A new Gallup study of American ethical/moral attitudes across age ranges was just released related to such topics as the morality of pornography, non-marital sexuality, polygamy, homosexuality, etc.:
Notice that youth in the USA are moving ever closer to matching their unabashedly secular European counterparts (German, Dutch, Italian, English, French, etc.) when it comes to attitudes in the same department. For example a Gallup study of a couple of years ago found that nearly 2/3 of all Germans believed that regularly viewing pornography is morally acceptable. But the American stats here occur with the USA supposedly being a lot more plugged in to organized "religious" practice and belief than is the case for Europe. Of course, American religiosity can be notoriously vacuous and banal in comparison to an authentic, robustly Judeo-Christian vision. And religious institutional "attendance" in the USA can often be associated with a gigantic theological disconnect when it comes to day-to-day, lived theology and actual practice.
In Europe, at least many people there are more seemingly consistent. For instance, most there seem to instinctively recognize that being a "Christian" (ironically, pivotal to the history of European civilization) means something that is contrary to contemporary secular values. And, as such, most there no longer identify themselves as being particularly "Christian." But in the USA, there is the strange marriage of secular values joined to the need to still appear "religious" via church attendance, giving lip service to various theological platitudes, etc. But I suspect that youth in the USA are soon coming to match their more consistently secular European counterparts. Already, religious institutional attendance and affiliation rates have been dropping precipitously in just the past 10 years.....With young people leading the way in the drop-out department.
But more directly pertinent to what I do for a living (i.e. teaching students in a consciously Christian university setting), I wonder about the general ethical attitudes of students in the classrooms of the more conservative, traditionally religious colleges and universities in the USA.....I.e. Whether they would be much different than these survey numbers. In just the past couple of years, I have personally experienced some amazingly disturbing incidents in which allegedly Christian students attending putatively Christian universities have been involved in some really sordid ethical incidents. And these incidents occurred with the students involved seeming to not have much of a conscience working in the various circumstances.
And I also wonder if administrators and Boards of Directors at such religiously-oriented schools even realize the extent of the mass liquidation of the Judeo-Christian worldview taking place in our lifetimes. Or if such administrators merely plod on and continue to assume that today's students attending such schools are basically the same as those of decades past. Os Guinness' 1973 prediction in his book, The Dust of Death, that the then seemingly fringe ethical positions of the Swinging '60s/early '70s could one day infiltrate mainstream Western societies seems to have been quite prophetic. What were once shocking ethical positions just 40 years ago have become quite mainstream today. And I suspect that even professed "religious" youth of today have likewise drunk deeply at the well of the ethical downgrade.
These ominous developments would also seem to pose a serious threat to our national republican political experiment. Granted, many of the pivotal, political minds of the Constitutional period were not orthodox Christians. But as even the skeptical historian Carl Becker noted in his book, The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers (1932), Enlightenment European figures who displayed such hostility to organized Christianity in Europe nevertheless still operated on moral and ethical assumptions quite grounded in traditional Judeo-Christian theology. The same ethical viewpoints could also be found in the Deist-inclined movers and shakers of the post-Revolutionary War and Constitutional periods of American history. And these ethical beliefs and understandings would have dovetailed nicely with the ethical and moral beliefs of the majority Protestant, more evangelically-inclined population of the young USA.
This generally peaceful marriage of Enlightenment and more orthodox Judeo-Christian ethical viewpoints arguably held until the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, when the ethical consensus unravelled. And the ongoing "culture wars" of the past few decades have displayed clear evidence that the American nation has increasingly fragmented when it comes to defining standards of right and wrong.
And yet, the intellectual architects of the national political establishment in the late 1700s clearly articulated the view that a "virtuous citizenry" was absolutely essential to the long-term survival of a republican form of government. Otherwise, factionalism, subsequent anarchy, and eventually tyranny would inevitably emerge to wield control over a morally fragmented citizenry.
I fear that our increasingly divisive and ethically contested public sphere could lead to such instability and, in the worst case scenario, the demise of our republican form of government. But apart from some sort of return to a more cohesive understanding of public ethical and moral principles (as was the case when Judeo-Christian ideals held sway), I am pessimistic about the future health of the American republican political experiment.
Postscript: I wrote this piece just prior to the Anthony Weiner “Weinergate” revelations in which Congressman Weiner admitted to extensive “sexting” and other sexually explicit activities with various women that he had met online. Without commenting extensively on the entire sordid tragedy, I fear that this media event will further reinforce American public cynicism regarding the integrity of public officials and even public institutions themselves. The revelations related to Congressman Weiner only add to seemingly flourishing sex scandals of recent years centering on disgraced public officials (i.e. “men behaving badly”) to be found in both political parties: John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Chris Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.