Sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
Before I was born, these were the frontiers of the social revolutions sweeping America. The favorite moments of the Boomer generation — Woodstock, the Summer of Love — combined all three. And while the political revolution the Beatles sang about never quite came to pass, the Sixties’ changes in moral values seem here to stay.
They are by no means unanimously endorsed. If nothing else, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s was a great rejection of all the Sixties had proposed. It was a marriage of economic conservatism and social conservatism: free markets and regulated behavior, the Wolf of Wall Street and the Christian Right.
Thirty years on from Reagan, the marriage is coming apart. America has continued to drift rightward on matters of economic policy. The wealth gap is larger than it has been in a century. A Republican-hatched giveaway to health insurance companies is popularly derided as Socialism. And proponents of the social safety net are playing defense, not offense.
But when it comes to social policy, the leftward shift seems inexorable. According to a CNN poll released in early January, only 35% of Americans believe smoking pot is morally wrong — down from 70% in 1987. And when it comes to sex, 50% believe that homosexual behavior is morally wrong (down from 82% in 1987) and just 32% morally disapprove of living with someone when you’re not married (down from 54%).
CNN didn’t ask about rock & roll, but consider how quaint Tipper Gore’s campaign to label “offensive” rap records seems today.
The only exception to this moral shift is reproductive rights. According to the CNN poll, 57% of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong — that’s roughly the same as the 1987 numbers, and well above the 44% who believed it wrong in 1977. More on this in a moment.
Of course, the striking shifts in American attitudes toward sex and drugs are largely generational in nature. Old ideas, and the people who hold them, are simply passing away. But they also say something important about the sources of moral authority.
It used to be that right was right and wrong was wrong, and you knew these things because people told you so. They had authority, they interpreted the Bible for you, and they talked about God, morality, and truth. The major religions could quibble about the details, but they agreed about the basics of sin.
That view, though, has been steadily eroded by centuries of truth-seekers of various types, who have pointed out various scientific, historical, and ethical flaws in the age old authorities. Turns out God didn’t create the world 6,000 years ago. Turns out He didn’t write the Bible. Turns out He may not exist at all.