Scared Straight? A Tectonic Shift in American Values


Several of you called my attention to a Wall Street Journal/University of Chicago poll published a little over a month ago, which described a “tectonic shift” in American values over the last 25 years. The summary below was published by Axios.

“Look at the tectonic shifts from a Journal/NBC poll 25 years ago, in 1998:

  • Patriotism is very important: Dropped from 70% to 38%.
  • Religion is very important: Dropped from 62% to 39%.
  • Having children is very important: Dropped from 59% to 30%.
  • Community involvement is very important: Dropped from 47% to 27%.
  • Money is very important: Rose from 31% to 43%.”

Patriotism, religion, having children and community involvement have all crashed. The only thing that has risen in value is money.

What are we to make of this? Some say, “not much.” “Polls are often inaccurate and can’t be trusted.” Others, like Axios, say it’s a dramatic documentation of moral rot at the heart of our nation. Axios opines: “The bottom line: the poll quantifies a generational and political divide that shows a rot at the very soul of our nation.”

I could go there — “moral rot” — but that seems pretty harsh, certainly judgmental.

My take is a little different. I think these shifts portray a country/society where people are really frightened. All of the things that trend down — love of country, religious faith, having kids, and community involvement — involve some, often quite significant, level of trust. They involve risk-taking, self-giving and even self-sacrifice.

You could say our souls are rotten and selfish. But maybe what we are is scared? Scared and unlikely to trust things — institutions and wisdom that wasn’t arrived at yesterday — that Americans have traditionally trusted, like our country and democracy, the church and its faith. I’m guessing a lot of people feel these two institutions have let them down. And in many cases they/we have.

The other two — having children and being involved in your community — also require trust and a willingness to take risks. And, yes, those are big changes and they are worrisome ones. But my take isn’t so much that we are rotten people as that we are scared people who are increasingly reluctant to put ourselves out there. Even the rise in valuation of money: We could condemn people as greedy, and certainly there’s truth in that. But it may be that people, however misguided, are hoping that money will protect and secure them. Many think money and big houses will make them safe.

Besides the institutions that are struggling and have let us down, there’s another factor. What the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa calls “acceleration.”

Rosa says modernity is characterized by constant speeding up, by acceleration. Everything is constantly being ramped up and amped up. This is driven largely, but not only, by technology.  Everyone feels that they are somehow falling behind. Instead of striving to get ahead (as our parents and grandparents did), people now feel they must be running faster just to stay even, to avoid losing what they’ve got.

Technology’s promise has always been that it will relieve humanity of burdens and increase our control of life’s uncertainties. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out quite that way. Instead, every new technological innovation carries the expectation that, having this new tool, we should now be able to accomplish, produce, do — or even be — more. Instead of burden-reducing, the latest innovation imposes new burdens, along with new ways in which we don’t experience mastery or control. Moreover, we are constantly encouraged toward “self-optimization.” Get this new app, that new life hack!

“Constant acceleration,” says Rosa is how most of us today experience life. We’re always trying to “keep up,” and to avoid “falling behind.” This contributes big time to the kind of shift in values and priorities documented in the poll above. “Who has time or energy for church, kids, community service? We’re barely keeping up, as it is!”

A final thought on these “tectonic shifts” in American values: the four values that are in eclipse today all were part and parcel of the world of the church, and in particularly of the mainline Protestant churches that many of us grew up in and of which at least some of us remain part.

We, the mainline churches, were about all four of these: patriotism, faith, family, and community. So if life today prioritizes all of these less, it stands to reason that the religious congregations that have been about these things would experience decline.

Often when focusing on church decline, I and others have put the blame on the churches. Not without reason. Our flaws and failures are many. And yet, it may also be the case that what we’ve traditionally been about things American society and people aren’t prioritizing now. Maybe we need to give higher priority to understanding and speaking to people’s fears, and doing so in a way that builds trust and renews faith.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Excellent piece, Tony. I would note that the news media, where I spent 50+ years of my career, share the blame to a great degree. They have been scornful of patriotism, cynical about faith, disparaging of family, and skeptical of community building for a few decades now. No wonder poll results show widespread public anxiety and fear. The media are part of the problem. And people don’t trust them either. Understandably so!

  2. I recall John Hamer promoting “rumors” (in a Seattle Times column) that the Nicaraguan godless communist revolutionaries installed a toilet on a church altar. Completely false, of course, but how many of readers bought into that? One small piece of paranoia, taking its place alongside uncountable others produced by those who want us to despise and fear our neighbors. By media, I hope he’s referring to FOX, OANN, Newsmax, and all the others that profit by promoting division, hatred and fear of each other. A profitable business plan, but so damaging to our national cohesiveness. The GOP’s personality cult of Trumpism tells us not to believe scientists, government, media, artists, etc.; they’re all out to get you! Many examples available on request. When, Mr. Hamer, was the PBS Newshour scornful of patriotism? When was ABC cynical about faith? NBC disparaging of family? Etc. Examples, please. These institutions are staffed by American citizens, who are mostly Christian or Jewish. Telling us that they’re not to be trusted is one more brick in the “alternative facts” wall.

  3. Tony: Don’t be afraid. There is nothing to worry about. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campio di Fiori by “St.” Robert Bellarmine. Galileo Galilei got off by capitulating to the Inquisition and doing horoscopes for the Pope.

    Pay no attention to polls. They cannot help but being rigged semantically. Think for yourself. Stop reading and paying attention to this nonsense. You have something to say that is important and I am waiting to hear what you think.

  4. Thank you for this essay, Tony. I believe that another factor contributing to a decline in social trust is the explosion (no pun intended) in gun ownership in America in recent decades, along with the increase in mass killings by guns. I am less likely now to call someout out (in a constructive, diplomatic manner) for negative behavior, e.g. shoplifting, open drug dealing. In the back of my mind anymore is the thought, “But they might have a gun,” and so I keep silent and continue on my business. The much lowered police presence on the streets of downtown Seattle is also a related factor. I doubt whether many of the many hard-core supporters of a liberal interpretation of the 2nd Amendment have stopped to consider this corrosive unintended consequence of their fondness for guns. The idea that America will be a great country again, and democracy strengthened, when everybody bears a firearm is insane.

  5. Thank you for this – I hadn’t heard of Harmut’s “acceleration.” I often think of a related term – Liquid Modernity – coined by Zgymunt Bauman. Not only are we more exposed to all that goes in this world 24/7, things that used to take a decade to change now seem to come and go in a month or less. Events that would have held our attention for a long time now get “processed” within a 24-hour news cycle. Neither we nor our institutions are equipped to deal with the rapidity of change, which itself produces the insecurity, uncertainty, and fear you mention. In the face of this, there is massive moral confusion and inability for our politics on all levels to agree on even the most fundamental facts.

    I attend a church with my family – mostly for the sense of community – it’s difficult sometimes because I lean more atheist than believer but there seem to be few alternatives for connecting with others in the real world in a wholly positive way. We seem captured by the convenience and the individualism that constrain our social capacities and it’s easier to turn to Netflix or another escape than make the effort to connect.

  6. Looking at the poll itself … you’re picking out the “very important” column as though that was the question – “is community involvement very important?” But there were four columns, and 80% classified that as important. If they went the wrong way on “very” vs. “somewhat”, that’s really a matter of interpretation.

    If you’re looking for values that might be headed for extinction, maybe look at the “not important” column. Above 25%: patriotism 27%, marriage 28%, belief in God 33%, having children 33%, religion 40%. I don’t personally see any kind of rot here.

  7. Just took a quick look at the WSJ poll.

    The first series of questions were about financial security. A little over 40% indicated a lack of trust in their ability to financially survive.

    Wealth inequality drives all other life decisions. Even participation in a church community depends on an individual’s ability to financially support that community.
    Our blossoming plutocracy that crushes people in the lower income levels for not being able to accumulate wealth also crushed the traditional social structures of our country that were based on the idea of each citizen being invested in the ‘common good’.

    I think the current gig economy, which offers no financial security for younger people drives a lack of trust in a survivable future, an influences their ability to marry, have children, purchase a home, have a reliable car, put money away for retirement.

    We have no social and cultural security that leads to a vision of a stable society which can support individuals not born into wealth. We just have armed citizens who fear the loss of what they now own.
    In addition, the self inflicted social isolation of living in an internet universe rather than reality simply exacerbates the crumbling of what our society and culture used to be.

    Conditions are in place for the dismantling of our democratic republic. I am glad to be old, and not likely to be alive when this happens.


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