How To Live a Moral Life: New Poll Shows Who Americans Trust as Moral Exemplars

large family

There has been much in the news in recent years about the “decline of the American family.” Various factors, from a rise in single-parent homes to an increase in latchkey children, suggest that moms and dads are having less influence in the lives of their children, while various online platforms have been credited for filling the void—but not necessarily to the benefit of the children.

However, the recently released Deseret News "Faith in America Survey," conducted by The Marist College Poll, actually has some very positive findings about the family and its influence; findings that are both surprising and hopeful.

When it comes to who Americans look to as their “moral exemplars,” it will be no surprise to readers that it isn’t politicians. Indeed, 74 percent of Americans polled expressed concern that the nation’s moral compass might be pointed in the wrong direction, and only 16percent indicated that they trust politicians as exemplars of morality. But more surprising is the poll’s finding that only about 12 percent of Americans trust social media “influencers” to guide their moral choices; and even fewer trust their favorite athletes or television celebrities. Perhaps the “influencers” aren’t as “influential” as we thought.

So, who do Americans say they look to and trust as their “moral exemplars”? Well, believe it or not, it’s their family—that institution we’re so often told is in “decline.” 79 percent of Americans polled reported that their family is their most trusted source for moral guidance. Even among those who do not practice religion, 74 percent still feel that their family is the source to turn to for moral direction. While it is no surprise that 90 percent of religious Americans also trust in the teachings of their personal faith-tradition for moral guidance, what’s surprising is that 63 percent of those who do not practice a religion still look to religious teachings for guidance on how to live a moral life.

What does all of this mean for politicians, social media influencers, churches, and families? Well, there are probably several lessons which can be drawn from the data in this newly released poll.

When it comes to politicians and influencers, I’m reminded of a comment made by the renowned Chinese sage, Confucius, who indicated that “leaders” cannot lead if the people do not have “confidence” in them. He spoke of the need for those who wish to be ‘influencers’ to “set themselves right” before they seek to influence the lives of others. (See The Confucian Analects 13:6) Clearly, Americans surveyed see evidence in the lives of many public figures—particularly politicians and “influencers”—of things which do not evidence mortal fortitude and, thus, Americans have become dismissive of the very people who could and perhaps should be influential (from a moral perspective).

As it pertains to the leaders of the various faith-traditions in the United States—Christian and non-Christian alike—the poll revealed that the ideas taught in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples ranked fairy high (in helping practitioners to live moral lives), but only about 57 percent of those polled felt that their local clergy were a good example to look to for moral guidance. Additionally, only about 45 percent felt that well-known national or international religious leaders were a trusted source for that same kind of guidance. Consequently, the poll does seem to suggest that, while people trust the teachings of the Church, they don’t always trust the teacher. Thus, priests, pastors, imams, and rabbis may wish to consider what about their public persona has caused their parishioners to have some measure of hesitancy in viewing them as moral exemplars. Scandals of the past may have unfairly tarnished the images of leaders in the present. Nonetheless, a little introspection is always healthy.

Finally, the poll shows that organized religion is less influential in the lives of GenZennials than it is in the lives of older generations. Perhaps part of that is due to the institutional loss of exemplary morality. Regardless, one thing from the poll is certain; more emphasis on the family is needed. Knowing that families are the most influential source of moral exemplars in the lives of Americans, Churches might wish to consider putting greater emphasis and even resources into strengthening the family, teaching about the importance of family, and ministering to families in crisis. In doing so, not only will the family potentially see a resurgence in its strength and place in the nation, but religious institutions and their leadership may regain some of their lost stature as moral exemplars. In the end, this may be one of the best ways to apply the biblical directive, “Pure and undefiled religion before the God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their tribulation; to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27 BLB)

4/5/2022 9:22:05 PM
  • featured writer
  • About