Below are the findings of the new Gallup poll from July 12, 2012
PRINCETON, NJ — Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s.
In 1973, “the church or organized religion” was the most highly rated institution in Gallup’s confidence in institutions measure, and it continued to rank first in most years through 1985, outranking the military and the U.S. Supreme Court, among others. That began to change in the mid- to late 1980s as confidence in organized religion first fell below 60%, possibly resulting from scandals during that time involving famed televangelist preachers Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Confidence in religion returned to 60% in 2001, only to be rocked the following year by charges of child molestation by Catholic priests and cover-up by some in the church.
The latest results are from Gallup’s June 7-10 update of its annual “Confidence in Institutions” question. The same poll found Americans’ confidence in public schools, banks, and television news at their all-time lowest, perhaps reflecting a broader souring of Americans’ confidence in societal institutions in 2012. Still, the church/organized religion ranks fourth this year among the 16 institutions tested, on par with the medical system.
Protestants More Confident Than Catholics
Currently, 56% of Protestants express a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church/organized religion, compared with 46% of Catholics. This is in line with an average 12-percentage-point difference in the two groups’ confidence, according Gallup polling from 2002 through 2012, with Protestants consistently expressing higher confidence. There are too few respondents of other specific religions to analyze separately; however, confidence among all other Americans combined is 29%, far less than either Protestants’ or Catholics’.
Catholics’ confidence dipped to a record low in 2002 and again in 2007. The 2002 result most likely reflected a high-profile child sex abuse case against a Massachusetts priest at the time, as well as charges of a cover-up by Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who ultimately resigned over the matter. The drop in 2007 may have been part of a broader trend that saw confidence in most U.S. institutions drop that year.
Gallup did not record respondents’ religious preference in its Confidence in Institutions polls for most of the 1990s. However, religion was routinely asked on surveys prior to that, and the earlier trends show that Protestants’ and Catholics’ confidence in religion was fairly similar from 1973 through 1979. Then, from 1981 through 1991, Catholics consistently expressed less confidence in religion than Protestants did, by an average of six points.
Two major findings apparent in Gallup’s confidence in the church and organized religion trend are, first, the long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in this societal institution since 1973, and second, the suppressed confidence among Catholics relative to Protestants starting in 1981, and becoming more pronounced by 2002.
While various sex abuse scandals involving U.S. clerics have likely played a role in Americans’ growing skepticism about the church and organized religion, the decline in confidence does not necessarily indicate a decline in Americans’ personal attachment to religion. The percentage of Americans saying religion is very important in their lives has held fairly steady since the mid-1970s, after dropping sharply from 1952 levels.