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The Moral Reasoning of U.S. Evangelical and Mainline Protestant Children,Adolescents, and Adults: A Cultural–Developmental Study

Lene Arnett Jensen
Clark University
Jessica McKenzie
California State University


This cultural–developmental interview study examined moral reasoning in relation to religious culture (evangelical, mainline Protestants), age (children, adolescents, adults), and moral issue (public, private; N = 120). Compared to adolescents and adults, children used more Ethic of Autonomy and less Ethic of Community reasoning. With age, differences between religious cultures became pronounced. Mainline adults invoked an Ethic of Divinity for private issues. Evangelical adolescents and adults used this ethic frequently, but more for public than private issues. These and other findings indicate that evangelical and mainline Protestants diverge on what should be society’s moral lingua franca, and cast new and nuanced light on America’s “culture wars.” Results furthermore highlight comodulation of development and culture that requires life course research on moral reasoning.

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