April 24, 2018

It turns out Barack Obama was not the only one who wanted to fundamentally transform American society. A new survey by the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) shows that a large majority of the nation’s adults have radically redefined moral behavior related to family matters – and it appears that they are not finished making such changes.

When a national random sample of 1,000 adults was asked about the morality of eight family-related behaviors, large majorities of the public claimed that five of those behaviors are acceptable – either because they are “morally acceptable” or that they do not even qualify as moral issues (i.e., that choice is a matter of personal preference, there is no right or wrong position related to the behavior).

The five behaviors deemed acceptable by most U.S. adults included:

  • using pills or medical devices for birth control – acceptable to 86%
  • getting a divorce – acceptable to 77%
  • sexual intercourse between unmarried male and female adults – acceptable to 71%
  • having a baby without being married – acceptable to 69%
  • intentionally looking at pictures or videos that display nudity or explicit sexual behavior – acceptable to 58%

In addition, about half of the nation (48%) said that having an abortion is acceptable.

The only pair of family-related behaviors evaluated in the survey that smaller proportions of the public approved of were being married to more than one person at the same time (i.e., polygamy), which was endorsed by 28%; and physically or emotionally intimidating or aggressively dominating someone, deemed appropriate by 23%.

George Barna, who directed the research project for ACFI, noted that at least 15% and as much as 40% of adults do not consider behaviors such as divorce, abortion, and unmarried sexual intercourse to be moral issues. In other words, there are no cultural or religious boundaries that dictate whether such behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate; those behaviors are simply a reflection of individual preferences. For the eight measures examined in the research, an average of one-quarter of all adults (25%) said those behaviors are not moral issues. One-third or more of the public considers divorce, birth control, and having a baby outside of marriage to be amoral decisions.

Born Agains Differ

The survey revealed that born again Christians – identified as those who claim to be Christian and who believe that after they die they will spend eternity with God in Heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior – were distinct on most of the measures from the segment that is not born again. (These people were not categorized as born again based on self-identification as such.)

For seven of the eight behaviors explored, born again Christians were substantially different in their perspective from those who are not born again. The one issue for which there was consensus was the use of pills or devices to facilitate birth control. Both segments had an identical point-of-view on that issue, with close to nine out of ten adults endorsing that behavior.

For each of the other seven behaviors, however, born again Christians were much more likely to embrace a more traditional, biblical moral perspective. Even so, a majority of the born again adults deemed half of the eight behaviors to be acceptable: using birth control (87%), getting a divorce (66%), having a baby without being married (54%), and sexual relations between unmarried adults (51%). In addition, about four out of ten born again adults believe that viewing pornography is acceptable (38%).

Other Faith-Based Distinctions

The survey underscored that even though traditional faith measures – such as church attendance, Bible reading, praying, donating money to churches, and sharing the gospel – are on the decline, the presence of a religious faith in peoples’ lives, regardless of what faith it is, makes a considerable difference related to moral perspectives.

About one out of five Americans is a religious skeptic – agnostic, atheist, or indifferent to religion. Even though self-professed Christians have significant differences from people aligned with non-Christian faiths on matters of morality, both of those faith-inclined segments have much larger differences with the Skeptics.

Skeptics constitute the fastest-growing faith segment in America. While the growth of that segment was initiated among Millennials – 29% of whom are currently Skeptics – in recent years the expansion of the segment has largely been among older adults. Even among adults who are 65 or older – a group that has been staunchly Christian for decades – one out of every seven (14%) is now in the Skeptic category.

Clearly, being a Skeptic is about more than just ditching church services or religious labels. The moral perspectives of Skeptics are far different from those of most Americans. Overall, Skeptics believe that six of the eight behaviors evaluated are acceptable, with a majority of the segment describing only polygamy and domination as morally unacceptable behaviors. (Regarding those two outliers, it is noteworthy that a large minority – more than four out of ten Skeptics – deem polygamy to be an acceptable choice.)

People of faith (Christian or otherwise) differed substantially from Skeptics regarding pornography (acceptable to 78% of Skeptics, 52% of people of faith); abortion (67% vs. 42%, respectively); sexual intercourse between unmarried adults (90% vs. 66%); and having a baby without being married (87% vs. 64%).

The survey also found that Protestants and Catholics have substantial differences regarding half of the behaviors evaluated. For each of those, Catholics were significantly more accepting of the behavior than were Protestants. Catholics were more likely to endorse viewing pornography, getting a divorce, sex between unmarried adults, and giving birth outside of marriage.

Generational Differences

Surprisingly, the differences in moral views are not as substantial across generations as might be expected – and some of the positions taken by particular generations may not be what would be anticipated.

Millennials emerged as the generation most likely to accept intentionally viewing pornography (66%) and intimidating or aggressively dominating someone (32%). They were the least likely adults to accept using a birth control mechanism, although four out of five felt such pills or devices are acceptable.

Baby Busters (a/k/a Gen X) joined Millennials in being among the most likely to accept polygamy (more than one-third of each segment embraced having multiple marital partners) and were nearly as comfortable as Millennials with accepting pornography.

Baby Boomers and their predecessors (sometimes labeled Elders) were the generations least accepting of intentional viewing of pornography.

The Elders (adults age 75 or older) were the most likely to accept birth control (91%) and divorce (84%). They were the least likely to accept having a child outside of marriage (59%), aggressively intimidating or dominating someone (14%), and polygamy (13%).

There were no significant differences across generations related to their acceptance of abortion and sexual intercourse between unmarried adults.

Other Gaps Worth Noting

The survey results indicated that there were only a few differences between the three major racial and ethnic groups in America, as well. Those gaps were:

  • White adults (89%) were more likely than Hispanic (82%) or black adults (70%) to accept the use of pills or medical devices to facilitate birth control
  • People of color were equally likely to embrace polygamy, and did so more often than did white respondents (34% among Hispanics, 33% of blacks, 25% among whites)
  • Black adults were most likely to accept the physical or emotional domination of someone (35%), followed by Hispanics (29%), and whites (20%).

The Ideological Divide

Political conservatives were massively different in their moral views from those who are politically liberal. The gap between the two segments was twenty percentage points or more in relation to half of the eight items examined. Among the highlights of those differences were:

  • Two-thirds of liberals (68%) argued that having an abortion was acceptable while less than one-quarter of conservatives (23%) did so. True to form, half of all political moderates (50%) embraced that behavior.
  • More than four out of five liberals (83%) accepted sexual relations between consenting unmarried adults, compared to acceptance of that behavior by only half of conservatives (50%). Three-quarters of moderates (75%) accept the behavior as reasonable.
  • Four out of five liberals (80%) said having a baby without marriage involved was acceptable. This dwarfed the 49% of conservatives who held that position, with nearly three-quarters of moderates (72%) concurring.
  • Nearly half of the liberals (44%) condoned polygamy, compared to far fewer of both conservatives (16%) and moderates (26%).
  • Two-thirds of liberals (68%) and almost as many moderates (61%) accepted pornography as reasonable behavior, but a minority of conservatives (41%) followed suit.

SAGE Cons – the Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservatives who were instrumental in the election of Donald Trump – were the most unique political segment of all. Comprised of committed Christians who are well-informed about public issues, engaged with politics, and hold conservative views, the niche was much less likely than any other political segment to approve of six of the eight behaviors assessed. For instance, less than one out of ten SAGE Cons approved of polygamy or intimidation; only one-eighth of them approved of viewing pornography or having an abortion; and roughly one-quarter of them approved of unmarried sexual relations and having a child without marriage.

About the Research

The research described in this report is drawn from FullView™, a monthly nationwide survey with a randomly-selected sample of adults, age 18 or older, whose demographic profile reflects that of the adult population. This analysis is based on an online survey conducted among 1,000 U.S. adults in March of 2018.

Survey Definitions

Millennials: people born between 1984 and 2002.

Gen X/Baby Busters: people born between 1965 and 1983.

Baby Boomers: people born between 1946 and 1964.

Elders: people born before 1946.

Born again Christians are people who consider themselves to be Christian and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. In ACFI surveys being classified as a born again Christian is NOT based on describing oneself as “born again” and it is not based on church attendance or denominational affiliation.

About ACFI and Its Research

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with biblical principles. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.