Americans are more likely than the British to say each of the Ten Commandments are important today, but American millennials stand out for lower levels of support.
Americans are more likely than British people to say each of the Ten Commandments are important principles to live by, according to a new Deseret News study.
The poll also found that Americans ages 18-29 are less likely than older adults to say each of the commandments are still important today — including the commandments prohibiting stealing, murder and lying.
Women are more likely than men to value the Ten Commandments, and there were also differences by religion, with Evangelical Christians and Mormons most likely to say the commandments are important to live by and religious "nones" least likely to agree.
The online poll was conducted March 10-13 by YouGov and Y2 Analytics among 1,000 Americans plus an oversample of 250 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The poll is part of the Deseret News' annual Ten Today series examining the role of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
The study showed that more than 90 percent of Americans agree that the commandments regarding murder, stealing and lying remain fundamental standards of societal behavior. Other commandments that enjoy strong majority support include those about not coveting, not committing adultery and honoring parents.
When it comes to the most explicitly religious commandments, however, smaller majorities say the commandments concerning idol worship, the name of the Lord, not having other gods, and the Sabbath day retain a significant importance in modern life. Half of Americans (49 percent) say keeping the Sabbath holy is still important — the lowest level of support for any commandment.
A similar survey conducted by YouGov in Britain last year revealed that only six of the original Ten Commandments are still seen by the majority of the British as primary moral precepts. As in the U.S. survey, over 90 percent of British respondents agreed that the commandments against murder, stealing and bearing false witness were still important principles to live by, but the two populations differed widely in their views of the other commandments — especially the most explicitly religious commandments.
Experts say these findings are not surprising and that they reflect a longstanding trend toward secularization in Europe, where “the new default setting is ‘no religion,' and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide,” Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary's University in London, told The Guardian.
But in American society, religious belief has continued to maintain a more prominent presence.
“The bottom line is that Americans are more religious than anywhere else in the West,” Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University, told the Deseret News.
Millennials and morality
American religiosity has been declining for decades, Chaves says, and this decline has been produced by the same generational patterns underlying religious decline in Europe.
“No matter how you measure it, each generation for a very long time has been a little less religious than the generation before,” he said.
Chaves says this could help explain the survey responses of 18- to 29-year-old Americans, who were less likely than older respondents to say the Ten Commandments are still important today. This pattern applied across the board, both to explicitly religious commandments, such as keeping the Sabbath or not worshiping idols, as well as to commandments such as not murdering, stealing or lying.
Chaves cautions using these results to draw conclusions about the morality of millennials. The results have nothing to do with the overall moral character of 18- to 29-year-olds, he said, and everything to do with the decline in religiosity among the younger generation of adults.
“The data isn't showing that 18- to 29-year-olds are more comfortable with the idea of murder or stealing, it's that they are less comfortable with religion,” he explains. “I think with their response they are saying, ‘I'm not a religious person, so the Ten Commandments aren't for me at all.'”
Religious divides, gender gaps
The survey illuminated important differences between respondents from different religious groups, as well as gaps along gender lines.
Evangelical Christians consistently stood out as the most likely to say that each of the Ten Commandments are important principles to live by, and Mormons came in a close second.
Catholics hovered near the national average, with religious “nones” proving the least likely to believe the commandments were still relevant — especially when asked about the most explicitly religious of the commandments. Keeping the Sabbath was the least popular of the commandments among religious "nones," with 20 percent saying it is important today, while 91 percent said it was important not to commit murder.
Millennials are far more likely than other generations to identify as religious “nones”; 35 percent of adult millennials are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. Women are also often noted as being more religious than men, and the survey findings further substantiated this point, with women respondents more supportive than men of all of the commandments.
The biggest gaps between women and men were on support for the commandments against adultery (88 percent among women vs. 78 percent among men) and coveting (83 percent vs. 72 percent).
While religious disaffiliation is one factor in millennial views on the Ten Commandments, experts also point to other influences.
Hugh Whelchel, executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, a Christian organization, says part of the explanation might be what he describes as a “moral relativism” among millennials that has “eroded the importance of truth.”
He says that the millennial generation has embraced the post-modern idea that there is no absolute truth — that everyone has their own story and life path, and it's up to individuals to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong.
“Millennials want to say that morals are individual, that they are just what you want them to be,” he says. “But that's not the way things are. Moral principles are woven into the fabric of creation. They are like gravity, they work if we believe them or not.”
Ana Levy-Lyons, a Unitarian Universalist minister in New York City and author of "No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments," says the attitude of many millennials could be a result of modern American society's increasing resistance to absolute rules — what she describes as a “freedom fetish.”
“We no longer rely on religious tradition for answers to life's big questions,” she writes. “We no longer feel like we need the Ten Commandments — or any commandments — in order to live an ethical life. We don't like being boxed in, we don't like being labeled, and we definitely do not like being ‘commanded.'”
In an interview with the Deseret News, Levy-Lyons said moral relativism can go too far. While the literal interpretation of the commandments can sometimes bend to accommodate evolving social norms, she says the spirit of the law should remain inviolable.
Levy-Lyons also says many millennials have rejected the notion that society's problems are rooted in individual wrongdoing. Instead, millennials believe society's “evils” can only be understood — and addressed — by taking into account the larger systems that create and perpetuate crime, violence, injustice and inequality.
To appeal to millennials, Levy-Lyons says the Ten Commandments should be interpreted not just in individual terms — as guidelines for personal behavior — but in systemic terms, as a roadmap for addressing problems that extend beyond individual action alone.
“The commandment not to steal, for example, is not just about individuals stealing from one another, it's about creating a culture in which theft is not built into the society,” she explained. “If everyone abided by that commandment, we would have a world in which all workers are paid a living wage, in which we do not steal from the Earth.”
Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City agrees that ongoing reinterpretation is key to making the Ten Commandments relevant to millennials' lives.
“Right now, millennials are at a place in life where maybe they think they know everything, that science is the answer to everything,” she said. “But as they get older and have children, they may start to value religion differently. I hope they will get engaged with religion to reinterpret it. That's what will keep religion valuable.”
A form of discipline
Christian Tyler, a 29-year-old actor and model who lives in Salt Lake City, says he needs no re-interpretation to make the Ten Commandments applicable to his life.
For Tyler, who was baptized into the LDS Church in 2016, the literal interpretation of "thou shalt not kill" has a particularly visceral significance.
In December 2017, Tyler's cousin and best friend TJ was shot to death in front of TJ's 4-year-old daughter.
Tyler says he knew that if everyone abided by the Ten Commandments, his cousin would still be here today.
But rather than rejecting his faith and the Ten Commandments in the wake of his cousin's death, he clung to them even more tightly.
“I could have gone out and killed the guy who killed TJ,” he says. “But when TJ's life was taken, I realized all at once that there truly is a battle between good and evil in this world, and it was time for me to stop wandering through life and pick a side. And that's what brought me back to the Ten Commandments, to the original roadmap I can follow so I'm know I can trust myself that I'm doing the right thing.”
For Tyler, the Ten Commandments are a form of discipline, guiding not just his own behavior but preserving the moral fabric of our society.
“The Ten Commandments give me and the larger society a necessary discipline,” he says. “Without them, anarchy takes over. We lose our moral compass and our society gives over to the rule of whoever has the biggest muscles and can exert their power over everyone else.”
Tyler says that's especially challenging for millennials, himself included, who often “want to do everything their own way.”
But, he says, the Ten Commandments can help millennials transcend what he describes as the “self-absorption and self-doubt that social media has instilled in my generation.”
“To me, God is consciousness,” Tyler says. “The Ten Commandments are an extension of that consciousness, teaching us to be aware of others and to hold ourselves accountable for our life choices.”