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What Moral Decline?

Are you getting tired of all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the religious right about the moral decline of America? Rick Santorum claims that “Satan has his sights on the United States of America”. Newt Gingrich says “A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have.” Even Mitt Romney blames our moral decay on Obama’s “secular agenda”. But whether they blame it on Obama, abortion, or gays, they all agree that our country is in deep moral doodoo.

Or is it?

According to a report in The Economist, America is actually doing pretty good from a moral standpoint.

Violent crime, homicides, and property crime are way down (the murder rate has been cut in half since 1991). How about a hot button issues for the religious right, like abortion? Well, abortion has declined since the last turn of the century. The divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 70s. Teenage pregnancy is way down. Even infidelity is down.

Both negative and positive indicators are doing well. Except for a decline during the recession, charitable giving is up. The high school graduation rate is the highest it has been in more than two decades.

If you need to find an indicator of moral decay, interestingly you need to look at things like religious affiliation, which has decreased significantly. The number of people attending church regularly has also declined. Is it a coincidence that these measures are going the opposite direction of other indicators of morality?

I do have to admit that the number of out-of-wedlock births has increased dramatically in America. After all, Rick Santorum points this out frequently during his campaign speeches. And he is also correct when he says that children of unwed mothers in America tend to have more problems (with health, school, and income).

There’s just one problem with that statistic — out-of-wedlock births are increasing in most of the developed world. For example, over 50% of babies born in Iceland and Sweden are born to unwed mothers. But in those countries — which have strong social support systems — children born to unwed mothers do just as well as children born into a traditional nuclear family. So the problem might be something else about the US, not just being born out of wedlock.

So the only measures that show moral decline are out-of-wedlock motherhood, church attendance and religious affiliation. (Well plus the fact that we elected a Muslim, foreign-born black man as president.) On the other hand, things like crime, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and infidelity are down, while charitable giving and graduation rates are up.

Far be it from me to expect the religious right to hold a belief that is based on facts, or even on reality. But if they want to blame the morality of our nation on Obama, then it is only fair that they give him credit for all the good things too.



  1. Michael wrote:

    “Is it a coincidence that these measures are going the opposite direction of other indicators of morality?” Considering the fact that many religions preach, in essence, “As long as you’re sincerely contrite afterward, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll be forgiven,” my answer would be no.

    As for the violent crime rates dropping drastically in the ’90s, there’s a rational explanation for that, too.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  2. Rachel Biel wrote:

    Hmmm…. I usually agree with most of what you say, but on this one, your argument seems flawed. For one, you would have to compare “morality” now with the time they think was golden. Probably the 1950’s. Not the 90’s (they would say we were already doomed by then…)

    Then, there are many more measurements of the moral and immoral. I would look at white collar crime, scams, social acceptability of lying and scamming, and so on…. There is a longing for that small town America where people left their doors unlocked and deals were done on a handshake. I don’t think that we have changed all that much, but our perception of our society has. Maybe more is just known. I do think about this a lot as corruption (is it equivalent to morality?) has ruined many countries and I wonder about how a country rooted in it can make its way out of it. I grew up in Brazil which was very corrupt at the time. The South there is now extremely affluent and part of my theory is that if there is a solid, healthy middle class, there is less need for corruption and a society becomes more moral. Of course, there is always greed which leads to immorality and the problems we have seen here with Wall Street and the lending companies show immoral behavior among the elite of our society.

    Anyway… stuff to chew on.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  3. westomoon wrote:

    Great little piece! I haven’t seen these stats reported anywhere but PI! I am especially heartened by the decline in religious affiliation & church attendance, given the very toxic state of religion these days. But if course that was your point, wasn’t it?

    Rachel, the Rick Santorums of the world see nothing wrong with white-collar crime, cronyism, corruption, and grotesque income inequality. Theirs is a tribal mentality, not to say sociopathic, and they worship wealth per se. Plus, those non-problems are how they’ve gotten rich themselves.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Duckman wrote:

    I have a hard time believing any of them facts

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  5. westomoon wrote:

    Duckman —

    Even though you used the link Mr Knee so thoughtfully provided, read the original piece in The Economist, and used all the links there to get the original sources for the facts you can’t believe? Uh huh, I thought so…

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  6. David Chess wrote:

    Ah, no no, you’re missing the most important parts of morality! The US is rampant with homosexuality, lesbianism, pictures of naked people, wives speaking disrespectfully to their husbands, gambling, tattoos, men with long hair, even NON-PROCREATIONAL SEX!! There are people who aren’t white Christian males in positions of authority! Those are the parts of “morality” that these people are so concerned about…

    Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink