July 02, 2005

Moral Decay

In the Times today, Peter Steinfels argues that "traditional values" are still very much alive and well in the United States, whatever the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd may think. Around the globe we have "some of the highest levels of religious beliefs, conservative family values, absolute moral standards, national pride and other traditional values." And despite Bill Clinton's master plan to corrupt us all, the nation's become even more traditional:
One question in the World Values Surveys sought to distinguish "absolutists" from "relativists." It asked which of two statements came closer to the respondent's views on good and evil. Were there "absolutely clear guidelines" that "always apply to everyone, whatever the circumstances"? Or can there "never be absolutely clear guidelines," since "what is good and evil depends entirely upon the circumstances"?

By this measure, Americans were evenly split between absolutists and relativists in 2000, a significant change from 1981, when 60 percent fell into the relativist category. (It was possible to disagree with both options, which surprisingly few Americans did.) Again, America had far more absolutists than all but 17 of the 79 nations surveyed, and those 17 were all low-income or developing countries.

This 50-50 split is at least one sign of polarization. Yet it turns out that the division between absolutists and relativists, while modestly linked to religion, is only loosely coupled to attitudes on concrete issues, apart from abortion.
So why such a "widespread impression" that America's losing its traditional values, and why does the nation seems so deeply divided over the fact? Professor Wayne Baker has this odd explanation:
The author tosses out a lot of ideas. As guides to personal conduct, for instance, the nation's traditional values in fact collide with its values of self-expression. The tension caused by this odd national mix of values seems to provoke a high incidence of pondering the meaning and purpose of life, which Americans, believe it or not, do at rates higher than the people of virtually all other nations. Hence, the atmosphere of crisis.
Very intriguing! But he could also just blame the opinion peddlers on television. That and the apparently pressing need for James Dobson, Ralph Reed, and Tony Perkins to raise millions and millions of dollars by riling up their supporters. Works for me.
-- Brad Plumer 10:32 PM || ||