It won't surprise anyone to learn that conservatives believe that America is in a moral free fall, but what happens when we compare that belief to reality? Well, it probably also won't be a surprise to learn that reality simply doesn't match up to that belief -- at least, not in the way it should. Almost none of the factors that one might associate with morality are getting worse. Behavior is getting better or about the same.
What is changing is that this behavior isn't being based on traditional religious commitments -- people are being good or even better for reasons that are unrelated to traditional, conservative religion. That's what has conservatives so upset.
If Satan is at work in America, he's probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime.
Source: The Economist
OK, so traditional violent crimes aren't getting worse. What about traditional conservative complaints like abortion and divorce?
Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008.
Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There's just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.
...Charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, "the nation's graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades." So where is the evidence of this moral decline?
Religion is another matter. Church membership and attendance are down. The numbers of people who identify as unaffiliated, unreligious, or even unbelievers are growing.
The only other thing that's arguably relevant is the number of out-of-wedlock births. In America, there is a connection between them and health, schooling, and income. Growing up with one parent is associated with a lot of problems -- but there's no inherent connection. In civilized nations where parents are supported regardless of marital status, there is no difference in health, income, or schooling between kids who grow up with one parent and those who grow up with two.
The only reason the difference exists in America is because the same conservative politicians who complain about the problems associated with out-of-wedlock births also object to providing any sort of support and assistance to single parent. They want to deny people assistance in order to force them into conservatives' vision of ideal family life, not allow them to use government to support families as they actually exist and develop.
Republicans want the best outcomes based on solutions that fit into preconceived notions of what society should look like. So even if there are few tangible harms that point to our moral decay, any move away from their vision of society is evidence of declining virtue. Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned with outcomes, even if that means upending the way things were (or accepting that they have been upended and cannot be restored).
So in the case of out-of-wedlock births, Republicans would probably see the increase as a moral problem regardless of the outcome. Whereas Democrats might feel more comfortable with, say, promoting a corresponding increase in stable familial relationships outside of marriage. It is a dynamic we've seen elsewhere recently, in regard to issues like gay marriage and contraception. And it leads to a debate over what "moral" really means. If "immoral" means "causing avoidable harm to other people" then gay marriage, pornography, sex, reality TV, soft-drug use and euthanasia are hardly immoral, even if distasteful to some.
On the other hand, denying people basic assistance or support because you believe that your god has condemned the way they live or the choices they make is immoral -- deeply, profoundly immoral. It's an immorality so deep that it calls into question a person's basic character and whether they can be considered a decent human being at all.