The Shifting Moral Tide

June 1, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 10.25.13 AMA couple of weeks ago, it was the Pew Foundation’s report on the decline of those who self-identify as “Christian” that left the faithful rattled. Last week, Gallup published survey on Americans’ moral attitudes that, once again, shook Christians. Gallup reports:

Americans are more likely now than in the early 2000s to find a variety of behaviors morally acceptable, including gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and sex between an unmarried man and woman. Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record-high level.[1]

In the scope of fifteen years, the percentage of people who believe gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable has gone up 23 percent. 61 percent of people now believe having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable compared to 45 percent fifteen years ago. Support for polygamy has more than doubled: only 7 percent believed it was morally acceptable 15 years ago compared to 16 percent today. And the case for doctor-assisted suicide is gaining traction. 56 percent of people now find it morally credible. According to this report, only two issues have seen their moral favorability decline over the past fifteen years. Fewer people now believe the death penalty and medical testing on animals are morally acceptable.

In some ways, this survey is merely a lagging indicator of a moral revolution that has already taken place. Frank Newport, who wrote the article on Gallup’s findings, explains:

Americans are becoming more liberal on social issues, as evidenced not only by the uptick in the percentage describing themselves as socially liberal, but also by their increasing willingness to say that a number of previously frowned-upon behaviors are morally acceptable.

Notice that Newport explicitly locates the change in Gallup’s poll in what people are willing to say. This poll does not measure what people may have already believed. If our own president is any indication, people may believe something is morally acceptable long before they are willing to publicly admit it, especially when what they believe is controversial.

So what are we to make of this tide of evolving moral sentiment? If this poll is indeed a lagging indicator of what people already believe and how people are already living, I would suggest this survey represents as much of a human desire for catharsis as it does a shifting of the moral tide. After all, when people do not live up to a given moral standard – which has been happening for a long time – they have two options. First, they can bring their lives into alignment with the moral standard in question. Second, they can bring the moral standard in question into alignment with the way they are already living. Option one is challenging because it demands change and effort. Option two is cathartic because it makes people feel better about what they’re already doing. This, I suspect, plays a large part in why so many are so willing to shift their standards. They don’t want to feel bad because their lives don’t measure up to a given moral standard, so they just change the standard so it no longer makes them feel guilty. Our shifting moral standards have become therapeutic comforts.

There is, of course, a third option for morality and life. This option admits our lives will never measure up to any moral standard – at least not any moral standard worth having – and so the way to address our shortfalls and shortcomings is not by shifting moral standards, but by repentance. This is the way of the cross. And this is the way our world needs.

We can try to live up to transcendent moral standards, but we will always fail. We can try to change transcendent moral standards, but history will only mark us as deluded. So we must repent. And we must be forgiven. Because forgiveness is what we need – even when it’s forgiveness for when we immorally shift our moral standards.

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[1] Frank Newport, “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues,” Gallup.com (5.26.2015)

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