The level of trust Americans have in clergy members has dropped to a record low, a recent Gallup survey suggests.
The polling organization found that only 37 percent of 1,025 respondents had a “very high” or “high” opinion of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy, according to a report published on Thursday. Forty-three percent rated clergy’s honesty and ethics as “average,” while 15 percent had low or very low opinions.
The 37 percent positive rating is the lowest Gallup has recorded for clergy since it began examining views about religious leaders’ ethical standards in 1977.
Currently, only 31 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of Protestants rate the clergy positively, according to Gallup.
John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania,
told HuffPost he believes the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal this year may be contributing to a lack of trust in the clergy.
In July, Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned from the church’s College of Cardinals amid allegations that he had sexually abused children and adult seminarians over decades. And in August, a Pennsylvania grand jury identified 301 predator priests and more than 1,000 victims in a landmark report into sexual abuse in the state. The report has inspired other attorneys general across the U.S. to start similar investigations into the cover-up of sexual abuse in Roman Catholic dioceses.
“Men and women turn toward clergy in some of the most intimate moments of their lives,” Fea told HuffPost in an email. “The kinds of scandals and authoritarian leadership that we saw this year among the clergy undermines the trust we place in them.”
Stephen Prothero, a professor of American religions at Boston University, told HuffPost that along with Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, there’s another factor at play. Prothero wrote in an email that he believes the increasing entanglement of evangelical Protestants and key evangelical leaders with the Republican Party has led many to view Christianity as a right-wing political movement “more concerned with getting people like President [Donald] Trump elected than with saving souls.”
“The overwhelming majority of American clergy are neither sexual predators nor right-wing political hacks,” Prothero told HuffPost. “But this is one of those cases of a lot of bad apples spoiling the whole bunch.”
Gallup has been asking Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of various professions for 42 years. The company has asked the question about the clergy’s honesty 34 times over that time period.
Trust in clergy hit a historical high of 67 percent in 1985. A sharp drop occurred in 2002, the year the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team first started reporting on the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Positive views about clergy have been steadily declining since 2012, Gallup stated.
Fea said American religion has always existed in a “consumer society,” where individuals “shop” for the churches that best meet their needs. Fueled by a general distrust in the authority of the clergy, Americans have been finding other sources for their spiritual nourishment, he wrote.
“With Internet churches and other kinds of on-line social media offering spiritual advice and counsel, coupled with the sex abuse scandals, the clergy does not seem to be as important any more as people seem to place their trust in other places,” Fea said.
Americans viewed clergy as less honest than police officers, accountants, and funeral directors, Gallup’s December report states, but more trustworthy than bankers, lawyers, business executives and telemarketers.
Journalists also received a lower positive rating than clergy (33 percent), although Gallup pointed out that the profession has experienced a 10-percentage-point increase in positive ratings since two years ago.
Nurses received the highest positive rating from respondents (84 percent) for the 17th consecutive year. They were viewed more positively than medical doctors (67 percent) and pharmacists (66 percent).
The professions Americans had the least amount of confidence in were car salespeople (8 percent) and members of Congress (8 percent).
The Gallup poll asking 1,025 U.S. adults to rate the honesty and ethical standards of various professions was conducted on landlines and cell phones between Dec. 3 and Dec. 12. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.