Results from the latest Pew Research survey on how much trust Americans have in those holding positions of power and responsibility offer both good and bad news for religious leaders, particularly those of the Christian faith.
First, the bad news: According to the survey results, published Sept. 19, religious leaders in America fall behind journalists, police officers and military officers in terms of public confidence in their ethical behavior.
On a scale ranging from “none of the time” to “all of the time,” some 65 percent of Americans believe religious leaders act unethically some of the time, compared to just 52 percent for police officers, 51 percent for journalists and 42 percent for military leaders.
Essentially, what that means is that with a plethora of fake news accusations contaminating the media and accusations of police brutality being levied throughout the country, there is still less public confidence that religious leaders will regularly follow the straight and narrow.
Survey findings also showed that Americans generally do not think unethical behavior by groups with power and responsibility results in serious consequences for the offenders all or most of the time.
For example, only nine percent of those surveyed said they believe religious leaders consistently faced consequences for unethical behavior, with 32 percent saying they think it happens some of the time, 40 percent saying rarely, and 13 percent saying they didn’t think religious leaders faced any consequences at all for acting unethically.
The bulk of Americans, if the survey results can serve as an accurate litmus test, believe that religious leaders who slip up are for the most part likely to get away with it.
However, there is some good news: Of those surveyed, results showed that those who attend religious services regularly tend to have higher levels of trust in those who hold positions of authority in their parishes or communities.
The case for hope, then, is that with increased exposure to religious communities and leaders, people might be seeing more good behavior than bad, allowing for greater trust and confidence.
In the Pew study, some eight groups of people holding positions of power and responsibility in the United States were examined: Members of Congress, local elected officials, K-12 public school principals, journalists, military leaders, police officers, leaders of technology companies and religious leaders.
Some 10,618 people were questioned for the survey, which was conducted Nov. 27-Dec. 10, 2018, on the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. They were asked to evaluate those in authority on issues such as ethical behavior, management of resources, ability to perform, to provide accurate information and levels of care and empathy.
Results showed that the public has the most confidence in the way K-12 public school principals, military leaders and police officers operate when it comes to caring about people, providing fair and accurate information to the public and handling resources responsibly.
Lower scoring groups, if still drawing high scores, were religious leaders, journalists and local elected officials. When it came to ethics and transparency, members of Congress and leaders of tech companies scored lowest.
The survey also showed that the more confident people were that members of a certain group behave unethically, the less confidence they had in that group’s ability to perform their jobs well.
On the other hand, results also showed that American adults who think group members tend to admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them have higher levels of confidence in that group’s performance of key job responsibilities.
A net 70 percent of Americans said they believe religious leaders do a good job at providing for the spiritual needs of their communities, though in the breakdown, 48 percent said they believed religious leaders did a good job just some of the time, and only 28 percent said all or most of the time.
The results also showed that factors like age, race and political affiliation impacted trust levels in certain groups. For example, frequent church attenders, older Americans, and Republicans tend to hold more positive opinions of religious leaders.
According to the survey, those 50 and older are consistently more likely than younger Americans to give religious leaders a higher score for performing job duties at least some of the time.
Roughly three-quarters of Republicans said religious leaders provide fair and accurate information to the public at least some of time, compared with just 54 percent of Democrats who said the same. Around 59 percent of Republicans also said they believe religious leaders admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them at least some of the time, whereas just 42 percent of Democrats said this.
Of the American adults who identify with a religious faith, the survey found that evangelical Protestants are among the groups who hold the most positive opinions about religious leaders, saying they are more likely to provide fair and accurate information to the public either some of the time or more often.
Those who attend religious services at least once a week are more likely to think religious leaders care about people, show responsibility and good management.
While Evangelical and mainline Protestants gave overall higher ratings to religious leaders, Catholics still gave high scores, with 70-86 percent saying they believed religious leaders care, provide for the spiritual needs of their communities, handle resources well and provide fair and accurate information to the public.
However, the Catholic score dropped when it came to their confidence in religious leaders admitting responsibility for their mistakes. Just 58 percent said they think religious leaders do this some or most of the time, and 41 percent said little or none of the time.
This statistic was the lowest score of any other Christian denomination, not including the religiously unaffiliated. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is likely due to the global clerical abuse and cover-up scandals in Catholicism over the past year.