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U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion Remains Low

U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion Remains Low

Story Highlights

  • 36% of Americans have confidence in the church or organized religion
  • Americans remain most confident in the military, small business
  • Congress ranks lowest in confidence ratings

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' confidence in the church or organized religion continues to erode, with 36% now saying they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion, establishing another new low point in Gallup's trend.

Line graph. Americans’ confidence in organized religion fell its lowest point in Gallup’s trend since 1973, 36%.

These data are from a June 3-16 Gallup poll, which asked Americans about their level of confidence in "the church or organized religion" along with 14 other institutions.

Confidence in organized religion topped confidence in all other institutions from 1973 to 1985, and, even after falling amid televangelist scandals in the 1980s, it registered at the majority level consistently until 2001. After the Boston Globe's 2002 expose revealed Catholic church leaders were aware of and did not take strong action to stop serial sex abuse by priests, confidence in organized religion dropped sharply to 45%. It recovered slightly in the years after the scandal broke, hovering around the 50% mark. Between 2010 and 2017, it regularly registered in the 40s. Since then, in 2018 and 2019, Americans' confidence in religion has been below the 40% mark.

Gallup previously reported a drop in confidence among U.S. Catholics -- as well as declining church attendance and views of the ethical standards of clergy -- amid ongoing fallout from Roman Catholic priest sex abuse scandals. Currently, 36% of Catholics report having confidence in the church or organized religion, compared with 48% of Protestants. Just 8% of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation report having confidence in organized religion.

Americans Remain Most Confident in the Military, Small Business, Police

Gallup's long-standing Confidence in Institutions question was first asked in 1973, as the Watergate scandal unfolded, and has been updated at least annually since 1983, with the exception of 1992. Americans are asked whether they have a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little confidence in various institutions, and each institution is ranked by its combined "great deal" and "quite a lot" score.

Just three institutions -- the military (73%), small business (68%) and the police (53%) -- have garnered majority levels of confidence in all polls Gallup has conducted on each measure over the past two decades. The military has been the top-ranked institution or tied for the top-ranked institution each year since 1986.

Occasional spikes in the military's confidence ratings have been tied to important military events occurring, such as the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War. Meanwhile, confidence in small business (ranging between 57% and 70%) and the police (between 52% and 64%) have been more stable.

Line graph. Americans’ confidence in the military, policy and small business, 1973-2019.

Though 38% of Americans say they have confidence in the U.S. presidency, it is exceeded by the percentage of people who have very little or no confidence in this branch of government (44%), giving this institution a net-negative score.

Slightly more than a third of Americans also express confidence in the Supreme Court (38%), organized religion (36%) and the medical system (36%), while slightly less than a third have confidence in banks (30%), public schools (29%) and organized labor (29%).

Fewer than one in four Americans have confidence in the criminal justice system (24%), newspapers (23%) and big business (23%).

Americans have the least confidence in television news (18%) and Congress (11%). While neither of these institutions has ever garnered majority levels of confidence, their ratings were much higher in earlier polls Gallup conducted -- Congress had its highest confidence rating of 42% in 1973, and TV news registered at 46% in 1993. Congress has maintained the lowest confidence rating since 2010.

Americans' Confidence in U.S. Institutions, 2019
Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one -- a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.
A great deal/Quite a lot Some Very little/None Net confidence
% % % %
The military 73 18 8 +65
Small business 68 24 8 +60
The police 53 31 17 +36
The presidency 38 17 44 -6
The U.S. Supreme Court 38 40 21 +17
The church or organized religion 36 36 29 +7
The medical system 36 38 26 +10
Banks 30 43 26 +4
The public schools 29 42 29 0
Organized labor 29 45 24 +5
The criminal justice system 24 40 36 -12
Newspapers 23 37 39 -16
Big business 23 41 34 -11
Television news 18 33 48 -30
Congress 11 36 52 -41
Net confidence = A great deal/Quite a lot minus Very little/None (vol.); (vol.) = volunteered response
Gallup, June 3-16, 2019

Bottom Line

The downward trend in confidence in organized religion is partly attributable to the rising share of Americans who identify as having no religion -- a group that has little confidence in organized religion, and now comprises about one-fifth of the U.S. population. But confidence in organized religion has also declined among those who are religious, including Catholics and Protestants.

Organized religion was the most trusted institution for the first decade in which Gallup measured confidence in institutions, being surpassed by the military for the first time in 1986. Since then, the military has become firmly established as the most trusted institution. Meanwhile, reduced majorities have reported having confidence in police in recent years -- possibly reflecting a vulnerability for an institution that relies heavily on public confidence, and one that has been rocked by police-community relations issues. But despite the fraught relations police have with some communities, overall confidence in the police as an institution mostly endures.

As for Congress, which is regularly characterized by both low confidence and low approval ratings, it's difficult to see a path upward for confidence in the legislative body. The high degree of political polarization gives few Americans positive things to say about the institution.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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