Most American parents display an optimism about their children living in a richer, more technologically advanced world and as they grow, that they'll be healthier with a longer life expectancy. All that said, there's also a remarkable pessimism about the moral decline they are bequeathing to the next generation.
A new cultural-values survey of 2,000 American adults performed by the polling firm of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates for the Culture and Media Institute reveals a strong majority, 74 percent, believes moral values in America are weaker than they were 20 years ago. Almost half, 48 percent, agree that values are much weaker than they were 20 years ago.
Why the pessimism? Is the answer right in front of them, in their own children, or their children's friends? Or is the answer more indirect, gleaned from staring at the popular culture? For most, a major leading indicator of moral decline is the media. Clearly, Americans look into their television sets, and are getting a high-definition dose of Hollywood's take on values. Fully 68 percent of Americans in the survey said the media are having a detrimental effect on moral values in America.
Americans place heavier blame on the entertainment media, but they blame the news media as well, with its emphasis on sex, violence, and ditzy head-shaving celebrities. Why do even supposedly serious news outlets devote hours of air time to airheads like Paris Hilton, whose ticket to fame was her old-wealth surname and her talent on "private" sex tapes?
The agreement is remarkable across political and religious subsets. Not only do 73 percent believe the entertainment media has a negative effect on America's commitment to moral values, that's a sentiment shared by Republicans (86 percent) and Democrats (68 percent); conservatives (80 percent) and liberals (64 percent), even religious types identified as orthodox (82 percent) and mostly secular progressives (62 percent).
Many worry every time a popular show like NBC's "Heroes" threatens to show a mutilated corpse or someone getting the top of their skull sawed off. Many are saddened by grotesque Comedy Central attempts to mock God in 735 creative ways. On the new series by "comedienne" Sarah Silverman, the audience was treated to Silverman having a one-night stand with God. When she wakes up the next morning disgusted with the deity, she tells him she has to help a friend move, and ultimately knees him in the groin when he tries to extend the relationship. People ask: What have we done to deserve gratuitous programming like this?
The media are a major influence on shaping our cultural values, and America knows it. Almost two-thirds of the people surveyed (64 percent) agree the media are an important factor in the culture. It sometimes seems almost impossibly pervasive and immune to complaints as they cross every new frontier of excess.
But they're reasonable in knowing that the media is ultimately not the most important factor. Good parents can be a much more direct moral influence than the TV or the multiplex or the radio. Of those who are asked who is most responsible for moral decline among young people, 57 percent of the people surveyed blamed parents and families first, and only 21 percent blame the media first. Parents need to be a gatekeeper to children's entertainment, to guide them through its treacherous passages, and not merely let them hitch-hike along the road alone.
Parents also need to go beyond teaching morality to living morally. Sadly, this cultural survey shows that while Americans have a great consensus on the importance of classic virtues like truthfulness, thrift, industry, and charity, they often fail to follow through. America is becoming more situational in its everyday ethics. One-fourth or one-third of survey recipients admitted they would cheat on restaurant checks, tax returns, and breaking laws they considered outdated or if no one gets hurt.
America needs a people who do not merely talk about the public virtues, but embrace them with passion and humility. Reversing America's moral decline isn't just about the media. It's a daily fight in millions of homes and in billions of daily ethical situations. How much progress could we make by just trying harder to live the virtues so many of us profess to hold dear?