Changing Morals: Are Americans more tolerant? Or losing our moral bearings?

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Changing Morals
Diamond rings on sacred text Wikimedia Commons by Jennifer Dickert

WEDDING BANDS, photographed by Jennifer Dickert and provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans are changing their minds about the acceptability of a wide range of moral issues. Are we becoming more tolerant?

Or, are we losing our way when it comes to firm ideas about right and wrong?

Generally, Americans are shifting “left” on a host of issues, according to Gallup. Consider, for example, attitudes about gay or lesbian relations. In general, do you feel such relations are morally acceptable or morally wrong?

More than six of ten American adults (63%) say that gay or lesbian relations are morally acceptable, according to Gallup’s survey last month. In 2001, only four of ten Americans (40%) said the same thing. That’s a 23 percentage point difference. By survey research standards, that’s a whopping change.

How about the issue of having a baby outside of marriage? Would you say it’s morally acceptable or morally wrong? Today, 61% of Americans say it’s morally acceptable. In 2002, the figure was 45%. The difference is 16 percentage points

How about the issue of sex between an unmarried man and woman—morally acceptable or morally wrong? In 2015, 68% of Americans say it’s morally acceptable, compared to 53% in 2001. This is an increase of 15 percentage points.

These are three of the 16 different issues that Gallup asked about. We’ll talk about the full set of issues this week, but I started today with these three—gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of wedlock, and sex between an unmarried man and woman—because these three experienced the biggest changes over the years.

Have your ideas about the moral acceptability of these three issues changed or stayed the same over time?

What do you make about the general shift to the “left” on so many issues?

Are we becoming more tolerant—or losing our moral bearings?

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Selma: Did Martin Luther King, Jr. love America?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Selma
Still from Selma-the-Movie

CARE TO READ MORE? Film reviewer Edward McNulty gave the movie “Selma” 5 out of 5 stars. Click the photo to read McNulty’s entire review.

This weekend begins the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma to Montgomery marches. I was just a kid then, but I remember the horrific images of Bloody Sunday—the 7th of March, 1965—when hundreds of marchers were stopped, beaten, and tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by police and county posse. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the next two marches, the last one making it to Montgomery under federal protection.

All week we’ll discuss the marches and their effects, but today I want to ask this: Did MLK love America?

I raise this question in part because of recent claims that Obama doesn’t love America. It’s ironic that his patriotism has been called into question on the anniversary of the Selma marches. It began when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a speech that the president “doesn’t love America.” Overall, about a third of all Americans (35%) say Obama doesn’t love America, according to a poll. Republicans are much more likely to say Obama doesn’t love America, while the vast majority of Democrats (85%) say he does.

So, what about Dr. King? Did he love America? The answer depends more on when you ask than who you ask.

In the 1960s, King was one of the most hated figures in America, according to public opinion polls at the time. “A number of survey items asked about King in the mid-sixties show him more reviled than revered,” wrote political scientist Sheldon Appleton in 1995. In fact, King was “one of the most disliked American figures in the age of public opinion polling.”

For example, consider the results from a survey technique called the scalometer. This technique presents a respondent with a 10-point scale ranging from +5 to -5. In 1966, 41% of Americans rated King -5. Almost seven of ten Americans (68%) gave negative ratings.

Twenty years later, a huge shift in public opinion took place. In 1987, 76% of Americans gave King a favorable rating. This favorable rating has held firm. In 2013, for example, a poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 80% of Americans had a favorable view of the great civil rights leader. Almost half had a very favorable view.

I have no doubts that King loved America, and that Obama loves America. They were what I call “critical patriots” in my recent book United America. They see what America should be and can be—and want to the nation to live up to its ideals.

What’s your opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Did he love America?
Does the president?

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OurValues is designed to spark spirited, civil discussion. You’re free to print out these columns and use them in a class or small group. Or, simply talk about this on Facebook or Twitter.

Family Treasures: What prized item tells your family’s story?

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Family Treasures
Family Treasures exercise in a United America discussion series

Just some of the “Family Treasures” we’ve seen in groups discussing “United America.” Click on the photo to see the free activity guide that explains this exercise. You’ll enjoy sharing this idea with friends!

As Americans, we share more than divides us. That’s the message of United America, and the four activity guides that give groups sure-fire ideas to explore the core values that unite us. Last week, we introduced Taste of Home, a group exercise that invites participants to tell family stories behind food traditions.

This week, we introduce Family Treasures, an activity groups are using with the United America book to connect the importance of the 10 core values to family stories about … treasures.

Using the word “treasures” is likely to spark thoughts of treasure hunting. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has been re-made more than three dozen times for radio, TV and movie theaters. PBS’s Antiques Roadshow has been a hit since 1979 because it suggests that anyone might have a valuable treasure gathering dust at home. The idea of finding hidden treasure shows up in stories from the world’s oldest sacred literature—and it fuels customers for state-run lotteries around the world, today.

Along with the American Images and Taste of Home guides, this Family Treasures activity often summons deep emotion. Group leaders have told us about total strangers who have bonded over stories of objects as simple as a grandfather’s “dog tags” or a grandmother’s candy dish, a hard-earned Boy Scout award or a piece of embroidery created with a mentor, a work-worn hammer from an old tool chest or even a seasoned cast-iron fry pan.

We have seen truly precious objects: jewelry, rare stamps, an antique Persian carpet and even a 100-year-old baseball card. And we have heard stories with great emotion spun around objects no one else would even recognize: a chunk of copper ore from a mine or an iron handle from an old wood-burning stove.

This exercise invites surprises!

This week in, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories. So, stay tuned for the next four parts in this five-part series. Perhaps these stories will help you to ponder the stories behind objects in your home.

Perhaps you’ll want to share this series with friends. Now is a perfect time to build interest in starting a discussion series on United America.

Your story is important!

The purpose of the OurValues Project and the United America book is to get Americans talking with each other—friends, neighbors and even total strangers who may enjoy gathering to talk about the values that unite us. That’s a dramatic and refreshing change for a lot of us, these days.

Please, share this week’s series with friends on Facebook or by Email. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them in  your small group to spark discussion. If you have a moment right now, add a comment below.

You can play an important role in building a healthier community.

Hopes for Children: What can kids do in our troubled world?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Hopes for Children
Malala Yousafzai's photo has been added to the colorful exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. This photo was posted to Wilkimedia Commons just hours after her Peace Prize was announced.

Malala Yousafzai’s photo has been added to the colorful exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. This photo was posted to Wilkimedia Commons just hours after her Peace Prize was announced.

What can a child do?

Plenty! That’s the word from the committee giving the next Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

At 17, Malala is the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious prize. (You can read more about Malala and other extraordinary young women this week in our own Interfaith Peacemakers section.)

Children can be heroes—like 12-year-old Kamal Nepali, who rescued a two-year-old girl who had fallen into a gorge carved by the Seti River near Pokhara, Nepal. The child was trapped in a crevice so narrow that adults couldn’t reach her. Kamal was small enough to fit in, and he volunteered to do it. The adults lowered him into the darkness of the crevice, and he emerged later with the girl strapped to his back. (ListVerse magazine has more details about Nepali’s story.)

Pew chart on regions of the world and optimism about children 2014

Click this chart to read more at the Pew website.

From small acts of kindness to extraordinary events, children can do a lot in our troubled world.

Parents around the globe envision a better world for their children, according to new reports from Pew. Many people predict that their children will be better off than their parents.

But this optimism is not spread evenly around the world.

Can you guess which region is the most optimistic about their children’s future? Hands down, it’s Asia. Well over half (58%) of Asians are optimistic about their children’s future. Only 24% are not.

Which region is the most pessimistic? It’s Europe, according to the Pew Research Center. Sixty-five percent of Europeans predict that their children’s future will be bleaker than their parents’ experiences. Only 25% are optimistic about their children’s future.

What can a kid do?

What do you hope kids will achieve?

THIS WEEK’S OurValues series by sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is great for sparking discussion among friends. Please, use our blue-“f” Facebook icons or envelope-shaped email icons to share this column with friends. Or, simply leave a Comment below.

Prayer in School: Can a student write a term paper about prayer?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Officially sanctioned prayers are banned in public schools, including any religious expression in classrooms or graduation ceremonies led by school employees.

But what if a student wants to write about prayer or God in a class assignment? Is this allowable?

I once faced this situation. I teach in a public institution of higher education and so the ban on officially sanctioned religious expression obviously applies. But I had a business-school student ask me if it was okay to write about “God as a business partner” to fulfill a class assignment for a term paper. For example, in some banks, loan officers routinely pray with their clients for good terms on pending mortgage applications. Some companies incorporate religious principles into their business models. Chick-fil-A restaurants, for example, are closed on Sundays.

The student’s proposal might seem like a gray area, but the Department of Education is clear about the answer. Suppose, for example, that an English teacher gives an assignment to write a poem and a student writes a sonnet about prayer. This poem “should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Students are free to “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” The instructor should judge the product solely on “the basis of academic standards.” It cannot be “penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.”

I confess that I didn’t then know all the details of the DOE guidelines, but it was apparent to me at the time that it would be fine for the student to write a term paper about God as a business partner.

Have you faced a similar situation?

Do you agree with DOE’s policy on the expression of religious beliefs in class assignments?

Children’s Values: Is ‘religious faith’ better than ‘tolerance’?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Children's Values
Collage of world religions from Wikimedia Commons

A WIDE ARRAY OF FAITHS: All the world’s faiths are represented in the U.S., these days. (This collage of images comes from Wikimedia Commons.)

Americans have a lot of common ground when it comes to the values we want to teach our children, as we’ve discussed so far this week. But there is also a lot of disagreement.

Consider these two values: “religious faith” and “tolerance.” Is one more important than the other? Or, do we want our children to learn both?

The Pew Research Center asked about 12 different values in their recent survey. Six are widely shared (see Part 2 in this series). Religious faith and tolerance are not among the six. Some Americans emphasize religious faith as a value that is especially important to teach children; others say that tolerance is a more important value.

Americans who are consistently conservative in their views are very likely to stress the importance of religious faith. Over eight of ten (81%) say religious faith is especially important for children to learn, with a majority (59%) ranking it among the most important values. In contrast, consistently liberal Americans say that religious faith is very unimportant for children to learn. Only a quarter (26%) say that is especially important.

We see the opposite pattern for the value of tolerance. Almost nine of ten consistent liberals (88%) say that tolerance is especially important to instill in children, with 22% saying that it is the most important value. In contrast, consistent conservatives are the least likely to say that tolerance is very important for children to learn. Only four in ten (41%) say it is especially important, with 3% saying that it is the most important value for children to have.

Do you believe that it is more important for children to learn religious faith than tolerance?
Or, is tolerance more important than religious faith?
Would you rank them both the same in importance for our children?

Children’s Values: More Common Ground than You Think?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Children's Values
Wayne Baker United America front cover

AMERICANS SHARE MORE VALUES THAN YOU MIGHT THINK. That’s the message drawn from nationwide research that went into my book “United America.” Click on the cover to learn more about this book.

Americans generally agree about several values that are especially important to teach our children. “Being responsible” is #1, as we discussed yesterday. What other values are also widely considered to be essential?

As a reminder, here are the 12 values the Pew Research Center asked about in their recent survey of the nation:

  • Curiosity
  • Religious faith
  • Obedience
  • Tolerance
  • Persistence
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Independence
  • Being well-mannered
  • Helping others
  • Being responsible
  • Hard work

Half of these 12 values are widely considered to be especially important to teach children. After responsibility, “hard work” is part of the common ground. At one end of the political spectrum, 95% of consistently conservative Americans say that hard work is one of the most important values to instill in children, with 44% naming it as the most important. At the other end, 82% of consistently liberal Americans agree, with 26% naming hard works is the most important value.

Large majorities of Americans across political lines also say that “being well-mannered” and “helping others” are among the most important qualities for children to learn.

“Independence” is very important to teach children. At least three of four Americans in every political category—from consistent liberals to consistent conservatives—agree that this value is among the most important.

And, “persistence” is a key value. There is somewhat less support for this value, compared to the other five, but at least six of ten Americans in each political category say persistence is among the most important values to teach our children.

Are you surprised to learn that there is so much common ground when it comes to the values we want our children to have?

Would you put these six values—responsibility, hard work, good manners, helping others, independence, and persistence—at the top of your list?

If not, what values do you consider to be more important?