“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Look around you. See America in bondage. Jesus promised truth would liberate humanity. But our nation no longer believes in truth–at least any form of objective, verifiable, absolute truth.
Two surveys by religion researcher George Barna reveal that the vast majority of Americans do not accept or believe in moral truth. His Barna Research Group surveyed adults and teenagers from across the country and turned up discouraging results.
Barna’s researchers asked: “Do you believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances …?”
Almost two-thirds of adults (64 percent) said truth always is relative to the person and her or his situation. Only 22 percent of adults indicated they believe any truth is absolute. The others said they don’t know.
The balance is even more out of kilter among teenagers. Eighty-three percent said moral truth depends upon the circumstances, and only 6 percent claimed to believe in absolute truth.
The move toward moral relativism follows a generational progression, Barna discovered. Among adults age 36 and older, 60 percent said they believe truth is relative. That number climbed to 75 percent for adults age 18 to 35, before jumping up to 83 percent for teens.
While born-again Christians are more likely to believe in absolute moral truth than non-Christians, the numbers are not stellar, Barna reported.
Among born-again adults, 32 percent said they believe in absolute truth, compared to 15 percent of unbelievers. The teen numbers are markedly lower. Only 9 percent of born-again teens believe in moral absolutes, compared to 4 percent of non-born-again teens who believe that way.
These beliefs also impact how Americans make moral decisions, the researchers learned.
While six approaches were listed by at least 5 percent of teenagers and eight approaches were listed by at least 5 percent of adults, Barna cited “a clear pattern” of moral decision-making. The No. 1 rationale for making a moral decision is “doing whatever feels right or comfortable in a situation,” he said. That’s the primary method used by 38 percent of teens and 31 percent of adults.
Other top decision-making criteria for adults include “values they had learned from their parents (15 percent), principles taught in the Bible (13 percent) and whatever outcome would produce the most personally beneficial results.”
Teens use different criteria. Sixteen percent said they make choices “on the basis of whatever would produce the most beneficial results for them,” Barna said. Three methods–whatever would make the most people happy, whatever family and friends expect and values taught by parents–were each selected by 10 percent of teens. And only 7 percent said they make choices based on biblical principles.
These findings underscore other Barna research. “Substantial numbers of Christians believe that activities such as abortion, gay sex, sexual fantasies, cohabitation, drunkenness and viewing pornography are morally acceptable,” he noted.
“Without some firm and compelling basis for suggesting that such acts are inappropriate, people are left with philosophies such as, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ ‘Everyone else is doing it’ or ‘As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s permissible.’ … The result is a mentality that esteems pluralism, relativism, tolerance and diversity without critical reflection on the implications of particular views and actions.”
Although born-again Christians are more inclined than others to believe in moral truth, that’s small comfort. Still, the majority of Christian adults and three out of four Christian teens do not believe they can know absolute truth.
“The church is in trouble,” Barna understates.
So, what can we do about it? This is a huge task, especially since, as Barna says, most of these people don’t accept the basis of the principles being taught in church. It’s hard to prove something from the Bible to people who don’t accept the Bible. We need to discuss this in our churches, but we also need to act. Let’s start with two ideas:
The power of demonstration. People might not accept wisdom from the Bible if they believe it is disconnected to the “real world.” But they have a much harder time discounting the living example of people who have been changed, shaped and formed by biblical truth.
One way to present this is through the testimony of Christians who have survived the storms of life. Even skeptics cannot argue with the example of a person who has experienced the pain and suffering of inexplicable turmoil or bad choices and found redemption through God’s grace.
Similarly, the testimony of Christian leaders–including ministers, Bible study leaders, parents and others with responsibility–bears weight when it reflects how God’s truth makes a difference in life. We need to be talking about and demonstrating how all of life is spiritual, about how our relationship with God in Christ makes a difference in what we do day by day–from how we relate to the people we love, to how we function at work, to how we handle stress, opportunity or temptation.
The power of application. A generation ago, ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr said pastors should step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. That’s true today, and it’s true for Sunday School teachers, youth ministers, parents and other Christian leaders. God forgive us if we make the Bible boring or irrelevant. People may not accept it propositionally, but if we ask God’s Spirit to lead us and work hard, we can show how it guides, how it makes a difference in the decisions we make and the way we conduct our lives. Why should we expect people to accept absolute truth if it seems generic or esoteric? But how can they reject it when we demonstrate–not only spiritually, but rationally and practically–how it makes a difference in our days and how it provides the foundation for a full and meaningful life?
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.