Adolescents’ Moral Compass, Adults’ Moral Presence

by Daniel R. Heischman

Daniel R. Heischman is director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 30, 1991, pp. 109-111 . Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Using a Girl Scout survey of the moral and spiritual perspectives of American youth, Heischman cites data that indicate youth are quite religious and moral in outlook, but have difficulty connecting their faith with issues of character. He suggests churches need to help youth develop a moral language through discussions of character and more effective modeling directly with young people by youth leaders and especially pastors.

While Christianity is increasingly reticent to masquerade as sociology or psychology, the finding of these disciplines still remain significant for the church. A recent example is the Girl Scouts Survey, a nationwide sampling of the moral and spiritual perspectives of some 5,000 children and adolescents in grades 4-12. It provides some revealing and at times disturbing portraits of how American young people think and act and view the world.

Sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America, the Lilly Endowment and the C. S. Mott Foundation, the survey was conducted by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles, sociologist James Davidson Hunter of the University of Virginia, John Seel of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, and pollsters from Louis Harris and Associates. The survey spanned various racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic groups, and was conducted among public, private and parochial school students.

Perhaps the most significant and distinctive feature of the survey is its notion of a "moral compass--the assumptions that prompt people to choose and behave in certain ways. The survey shows that young people rely on these compasses and make constant use of them. Those who use a "theistic" compass, for instance, base moral decisions and perspectives on religious belief scripture, the teaching of a religious group, or the prevailing norms of a believing community. Sixteen percent of those surveyed appeared to utilize a theistic compass. African-American children and those from lower socioeconomic levels tended more than others to make their decisions from a theistic foundation. According to the survey, 61 percent of children from a theistic orientation claimed they would not cheat on a major test or examination in school, as compared with only 37 percent who used a "utilitarian" compass; 75 percent from a theistic perspective would refuse a drink at a party, as opposed to 50 percent with a "conventionalist" compass (based on accepted social practice) or 33 percent from an "expressivist" ("do what makes me feel good") or utilitarian perspective.

Overall, children who held to a theistic perspective showed greater altruism than those from expressivist or utilitarian orientations. For example, 49 percent of theistic children would set aside their own plans to help a classmate in need, as opposed to 22 percent of utilitarian and 32 percent of expressivist children. Only 6 percent of theistic children would tell a homeless person to get a job, compared to 16 percent of expressivists.

Some other news about young people: 57 percent said that the primary reason they helped others was that it "makes them feel good personally"; 19 percent would not fight for their country under any circumstances, 24 percent were uncertain and 60 percent would not be willing to volunteer one year to serve their country; 17 percent could think of no famous person or celebrity they admired (only 1 percent admired Mother Teresa, and Donald Trump received a similar vote--indicating that religious and business leaders are among the least admired adults); 65 percent would cheat on a major exam in school, while 36 percent would lie to protect a friend who vandalized; 53 percent claimed that growing up for them is harder than it was for their parents (minority young people were more likely to say it was easier).

Affluent children showed the greatest uncertainty about what to do and how to act in given circumstances. They were three times more likely not to know how to respond when offered a drink at a party, and far less likely to know how or where to begin to advise a friend who became pregnant. Apparently, the greater the wealth, the more extensive the choices and the more perplexing the world seems to be.

In short, young people's moral perspectives seem to be increasingly diverse and based more on personal experience than on the influence of role models or civic expectations. These figures bear out what we learned from Habits of the Heart: we are a highly individualistic people, more in tune with our own experiences and ambitions than a common mission or sense of duty. Children and adolescents mirror the adult world.

Two findings merit special mention. One is the conclusion that what adults perceive to be crucial issues facing young people are not necessarily deemed crucial by the youths themselves. Young people worry most about fulfilling adult expectations (80 percent about obeying parents, 78 percent about getting good grades, 69 percent about preparing for the future, 62 percent about earning money), instead of what adults routinely perceive to be the big crisis in growing up--sex, substance abuse, peer pressure. Perhaps we adults are the ones fascinated with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, while youth carry an adultlike burden of worries.

Second, the survey bears out the work of Carol Gilligan by indicating that girls' moral perspective is different from boys'. Girls demonstrate a greater commitment to altruism and service and are more likely to protect a friend who has cheated than boys. They are more likely to opt for choosing a job primarily because of personal satisfaction, or helping others, while boys are more concerned with career advancement or making money. Such conclusions accord with Gilligan's assertion that female morality is grounded more in relationships and interpersonal connections, while male morality stems more from a goal-oriented or principle perspective.

Some of the most challenging implications of the survey concern religion. Among these young people, religious belief is strong--82 percent believe in God, one third have had a religious experience that changed their lives, and 40 percent pray every day. Yet for most a profound discrepancy exists between religious belief and everyday practice. For instance, while 23 percent see religious leaders caring for them, and 34 percent see these leaders as important influences, only 3 percent would seek their help. Coles refers to these statistics as the "wallpaper factor"–religious leaders are "present, but decorative"; significant at a distance, but not of much practical value. Religious leaders are not alone in this regard. Only 7 percent seek help from teachers or coaches. Sixteen percent go to grandparents and 43 percent go first to a friend for help. Adults, in general, are marginal to these young people.

The survey suggests that a substantial number of young people believe in God, yet morally stand on their own or see little connection between faith and character. Rather than accept this as part of an individualistic society where secularism and the primacy of personal experience abound, we need to rethink our ministry to young people.

First, we must reclaim a moral vocabulary with the young. (All we usually focus on, in the moral sphere, is sexuality.) We must talk about practical, tangible moral dilemmas, realities and virtues, and we must focus on developing character in the midst of religious belief. Just as our denominations are reclaiming liturgical roots and sensitivities, so must we reclaim morality.

Christians proclaim that there is no morality without theology, yet are reticent to talk about the implications and demands of this morality cum theology. Every day young people confront issues of integrity, honesty, fairness and compassion: How should I treat people? How and , when should I be honest? What are my obligations and duties, as a Christian, in being kind? Such questions may sound trivial to Christians who understand morality in terms of pressing social issues or who fear sounding judgmental, conservative or prohibitive. But these issues occupy the heads and hearts of young people, and may very well be the key to a closer connection between religious belief and morality, as well as an avenue to greater involvement in larger social issues.

We in mainline denominations are often governed too much by what we don't want to be. We can't want to be prudish, Victorian or evangelical-sounding. Consequently we don't often make the connection between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be honest, or between what it means to believe in God and what it means to treat our neighbor with care and equity. The results of that rupture are beginning to show.

Churches need to foster discussions of character by using films or case studies that present difficult choices in work or relationships, situations in which people must ask themselves, "What does it mean to do the honest, decent thing here?" "What qualities of human character are at stake in this situation?" Moral reflection requires a certain level of competence and capacity to see the subtleties at work in a given situation (a competence, the survey tells us, our young people seem to lack).

Many adults remember moral discussions and dialogue taking place at the dinner table. This type of context for dialogue is clearly missing from many young people's lives today. With some effort and imagination, the church can fill this vacuum.

The survey also clearly points out that churches must rethink their style of ministry with young people. Our clergy are not being taught about or encouraged to value direct experience and conversation with young people. Too many see youth ministry as beneath them, relegated to the seminarian or a rotating system of lay leaders. It is not surprising that young people see little relationship between talking with religious leaders and their own religious life. Few religious leaders actually talk with young people.

We have used some of our most sophisticated models of ministry to support our fear of young people. We eschew the role of "pied piper" in youth work, and the new model trains laypeople to do the "frontline" ministry. Clergy thereby train themselves out of much direct connection with youth. This is as dangerous and misleading a model for working with youth as a parent's rationalization, "I don't spend a lot of time with my children, but what time I do spend is quality time." To assume such a distanced position is to misread what young people need: direct and frequent contact with religious leaders.

Many church youth programs, out of necessity, find themselves operating a ministry with a rotating system of adult volunteers who struggle to keep a program going. The young people who do show up, week after week, see little in the way of continuity in the adults who run the program, something all too familiar to many of them in their experience of home and school. The adult volunteers do not know the young people well, nor do they know how to start getting to know them. The youth program that can thrive in the midst of those circumstances is the exception rather than the rule. Parishes that seriously wish to strengthen their ministry to youth should examine the mode of adult presence in that ministry.

A few years ago I spoke to a large youth group at a sizable church. Their pastor was an effective preacher, spent a large amount of time in administrative work, and had a large counseling load. Still, he made a commitment to be with that youth group every Wednesday evening. The many lay leaders did most of the detail work, but he was there--not as pied piper or charismatic group leader, but as an adult religious presence and conversationalist. "I guess there is a part of me [as with almost all of us I would add] that is stuck back there in adolescence, and so I have a soft spot for these kids," he, observed. I could see, as the students had dinner and held discussions on moral and spiritual issues, that that soft spot and that presence went a long way toward strengthening the program. His style was similar to that of other clergy who relate successfully to young people: he took them seriously, he didn't talk down to them or send out the message that he felt uncomfortable around them; he offered a regular presence they could count on.

In John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lewis Merrill, the local Congregational minister, begins to teach religion classes at Gravesend Academy. He is confronted there with both crude language and outlandish theological questions. Though he struggles in this new role, Irving writes, Merrill seems for the first time to be enjoying himself The interactions and the challenges perk him up, and he becomes less meek. Would that many young people have the opportunity, in the context of church, to see adults enlivened, not intimidated, by their presence.