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Polling Matters
Why Are Americans Losing Confidence in Organized Religion?
Polling Matters

Why Are Americans Losing Confidence in Organized Religion?

Americans' confidence in organized religion is down again this year, continuing the gradual deterioration evident over the past several decades. As my colleague Justin McCarthy pointed out in his recent review of Gallup's annual update on confidence in institutions, 68% of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion in 1975. As recently as 1985, organized religion was the most revered institution among the list of institutions Gallup tracks. Confidence fell below the majority level for the first time in 2002, and with some fluctuations along the way, confidence this year has reached a new low of 36%.

Organized religion has lost its exceptionalism, and Americans now view it little differently than they view a number of other institutions in contemporary U.S. society. Confidence in organized religion is in the middle of the pack of the 15 institutions tested this year.

It's important to note that U.S. culture, norms and patterns of social behavior are always in flux, and religion is part of this inevitable cycle of change in the nation's sociological fabric as years and decades go by. Americans' confidence in many (but not all) institutions has been declining in recent years, and organized religion is to some degree being swept along with this trend. Out of the 15 institutions measured this year, for example, only three have confidence ratings above the majority level -- the military, small business and the police. Americans' faith in the most important institution of all -- government -- is at or near all-time lows.

Additionally, we see continuing distrust in big institutions. Americans have more confidence in small business than any other institution, save the military, and consumer trends associated with restaurants and food and beverages are focused on local ("farm to table") entities. It's possible that Americans associate "bigness" with what people perceive as "organized religion" -- big Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church.

Growth in religious entities has been most apparent among churches and religious groupings that fall outside the sphere of what would be called "organized" religion. Nondenominational churches (in most cases, locally based and not affiliated with any national denomination) are the fastest-growing, and individuals involved with these types of more ad hoc churches may be less likely to indicate a high level of trust in traditional forms of organized religion.

The decline in confidence in organized religion parallels a decline in other ways Americans are expressing their religious and spiritual instincts. Fewer Americans indicate they identify with an official religion these days, and fewer say they are members of a church, synagogue or mosque. All of this may be part of a generalized secularization trend, the reasons for which are debatable and complex.

In addition to these general considerations, there are several specific explanations for the current drop in confidence in organized religion. There is the evident fact that organized religion has, in recent years, been shooting itself in the foot:

  • The Catholic priest abuse scandals have been recurring features in the news for almost two decades now, since The Boston Globe reported its 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on abuse coverup by the Catholic hierarchy.

  • Southern Baptists were roiled this year by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse among that denomination's leaders.

  • The United Methodist Church has been in the news regarding major, denomination-splitting arguments about same-sex marriage and allowing LGBT individuals to be clergy members (at a time when Americans as a whole, including in particular young people, are becoming more accepting of LGBT-related issues).

  • Recent headlines have focused on the controversial firing of the pastor of the famed Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, with news stories focused on sexual harassment allegations and a purported sex-shop visit during a religious conference trip.

These stories are unlikely to increase the average American's confidence in organized religion.

Another focus relating to organized religion in recent years has been the relationship between religion and politics -- particularly the connection between religious Protestants and right-wing partisanship. This includes the highly visible support of prominent evangelical leaders for President Donald Trump and his policies. As I've noted, the support that evangelicals and the Religious Right give to Trump may be encouraging to Republicans, but is certainly not designed to give independents and Democrats higher levels of confidence in organized religion. As Professor Michele Margolis at the University of Pennsylvania has concluded, "Individuals' partisan identities profoundly shape their engagement in the religious sphere." Those who are not Republicans may well find the Republican-Religious Right connection does little to increase their esteem for religious institutions.

There are also other, broader explanations for the evident decline in participation in formal religion and the decline in confidence in organized religion.

One of these is the fact that American millennials are delaying household formation, particularly marriage -- and household formation is typically related to an increase in religiosity. An analysis of Gallup data from 2010-2018 shows that among Americans younger than 35, those who have children and those who are married have significantly higher confidence in organized religion compared with those who don't have children or who are not married.

Another factor may be the absence of outstanding leaders within the ranks of organized religion. As noted above, what Americans hear about religious leaders in recent years has tended to focus on their moral failings or political involvement rather than their positive personal virtues and religious contributions. Not surprisingly, Americans' views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy have now dropped to new lows.

As I have previously reviewed, the decline in formal religiosity -- and presumably the decline in confidence in organized religion -- may partially reflect this absence of inspirational religious leaders of high integrity and leadership capability. Gallup's research in the business sphere has long led to the conclusion that "people leave managers, not companies," and the same conclusion may apply to organized religion. People may be leaving ministers, not churches.

Most broadly of all, it's possible that our measurement of confidence in organized religion only reflects a slice of confidence in "religion" per se. We are seeing the continuing trend toward more ad hoc religious entities and ways of worshipping that eschew what is traditional. Thus, the drop in confidence in "the church or organized religion" does not necessarily equate to a drop in confidence in religion.

People may simply be shifting their underlying religious and spiritual instincts to new and different outlets, with organized religion increasingly left behind.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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