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American youth more conservative but less moral, studies report

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–On some political issues involving religion, America’s youth seem to be more conservative than their elders, but cheating, stealing and lying by high school students has increased with alarming vigor, according to two separate studies.

A report by the University of California at Berkeley’s Survey Research Center says 59 percent of adults ages 27 to 59 want public schools to allow prayer at official school activities such as commencements while 69 percent of teenagers support school prayer.

Thirty-four percent of adults support government restrictions of abortion, the report said, while about 44 percent of youths age 15 to 22 support such restrictions.

Forty percent of adults registered support federal aid to faith-based charities, meanwhile, while 59 percent of college-aged youth and 67 percent of younger teens support such funding.

The UC Berkeley survey, released in September, was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Survey participants were asked to rank their feelings for religious conservatives on a scale from zero for “cold” to 50-100 for varying degrees of “warmth.” While no age group showed a significant amount of warmth for Christian fundamentalists, 33 percent of youth gave them a score over 50 while 26 percent of adults gave them a similar rating, UC Berkeley researchers found.

“We were surprised by the greater support among young Americans for some aspects of the conservative cultural agenda,” said Merrill Shanks, political science professor at UC Berkeley and one of the lead researchers for the study. “Young Americans show more conservatism on religious politics and abortion even though youths, as a group, appear to be less likely than their elders to attend religious services regularly or consider religion a guide in their daily life.

“If the youth of today maintain these positions on religious politics and abortion as the years go by,” he noted, “then the American public as a whole could become more conservative on these issues.”

Meanwhile, a recent report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics reports that students admitting they cheated on an exam at least once in the previous year jumped from 61 percent in 1992 to 74 percent in 2002; the number who stole something from a store within the year rose from 31 percent to 38 percent; and the percentage who admit they lied to their teachers and parents also increased significantly.

The Josephson study, released as part of the Oct. 20-26 National Character Counts Week, also indicates alarming deterioration over the past two years. Cheating rose from 71 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2002; theft increased from 35 percent to 38 percent; and those who said they would be willing to lie to get a good job jumped from 28 percent to 39 percent.

The survey also found that students who attend private religious schools were less likely to shoplift but more likely to cheat on exams and lie to teachers. Also, students who participate in varsity sports cheated on exams at a higher rate than students who did not play sports.

“The evidence is that a willingness to cheat has become the norm and that parents, teachers, coaches and even religious educators have not been able to stem the tide,” said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, based in Marina del Rey, Calif. “The scary thing is that so many kids are entering the workforce to become corporate executives, politicians, airplane mechanics and nuclear inspectors with the dispositions and skills of cheaters and thieves.”

Gender is the most significant differentiating factor among high school students, the Josephson report said. While girls cheat and lie as much as boys in general, they are substantially less likely to steal or engage in other dishonest practices and they have more positive attitudes toward ethics.

Participation in varsity sports did not make a difference in behavior except for the likelihood of cheating on exams. The study also found that students who attend private religious schools do not act much better than those who attend public schools. Generally, students who claimed their religion is essential or very important to them also performed on the national average.

The Josephson report is based on a survey of 12,000 high school students administered by schools throughout the nation. The Josephson Institute of Ethics is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts a national survey of the ethics of American youth every two years.

The UC Berkeley study is based on telephone interviews completed during the latter half of 2001, and most occurred between late April and Sept. 10, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts news report. About 1,250 people were interviewed, a standard sample for academic research.

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  • Erin Curry