Poll: Mapping Americans’ Values and Beliefs

The Gallup organization conducts an annual poll on American values and beliefs. From a list of 21 behaviors, they rank what is currently considered morally acceptable and morally wrong.

Here’s a précis:

The three most morally acceptable behaviors are birth control, drinking alcohol and getting a divorce. The least acceptable behaviors are extramarital affairs, cloning humans, suicide and polygamy.

There were some (disturbingly) fascinating comparisons. For example, more people think it is morally wrong to buy or wear clothing made of animal fur than doctor-assisted suicide (euthanasia).

The list also gives insight into what we think makes something immoral. For example, the most reprehensible behavior on the list was having an extramarital affair. Yet the poll also found that birth control, sex between an unmarried man and woman, having a baby outside of marriage, and gay or lesbian relations were morally acceptable. Only sex between teenagers was felt to be wrong. So the heart of the perceived moral affront of an affair is the betrayal of assumed sexual loyalty.

Here’s the full list of results:

Courtesy of Gallup

Perhaps most fascinating of all are the trends the poll reflects, since Gallup conducts this annually and has for many years. It has, as you might guess, shown an increasingly liberal stance on almost every issue.

Based on this year’s findings:

• The percentage of Americans who say buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur is morally acceptable has fallen seven points since last year to 53%, the new historical low for the measure by one point.

• Two of the behaviors—cloning animals and pornography—which hit their high points in moral acceptability last year, have settled back in line with the previous trends.

• Sex between an unmarried man and woman is at its highest point in the Gallup trend, edging up two points to 71%.

• Americans’ views that divorce is morally acceptable have risen 10 points since 2012 to 77% and are currently the highest they have been.

• And finally, ideology matters. When Gallup evaluated the results based on whether someone considered themselves “conservative” vs. “liberal,” the percentages changed dramatically. For example, 81% who self-identify as liberal endorsed gay or lesbian relations, while only 45% of those who considered themselves conservative considered it morally acceptable. That is a difference of 36 percentage points. The most divisive issue ideologically remains abortion, reflecting a difference of 50 percentage points.

One could have wished for more nuance with the questions. Consider abortion—if asked, “Is abortion wrong?”, many would rightly respond, “When?” If the question refers to “late-term abortion,” the number finding it morally unacceptable would surely rise as opposed to those who might find abortions before a heartbeat, or brainwave activity, morally acceptable.

But regardless of drawbacks, it’s a fascinating and important cultural map.

First published on ChurchAndCulture.org. Used by permission.


Megan Brenan, “Birth Control Still Tops List of Morally Acceptable Issues,” Gallup, May 29, 2019, read online.

James Emery White
James Emery Whitehttps://www.churchandculture.org/

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, ‘Hybrid Church:Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age,’ is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.