are interesting, too. Sadly, this cultural survey shows that while Americans have a great consensus on the importance of classic virtues like truthfulness, thrift, industry, and charity, they often fail to follow through. America is becoming more situational in its everyday ethics.
When asked if they would take a job for cash and still collect unemployment benefits, 33 percent said yes. When asked if they would correct a waiter’s error when items ended up missing from the check, 25 percent would pay the smaller tab. When asked if it’s always wrong to break the law, 26 percent agreed that some laws were okay to break, if no one gets hurt.
But at this crossroads, the differences in religious belief cause a difference in responses. The pollsters identified three types. The orthodox are religiously observant people who believe in living by God’s teachings. The progressives advocate a secularized approach to private and public life and support living by their own principles. In between are the independents, who endorse neither religiously guided public morality nor secular ideology.
The progressives are much more situational in their choices. Only 21 percent of the orthodox group said they would cheat on unemployment benefits, while 49 percent in the progressive group said they would. Only 11 percent of the orthodox would cheat the restaurant on the waiter’s error, while 45 percent of progressives would. Eighty-two percent of the orthodox say it’s wrong to break the law, even if they disagree with it, but only 42 percent of progressives agree.
These results raise the classic question about whether belief in God is needed for morality. Clearly, a human being can lead an exceedingly moral life without any religious belief. But it also seems clear, in very general terms, that people who live their lives believing they will be judged by a mighty yet merciful God have a different kind of discipline than people who believe that they live to serve themselves, or a God that offers only comfort and not judgment.