The Economist recently featured a study explaining how public opinion in the United States evolves over time.
The study found that most shifts in public opinion were not due to individuals changing their minds. Instead, the differences were a result of generational replacement – public opinion shifting as younger, more liberal generations replace older ones.
The Economist piece shows that moral change, in general, is caused by a shifting demography. The old saying holds true that “demography is destiny.”
Notably, there are two outliers to this trend.
Support for legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage has increased mainly because individuals have changed their minds.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that Americans of all generations have changed their views on marijuana legalization. Millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers, and the silent generation increased their support for legalizing marijuana between 1969 and 2018.
The same is true of same-sex marriage. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that support for same-sex unions increased among every generation between 2001 and 2019.
Sociologists Landon Schnabel and Eric Sevell noted that American support for the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage in 2017 was nearly as high as the support for President Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984.
What are the forces that have radically changed Americans’ morals in a single lifetime?
Some social changes are instigated by government. For instance, Brown v. Board of Education was a catalyst for desegregation, not the other way around.
Additionally, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal despite many states’ support for abortion restrictions. Instead of leaving states to decide abortion laws, the Supreme Court imposed a national abortion policy.
Federal legalization of same-sex marriage and state-level marijuana legalization have been won through a different channel. Highly successful media and propaganda campaigns have normalized these issues and changed public perception.
Advocacy groups sought to frame same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization as issues of individual autonomy. But before Americans would accept these as individual choices, advocates had to normalize issues that were once considered morally reprehensible.
The news media changed public perception about marijuana use. News coverage of marijuana shifted from focusing on crime and abuse to almost exclusively medical-related coverage.
A February 2019 study published in Social Science Research tracked coverage of marijuana in The New York Times from 1983 to 2016. Researchers found that over approximately thirty years, the newspaper’s coverage of crime and drug abuse related to marijuana declined significantly.
By the time Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2012, there were only three mentions of marijuana related to crime and drug abuse in a two-year period.
Allen St. Pierre, the Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said that the effort for marijuana legalization has mimicked strategies of social movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights. Pierre told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2015, “We’ve used science and language to cajole, persuade and effectively win what is called in the military a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.”
Advocates of marijuana legalization did not win over the American public with statistics or logical arguments. The media’s portrayal of marijuana as medicine subtly changed Americans’ hearts and minds.
Entertainment media transformed Americans’ views on same-sex marriage.
Before 2000, same-sex marriage was losing in the courts. In 1972, a same-sex couple sued the State of Minnesota and the court dismissed the appeal in a single sentence: “The appeal is dismissed for want of substantial federal question.”
As late as 1990, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an LGBT rights organization, declined to represent three same-sex couples who filed lawsuits after they were refused marriage licenses in Hawaii.
In June 2005, ten advocacy groups for same-sex marriage met and drafted a new strategy. Instead of logical appeals, they would seek to normalize same-sex relationships in the media.
As journalist Molly Ball wrote in The Atlantic, “The message gay-marriage campaigners had been using – an appeal to reason that enumerated the benefits of marriage that were being denied to gay people – wasn’t persuasive at all.”
Gay marriage advocacy groups shifted strategies and sought to convince the public that same-sex couples were trying to join – not change – the institution of marriage.
Advocacy groups sought to normalize same-sex couples in the media using a couple of strategies. They found they could relate to straight audiences by featuring straight people telling stories about their gay relatives. When they did feature gay people, they chose older lesbian women as messengers because they appeared the least subversive.
Researcher Marco Morini wrote in the European Journal of American Studies, “[Gay marriage] was a campaign of ‘normalization’ which worked on people’s perceptions, not of transformation/liberalization of social mores.”
On Monday, The Daily Citizen reported that advocacy groups have successfully pressured Hollywood to increase the number of LGBT-identified characters on television shows. Today 10% of regular characters identify as LGBT. Some of these characters appear in children’s shows. In 2018 and 2019, Netflix released two LGBT-inclusive series for children: “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” and “Twelve Forever.”
Moral progressives have executed highly successful propaganda campaigns for legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. The news media’s coverage of marijuana has compelled Americans to view the drug as medicine. The elites who dominate entertainment media have pressured Americans of all generations to embrace same-sex marriage.
The moral shift that has occurred in the United States over the last twenty years exposes an alarming reality – our beliefs on certain issues can change without our even being aware of it.
This is just one of many reasons why it’s crucial for us to evaluate the media we consume.
Francis Schaeffer, the late Christian philosopher and writer, published criteria that is helpful for evaluating all types of artistic content, from television shows to magazine articles.
In Art and the Bible, Schaeffer wrote, “[The content] reflects the world view of the artist. As far as a Christian is concerned, the world view that is shown through a body of art must be seen ultimately in terms of the Scripture. The artist’s world view is not to be free from the judgment of the Word of God.”
Schaeffer is not saying that art must be created by Christians to have value. He is saying that it is important for the content of an art piece to correspond to objective truth as seen in Scripture.
Americans must recognize the implicit messages in news and entertainment media, because subtle influences over an extended period have the power to change hearts and minds.