Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University-Idaho professors Brent J. Schmidt and Michael K. Abel is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
Donald Trump was elected president despite a lifestyle that included extramarital relationships. Many in the United States supported Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s even after he admitted to having sexual relations outside of marriage while in the Oval Office.
This seems at odds with the fact that Americans have a long history of upholding the seventh of the Ten Commandments, strongly opposing adultery. Indeed, the 2016 General Social Survey revealed that 76 percent of adults condemn adultery as “always wrong,” while just 2 percent consider it “not wrong at all.”
Supporting an adulterous politician, of course, is not the same as condoning adultery. But, when many who are averse to adultery support philandering politicians, it's worth exploring what role traditional moral principles play in modern American life. It's also worth asking, what does adultery mean in America and what do citizens really believe about the issues of sexuality today?
The 2016 GSS asked adults if they felt it was wrong to have sex before marriage. Most Americans (60 percent) believe it is “not wrong at all” to engage in premarital sex, while only 20 percent believe it is “always wrong.” Younger people ages 18-29 (16 percent) are much less likely than those over 60 (28 percent) to think it is always wrong to have sex before marriage.
When asked about whether children in their early teens (ages 14-16) should have premarital sex, nearly 62 percent of respondents deemed it always wrong, while about 10 percent thought it to be perfectly OK. Again, fewer of the youngest adults (50 percent) seem to absolutely oppose the idea than the oldest (71 percent). Clearly, the age of the individual who might engage in premarital sex greatly influences people’s attitudes about whether it is morally wrong. In fact, people are three times more likely to denounce premarital sex for early teens than to do so for all who have yet to marry.
The rightness or wrongness of homosexual sex is another hotly debated topic in American society. As of 2016, attitudes about it seem to be the most split of all the issues of sexuality considered here. About half of Americans see nothing wrong with homosexual sex, while 4 in 10 believe it is always wrong. The strong generational disparity is very evident here again. Indeed, only one-fourth of the youngest adults (ages 18-29) see it as absolutely wrong, while nearly twice as many of those over 60 believe it as always wrong.
Historically, unrestrained sexual expression was perceived in some societies as dangerous, and many of those known to have engaged in such behaviors were marginalized. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, adultery was understood as poisoning the natural order of marital unity believed to be promoted by God. Adultery — from the Latin adulterare, literally meaning “corruption” — is often associated with social problems such as unwanted children, divorce, depression and suicide ideation, among others.
Interestingly, in contrast to all the other beliefs about sexuality examined here, the 18- to 29-year-olds are not any more accepting of extramarital sex than Americans over 60. Old and young are about equally likely to claim adultery is always wrong and the vast majority of them do. When it comes to the percentage of married Americans who report ever having extramarital sex, we find that 1 in 6 (17 percent) say they have. While that number has remained fairly stable for the past three decades, it is important to keep in mind that because these are self-reports and people tend to shy away from admitting or condoning socially undesirable behaviors, we can be confident that adultery is more prevalent than the numbers indicate. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure just how much higher the number really is.
Our study of American adherence to the prohibition against adultery and the other Ten Commandments revealed many common misconceptions about the moral condition of the United States. The Deseret News' annual "Ten Today" series also takes an in-depth look at the Ten Commandments and asks, among other questions, "Are they relevant today?" As debates about the relevance of the Ten Commandments and other moral principles continue, it is more important than ever to gather accurate information about American attitudes and behaviors.
If we ever hope to properly understand, communicate with and love others, we must base our discussions on facts, not assumptions about what is really happening in society. In addition to seeking objective data about moral trends, it is important to understand the perspective of the individuals with whom we interact. To disown parents, siblings or friends who voted differently from ourselves because we see their choices as morally reprehensible only diminishes understanding in society. It behooves us to be more empathetic in our assessments of others who believe or vote differently than ourselves.63 comments on this story
Of course, good data, popular opinion or media coverage should not be the sole basis of our personal moral decisions. The fact that “everyone does it” is a very poor reason to do anything, and we should find moral truth in better ways. Even so, accurate information is a precursor to understanding individuals and nations. No matter what Americans believe about morality and what is moral, a chorus of political thinkers has often stated that the people get the government and leaders that embody the times. Are we any different?