By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds huge differences between what Americans value today and what they valued in 1998, just 21 years ago.

While “hard work” led the list of values in both 1998 and 2019, after that the disparities are striking.


  • 61% of Americans of all ages value patriotism – down nine percentage points from 1998;
  • 50% value religion – down 12 percentage points from 1998; and,
  • 43% value having children – down 16 percentage points from 1998.

Age differences

Perhaps even more striking were the differences noted now between older and younger Americans. They are differences that have huge significance for virtually all sectors of American society from business to religion to community planning.

When people 55 and older were asked to list values that are “very important” to them, they listed the following:

  • Patriotism, 78%
  • Belief in God, 67%
  • Having children, 54%

But when people 18 to 38 were asked about these same values, much smaller percentages affirmed them:

  • Patriotism, 42%
  • Belief in God, 30%
  • Having children, 32%

National character

The differences in values among younger and older Americans today suggest profound and growing changes in the “national character” of the American people.

In the case of the younger group, they rank tolerance for others, financial security and self-fulfillment all as more important than the three values listed above.

All of these differences point to a younger population that is inclined to view themselves and their world through a lens of greater self-sufficiency. While they’re inclined to accord others a greater range of diversity and personal freedom, they also want to be able to focus much more on themselves and their own personal needs rather than on the communal aspects of life.

These changes are particularly challenging to religious communities because they have been accompanied by a significant decline in belief in God, which serves as the major fulcrum for the credibility of religious faith and its general influence on the culture.

If, for example, people don’t believe in God, what appeal is there for learning how to be a Jesus-like leader rather than a Genghis Kahn-like leader?

We are going to have to do a much better job of evangelizing and catechizing if we hope to continue relying, as a society, on moral and legal codes which have been derived in large partly by a shared religious heritage.

There may be some rationale for turning to a broad-based humanism as the basis for our society’s moral and legal foundations. But the 20th Century’s experience with two atheistic social systems, communism and fascism, does not give us a lot of reason for hope.

Forewarned is forearmed … or so we can hope.

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