The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a poll they conducted with the University of Chicago’s highly respected National Opinion Research Center (NORC) showing very disturbing news on Americans’ shifting views on faith, family values, patriotism and community involvement. The esteem Americans have for each of these appears to have dropped precipitously over the last few decades. The only value that has increased is unfortunately American’s love of money. Their reported trendlines look this this.
These are indeed very stark declines. They indicate that from 1998 to today, the number of Americans who say religion is “very important” to them plummeted from 62% to 39%, those who believe having children is “very important” dropped from 59% to 30%. Those who see patriotism as “very important” has gone from 70% to 38%.
And there are stark differences in how Americans feel about these values when broken down by political identity.
But a few conservative writers are urging caution in interpreting these numbers.
Michal Brendan Dougherty writing at National Review Online explains, “A look into the cross-tabs [of the WSJ/NORC survey] however, showed that much of the falloff was [between the] ‘very important’ to ‘somewhat important’” categories. He adds, “Maybe things aren’t so dramatic as we make them out to be.”
Abe Greenwald noted the same caution over at Commentary, adding some further insight.
If you tally the “very important” and “somewhat important” percentages and compare them to the combined “not that important” and “not important at all” ones, it’s a clear win for tradition and conservative values.
Greenwald does the math,
On patriotism, it’s 73 percent to 27 percent; on religion, 60 percent to 40 percent; on having children, 65 percent to 33 percent. And on marriage, 70 percent to 28 percent.
These numbers make for very different trendlines. He concludes, “That’s a majority of patriotic, religious, family-oriented people. Or at least that’s how they want to represent themselves, which isn’t nothing.”
Political analyst and pollster Patrick Ruffini was also immediately skeptical of these figures.
He wrote on Substack, “If these numbers had been produced by my firm, I would immediately assume we had made a mistake and send them back to an analyst to double check.” One big clue for him was “the zig-zaggy pattern on the community involvement question.” Why the extreme up and down on that one?
It seemed fishy to Ruffini, explaining, it is “the only pro-social item on here that went up in the previous 21 years before the 2019 survey, but it declined by more than half in just four years without any clear inciting event explaining why.” He considers this boomerang decline might be due to COVID lockdowns, “but a drop of 35 points in four years is implausible on its face.”
Ruffini dug into the data sources and found a likely explanation. “The dramatically different results we see from 2019 and 2023 are because the data was collected differently.” Specifically, the “March 2023 survey was collected via NORC’s Amerispeak, an extremely high-quality online panel. In the fine print below the chart, we can see that data from previous waves was collected via telephone survey.” That is an important catch and it matters.
Ruffini adds, “Surveying the exact same types of respondents online and over the phone will yield different results. And it matters most for exactly the kinds of values questions that the [Wall Street] Journal asked in its survey.”
So, are values really declining in America? It is hard to contend that they are not. But as dramatically as this new Wall Street Journal poll indicates? There is good reason to be suspicious.
This provides a teachable moment in how we read the news. It is important to not necessarily take everything you see at face value, even if it comes from reputable sources. Look at other trusted sources on the topic and see what they have to say on the conclusions and methodologies used to arrive there.
As scripture says, there is wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors.