One of the many problems with our polarized discourse is that we artificially divide ourselves into “liberal” and “conservative” camps.
This not only artificially pits us against each other in destructive ways, it radically simplifies a complex nexus of beliefs and values. Catholic teaching helpfully deconstructs this binary, making moral claims which almost perfectly straddle the imagined liberal/conservative framework used by most of those who control our public discourse.
Among those are, apparently, the writers at Gallup. Their cultural imagination — which apparently comes right out of the 1979 culture wars — dominates analysis of their poll numbers. Somehow, they imagine there is a “conservative” side and a “liberal” side and that views on contested moral issues in the culture must either be one or the other.
Given their commitment to this lens, Gallup’s headline in their most recent poll is “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues.”
But this is a deeply misleading headline.
First of all, Gallup’s slapping moral positions with liberal or conservative labels is problematic. Views on “having a baby outside of marriage,” for instance, are not clearly divided along conservative or liberal lines.
Indeed, many self-identified liberals would say that abortion needs to be legal for just such situations, while many self-identified conservatives would say that is morally required to have such a child instead of having an abortion.
Something similar is true about pornography. Sure, some liberals support porn while some conservatives do not. But there doesn’t seem to be much difference between liberals and conservatives when it comes to consumption of porn, and there is some evidence that conservatives consume even more porn than do liberals.
Furthermore, there has been a strong liberal feminist backlash against porn for decades, and even the country of Iceland recently considered banning online porn based on their liberal values. Interestingly, free speech activists were the most outspoken in criticizing their proposed ban.
There is a similar problem with Gallup’s analysis of physician-assisted suicide. Recently, “liberal” states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland have rejected the practice. The most powerful witnesses against the proposed law changes came from self-identified liberal activists, like disability groups.
Meanwhile, the states that have legalized the practice have come from the more libertarian West, using traditionally “conservative” arguments with strong appeals to freedom, choice, and autonomy trumping concerns of social justice.
But aside from using a wildly imprecise and hopelessly outdated moral lens, there are other problems with Gallup’s analysis of its poll numbers.
One of the numbers that hasn’t moved is support for contraception, basically holding steady within the margin of error: +/- 4 percent. Gallup explains the lack of movement within its narrative by noting that Americans have been very permissive of birth control for some time now.
Interestingly, and despite elite culture (particularly in traditional media and universities) strongly supporting abortion rights for two generations, support for abortion has also consistently stayed within the margin of error.
But unlike contraception, only 43 percent of Americans think that abortion is morally acceptable. Again, especially given that abortion is so consistently promoted in the most influential levels of public discourse, this consistently low number is remarkable.
Another consistently low number in Gallup’s polling is moral support for pornography. It checks in at 36 percent, up only 2 percent beyond the margin for error since the poll started asking the question in 2011.
This is another extraordinary development, especially given the ubiquity of porn in our culture. In 2017 virtually any sex act is available to watch, for free, at the touch of a button. This has not led to our culture being morally comfortable with porn. Far from it: Two in three Americans think porn is immoral.
That said, there has been major movement (for lack of a better way of saying it) to “the left” on some issues. Moral support for gay/lesbian relationships is at 63 percent—up a remarkable 23 percent since 2001. Support for medical testing on non-human animals is down 14 percent. Support for sex outside of marriage is up 16 percent.
But it is clear that the narrative present in Gallup’s interpretation of their poll numbers — that there is some dramatic liberal swing underway in U.S. culture — cannot be defended. American moral attitudes are far more complex and interesting than Gallup’s headlines would have us believe.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.