Madonna's Dilemma: Survey Shows America in Cultural, Spiritual Confusion

When even Madonna worries aloud about her daughter dressing like, well, Madonna, something's up.

America is in the midst of a cultural struggle over values, and it's useful to know what is behind it and what people actually believe. That's why the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center, commissioned a major survey on American cultural values.  We are unveiling the results this week in a Special Report:  “America: A Nation in Moral and Spiritual Confusion.”

The most striking findings are: 1) a majority of Americans across the board (74 percent) believe that America has suffered a moral decline in the past 20 years; and 2) a majority (64 percent) believes that the news and entertainment media are a major influence in that decline.

Another important finding is that America is divided into three groups based on their views on religion in everyday life.  We have named these groups the Orthodox, the Progressives and the Independents.

The Orthodox, who generally believe in traditional religion and morality, constitute 31 percent of the public.  They tend to see moral issues in black and white, right vs. wrong. The Progressives, who tend to be highly secularized and morally relativistic, constitute 17 percent.  The Independents, who tend to side with the Orthodox on sexual moral questions but side with the Progressives on questions of day-to-day morality, constitute the bulk of the American public at 46 percent.

The major dividing line is not belief in God; 87 percent of Americans say they believe in God, while only 8 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics.

The real story is whether people place God's authority above their own moral compass. Although 52 percent of Americans say they believe that the Bible is God's authoritative Word, only 36 percent (including 92 percent of the Orthodox) believe that people should live by God's principles. Another 45 percent say they combine God's principles with their own, and 15 percent (including 77 percent of Progressives) say they will ignore God's principles if they conflict with their own. Since we don't know whether Madonna was in our survey group, we can only guess that she fits into one of the latter two categories, in which, when push comes to shove, people devise their own moral system to accommodate their behavior.

The Orthodox most consistently apply Biblical principles on key moral and social issues and even personal conduct. The Orthodox place more value on truthfulness than the other groups. All groups say they value virtues such as thrift, industry, charity and honesty, but when it comes to personal conduct, striking differences emerge. Mirroring the results of a recent Syracuse University study, the CMI poll found that the Orthodox are far more personally charitable than the Progressives, with 31 percent of Progressives reporting that they gave no time or money to charity last year, contrasted with 7 percent of Orthodox and 15 percent of Independents.

On some honesty questions, Progressives were more likely to be dishonest for personal benefit rather than do the right thing. For example, asked if they would inform a waiter that an item had been left off a check or just go ahead and pay the smaller amount, 85 percent of the Orthodox said they would inform the waiter. Only 52 percent of the Progressives say they would do that, along with 66 percent of the Independents. On a question of whether to collect unemployment while working, only 21 percent of the Orthodox say they would do so, as opposed to 49 percent of the Progressives and 36 percent of the Independents.

On sexual issues, the gulf between the Orthodox and the Progressives widened, with Independents tending to side with the Orthodox. While 90 percent of the Orthodox believe that sex among high school kids is “always wrong,” only 33 percent of Progressives think so, with 54 percent of Progressives saying that it “depends on the situation,” and another 11 percent saying that it is “never wrong.” Only 3 percent of the Independents say it is “never wrong,” while 65 percent say that it is “always wrong.”

More differences crop up on homosexuality issues, with 83 percent of Orthodox saying that homosexuality “is always wrong,” contrasted with only 15 percent of Progressives, and 39 percent of Independents. On the same-sex “marriage” issue, an overall 61 percent of Americans oppose legalizing it, with 88 percent of Orthodox, 59 percent of Independents and only 20 percent of Progressives favoring keeping marriage for man-woman couples.

There's more. The survey breaks down the groups demographically, politically and in terms of religious belief. Any way you slice it, it appears that America is rife with deep, visceral divisions, with the most basic dividing line being how people view God and God's authority.

Whether America can continue to be a self-governing republic of responsible citizens may well rest on whose values will prevail and whether the entertainment and news media will continue to exhibit hostility to Orthodox morality, thus creating more moral ambivalence.

Perhaps Madonna is not the only show business personality to get a wake up call where it counts most – in her family life. Americans should insist that Hollywood, which leans heavily Progressive, tries to be more representative of most Americans' views, including those of the Orthodox.

For a full copy of National Cultural Values Survey: America: A Nation in Moral and Spiritual Confusion, go to /specialreports/pdf/NationalCulturalValues.pdf,

Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Media Research Center.