Which National Principles Keep America Strong?

by George H. Gallup Jr.
Senior Staff Writer

Third article in a three-part series

If the American people were to vote in a national referendum on how best to keep America strong, it is likely that there would be solid and widespread agreement that "honesty in government" is of paramount importance. Such is the conviction of huge and almost equal majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

According to an August to September 2003 Gallup Poll*, 94% of U.S. adults said "honesty in government" is "very important" to keeping the nation strong -- the highest-scoring item of the 16 tested. Second on the list was "civility and mutual respect," which 90% of Americans declared to be very important. The same percentage, 90%, said that requiring "all children to be able to read and speak English" is very important to keeping America strong.

Moral and Ethical Standards

The high priority that respondents attach to such concepts as honesty and civility, especially relative to items that are more related to knowledge (e.g., "knowledge of the history of the U.S.") or participation (e.g., "a high level of voting in local elections"), is indicative of the connection Americans draw between ethics and the strength of the nation.

A May 2003 Gallup survey revealed that 77% of Americans believe that the state of moral values in the United States is "poor" or "only fair," and Americans are nearly three times as likely to say moral values in the United States are getting worse (67%) than better (24%). In the more recent survey, Gallup asked respondents if they felt that various institutions or influences in society are currently doing a good job, a fair job, or a poor job in raising the moral and ethical standards of the nation.

In the eyes of Americans, none of the institutions tested are doing a good job at raising the nation's moral and ethical standards. Topping the list is "the church or religious leaders" with a 29% "good job" rating, followed by "newspapers" (22%), "Congress" (16%), "advertising" (14%), "role models in the news" (14%), "television" (13%), "big business" (10%), and "movies" (10%).

A comparison of the latest findings to findings from a 1994 Gallup survey offers some encouraging signs. The 2003 numbers show an increase over 1994 in the percentages of people saying that Congress, television, movies, and newspapers are doing a "good job" of raising moral and ethical standards in the country. The scores for others on the list -- advertising, role models, and big business -- have remained stable. The only institution receiving a significantly lower score in 2003 is "the church or religious leaders" -- probably a reflection of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Regardless of the kind of job they think these institutions have been doing in raising America's moral and ethical standards, Gallup also asked respondents how much they think each institution could positively influence the moral and ethical standards of the nation.

It is clear that Americans believe that all of these institutions have significant potential to positively influence the country's moral and ethical standards -- far more potential than any of them are currently taking advantage of. The greatest differential occurs in people's views of television: Only 13% of Americans think that television is currently doing a good job raising moral and ethical standards in this country, but 69% feel that it could have a great deal of influence in this area.

Bottom Line

Americans have a strong conviction that honesty in government and civility in society are at the heart of a strong America, but they don't seem to think that major institutions in the United States -- such as Congress, the television/movie industry, big business, and the church -- are doing as much as they could to promote this high moral standard.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,008 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 28 through Sept. 15, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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