Not So Fast
Is Moral Collapse Inevitable?
Those who insist on the definitive moral collapse of the United States as an article of faith need to consider a shocking report in the New York Times in November 2007: “New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963.” The trend did hold up: throughout 2007 a total of 494 murders were committed in New York City.
The stunning enhancement of public safety in America’s largest city represents a stinging rebuke to those who persist in viewing the nation as a victim of ongoing moral breakdown and spreading anarchy. The change could hardly be more dramatic: New York recorded its greatest number of killings in a single year in 1990, with 2,245. Seventeen years later, the city’s murder rate had fallen by more than three-fourths.
Other major cities may boast less spectacular progress than New York, but they all show less violent and property crimes from their peaks some twenty years ago. The criminal ethos regularly associated with social chaos and moral disorder has retreated across the country, and other indicators show a nation struggling to improve its spiritual cultural health.
As Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin report in Commentary:
Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of Ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent. . . Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded.
In July 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics released more encouraging numbers involving the next generation of Americans. Despite lurid publicity about a new “hookup culture” of casual sex among young people, the actual incidence of intercourse has markedly declined. The center’s study revealed that in 1991, 54 percent of high school students reported having sexual intercourse, but by 2005, that number had dropped to 47 percent.
The Guttmacher Institute, affiliated with Planned Parenthood, acknowledges that abortion rate rates peaked in 1981, just as our most outspokenly pro-life president, Ronald Reagan, entered the White House. In that year, doctors performed 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. Twenty years later, after tireless efforts by pro-life activists and educators, that number had dropped steadily, year by year, all the way to 21.1, a reduction of nearly 30 percent.
In April 2008 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that between 1990 and 2004, the estimated abortion rate declined by a full 24 percent. In no single year did the rate even inch upward. Among the most vulnerable teenage mothers between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, the abortion rate fell a staggering 55 percent.
Common assumptions about the breakdown of marriage bear little connection to current realities. Professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania write in the New York Times: “The great myth about divorce is that marital breakup is an increasing threat to American families, with each generation finding their marriage less stable than those of their parents. . . . In fact, the divorce rate had been falling continually over the past quarter century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970.”
In their helpful book, The First Measured Century, scholars from the American Enterprise Institute point out that “the most authoritative study of American sexual practices,” the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, reveals “an unmistakable decline in extramarital sexual activity during the latter part of the century, especially among married men.”
The claim that the nation faces irreversible moral decline can’t survive the incontrovertible evidence that some of the decay of previous decades has already been reversed. The effort to “remoralize” America after the disruptions of the 1960s has met with some success, and its future will depend to a great extent on the continued vitality of traditional religious faith.
(Adapted and abridged from The 10 Big Lies About America by Michael Medved, Crown Forum, 2008, p. 243ff., with permission.)
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