A new WSJ /NBC News poll released Sunday finds that Americans, especially younger generations, place significantly less value on what Americans twenty years ago considered their most important personal priorities and what should define the national character. The initial poll in 1998 found that hard work, patriotism, religion and having children were Americans’ top priorities.
The new poll found that just one generation later, the value system for many Americans looks very different. In 2019, hard work still tops the list of most important values, but the value we place today on patriotism, religion, and having children is drastically reduced.
Here’s how quickly things have changed:
- In 1998, 70 percent of Americans said that patriotism was very important to them. In 2019, only 61 percent said the same thing.
- In 1998, 62 percent said religion was very important to them. In 2019, only 50 percent.
- In 1998, 59 percent said having children was very important to them. In 2019, only 43 percent.
The poll revealed that this change was driven primarily by younger Americans. For example, only about 42 percent of Americans between 18-38 consider patriotism very important, fewer than one-third consider religion very important and, perhaps most concerning, is the finding that only 30 percent of today’s young people consider having children very important.
At first look, patriotism, religion, and having children have little in common, but there is one quality of the soul we must have to value any of them; it is hope.
Think about it: without hope, why would you go to church? Without hope, why would you have children? Without hope, why would you be devoted to your country?
Hope is the persistent conviction that things are going to get better, that no matter how tough things are now, there is a reason to be grateful and to move forward with confidence because we count on a brighter future.
But without hope, we live only for the moment, and we don’t waste energy or time on a future that might be worse than what we can get out of life now. Think about it: without hope, why would you go to church? Without hope, why would you have children? Without hope, why would you be devoted to your country?
Hope is at the heart of religious faith. Believers hope because we trust that God will be faithful to his many promises. We are hopeful that he will “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the dessert” (Isaiah 43:19), that the injustices and suffering of this life are temporal, while in the afterlife, God “will make all things new” and “wipe every tear from your eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain” (Rev. 21: 4, 5). That’s a lot of hope!
Hope is at the heart of wanting to have children. The intentionality of bringing new life into the world, as a product of committed love, says with no uncertainty, that we believe our human existence is inherently good and we want to give this amazing gift of life to someone else. That’s a lot of hope!
Hope is at the heart of healthy patriotism. Devotion and vigorous support for one’s country only makes sense if we believe our country has something good to offer the world and to us.
Loyalty to our country is a virtue when we know the object of our affection (our country) is already good or at least redeemable. If we have no hope in the always redeemable character of our country there is no logical reason to be patriotic. But when we value our country’s unique history and role in the world, we will be ready to sacrifice for it, even giving our lives in her defense. That’s a lot of hope!
Why has hope been lost by so many Americans, especially young Americans? That’s a good topic for another op-ed.