Social Issues

U.S. Religious Groups Disagree on Five Key Moral Issues

U.S. Religious Groups Disagree on Five Key Moral Issues
by Jeffrey M. Jones

Story Highlights

  • Jews, nonreligious tend to be most liberal on morality
  • Catholics say out-of-wedlock births, gay-lesbian relations moral
  • Only Mormons view premarital sex, gambling as immoral

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Americans' religious faith greatly shapes their views of whether moral issues or practices are acceptable or not. In general, Jews and those with no religious preference are more liberal than Protestants, Catholics and Mormons in their views on various moral issues. These differences are most apparent on abortion and, to a lesser extent, doctor-assisted suicide and animal cloning. Catholics join with Jews and nonreligious Americans in saying gay-lesbian relations and out-of-wedlock births are morally OK.

Moral Issues on Which Major U.S. Religious Group Disagree
Percentage saying each is "morally acceptable"
No religion Jewish Catholic Protestant Mormon
% % % % %
Abortion 73 76 38 33 18
Doctor-assisted suicide 77 73 47 43 30
Cloning animals 50 50 33 28 33
Gay-lesbian relations 83 85 62 41 28
Having a baby outside of marriage 80 68 59 47 25
Note: Gay-lesbian relations based on 2005-2016 data
2001-2016 Gallup Values and Beliefs polls

Jews and those with no religious preferences have virtually identical views on the morality of abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, gay-lesbian relations and cloning animals. Jews are somewhat less likely than nonreligious Americans to believe having a baby outside of marriage is moral, 68% to 80%.

Mormons, Protestants and Catholics believe that abortion, doctor-assisted suicide and cloning animals are not morally acceptable practices. Mormons are more conservative than Protestants and Catholics on abortion, gay-lesbian relations, doctor-assisted suicide and out-of-wedlock births, but not on cloning animals.

These are five of 16 moral issues tested each year in Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted each May since 2001. As part of that survey, Gallup asks Americans to say whether a list of items dealing with sexuality, marriage, end-of-life issues, among others, are "morally acceptable" or "morally wrong."

The combined 2001 to 2016 samples yield enough data -- more than 16,000 total interviews -- to provide reliable estimates on the views of Jews and Mormons, each representing 2% of the U.S. adult population, as well as the larger groups of Protestants, Catholics and those with no religion.

The 16 issues that Gallup has included in the poll consistently since 2001 can be categorized into three groups: those on which there is disagreement among multiple religious groups, those on which the major U.S. religious groups broadly agree and those on which Mormons diverge from all other groups.

The estimates reported here represent an average of opinion since 2001. On most of these moral issues, Americans' views have shifted in a more liberal direction over the last 15 years, with the greatest change in views of the morality of gay-lesbian relations, premarital sex and having a baby outside of marriage. As a result, the 2001-2016 estimates show a slightly lower percentage believing certain issues are morally acceptable than is the case today. There has been no meaningful change in the views of all Americans on these issues between last year and this year.

Broad Agreement on Whether Many Moral Practices Are Acceptable or Wrong

Although it is the case that Jews and nonreligious Americans are more liberal on most moral issues, they do fall on the same side of the morally acceptable/morally wrong debate as Protestants, Catholics and Mormons on eight of the 16 issues included in the analysis. A majority in each of the five major U.S. religious groups agree that the death penalty, divorce, medical testing on animals and wearing clothing made of animal fur are morally acceptable. And a majority in all groups agree that extramarital affairs, polygamy, suicide and cloning humans are morally wrong.

Moral Issues on Which Major U.S. Religious Groups Generally Agree
Percentage saying each is "morally acceptable"
No religion Jewish Catholic Protestant Mormon
% % % % %
Divorce 86 86 69 61 55
Death penalty 62 54 61 66 79
Wearing clothing made of animal fur 57 63 57 61 67
Medical testing on animals 54 63 61 60 63
Suicide 36 38 12 11 8
Cloning humans 22 15 10 7 6
Polygamy 26 18 7 6 8
Extramarital affair 14 17 6 5 6
2001-2016 Gallup Values and Beliefs polls

There is broad agreement among the religious groups that divorce is morally acceptable, but Mormons are the least likely to say this, at 55%. Just shy of nine in 10 Jewish and nonreligious Americans believe divorce is OK. Jews, on the other hand, are least likely to say the death penalty is morally acceptable (54%), while Mormons (79%) are most likely to believe it is. The five groups show little variation in their views of the morality of medical testing on animals and wearing clothes made from animal fur.

Jews and those with no religion are also more likely than the other religious groups to see suicide, cloning humans, polygamy and extramarital sex as morally acceptable.

Mormons Distinct on Morality of Premarital Sex, Gambling

On three other moral issues -- premarital sex, gambling and stem cell research -- Mormons are alone in saying the practices are not morally acceptable. The percentage of Mormons believing stem cell research is moral falls just under the majority threshold at 46%. Mormons are far less likely to condone gambling (37%) and premarital sex (29%).

Moral Issues on Which Mormons Disagree With Other Major U.S. Religious Groups
Percentage saying each is "morally acceptable"
No religion Jewish Catholic Protestant Mormon
% % % % %
Gambling 81 81 74 56 37
Premarital sex 88 83 68 50 29
Stem cell research 78 85 60 54 46
2001-2016 Gallup Values and Beliefs polls

Jews and nonreligious Americans are more liberal than Protestants and Catholics on these three issues. A solid majority of Catholics believe each is morally acceptable, while at or slightly more than half of Protestants agree.

Implications

The United States is one of the more religious western nations, and Americans' religious identity influences the way they view matters of morality. The Mormon religion and many Protestant faiths promote strict moral codes that frown on abortion and out-of-wedlock births, with those values mostly endorsed by adherents of those religions. Catholic Church doctrine also instructs Catholics how to think about moral issues, but American Catholics' views on many moral issues, including premarital sex, the death penalty and gay-lesbian relations, do not reflect the church's positions. Nevertheless, Catholics tend to be more conservative on morality than those with no religion and Jewish Americans.

Trends in U.S. religious identification -- particularly the increasing percentage of Americans without a religious preference -- have occurred at the same time as the movement toward more liberal attitudes on moral issues over the last 15 years. The explanations for both of these trends is most likely complex, having to do with genuine cultural shifts, differences in what survey respondents are willing to tell interviewers, demographic changes and other factors. Whatever the reasons behind these trends, it is probably more likely that they will continue in the same direction, with fewer Americans being religious and more espousing liberal views on morality, than that these trends will reverse course in the future.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on combined telephone interviews in Gallup's 2001 through 2016 annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted each May with random samples of U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of 16,754 national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the total sample of 9,161 Protestants, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the total sample of 3,893 Catholics, the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the total sample of 438 Jews, the margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the total sample of 295 Mormons, the margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For results based on the total sample of 1,915 adults with no religious preference, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.


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