Are pastors ethical? Survey shows their reputation for honesty is at an all-time low
Only 32% of Americans say clergy members have high ethical standards
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Trust is at a premium these days, and no one is feeling the effects of that more than clergy members. A recent Gallup poll found that trust in religious leaders is at an all-time low: Only 32% of Americans say clergy members have high honesty and ethical standards, down from 67% in 1985.
It’s not just them. Politicians, journalists, and pharmacists also garner less trust than ever before—with good reason in some cases—while virtually no profession saw an increase in trust at all. Nurses continue to top the list at 78% because nurses are, by definition, awesome.
But still: the clergy number has to sting. Those other professions aren’t founded on the idea that the people in them are moral leaders.
So why is this happening? Christianity Today points out that “Americans are also less likely than ever to know a pastor, with fewer than half belonging to a church.” There are also more Americans than ever who don’t identify with any religious faith at all.
Those theories don’t do much to explain the loss of trust, though. It’s not like I know too many nurses, dentists, or veterinarians, but do I think people in those professionals have high ethical standards? Absolutely.
The more likely explanation comes later in the article:
[Nathan Finn, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University,] also pointed out how scandals like clergy sex abuse, growing political polarization, and evangelicals’ countercultural moral positions can contribute to the decline in credibility among clergy, “especially among those who have either had bad church experiences or whose worldview assumptions are already at odds with historic Christian beliefs.”
That seems much more accurate. There’s no shortage of news articles about Pastors Behaving Badly, and so many of the ones who’ve avoided scandal still hold beliefs that are untrue, harmful, and bigoted. The biggest denominations in America, Southern Baptists and Catholics, have failed to adequately deal with their sexual abuse problems. The ever-powerful white evangelical bloc continues to carry water for the most corrupt presidential candidate in history while fully ignoring his dictatorial fantasies, blissful ignorance, and 91 criminal charges. Meanwhile, Purity Culture and patriarchal thinking still dominate discussions among younger conservative Christians online.
If you’re looking for ethics and morals, you’re not about to find them in a local church. Or at least that shouldn’t be anyone’s default starting point.
(Interestingly enough, college graduates are more trusting of clergy members than non-graduates, 38% to 29%. Also, Republicans and Democrats had almost identical trust numbers when it came to religious leaders, 38% and 36%, respectively.)
Other polling has suggested that while clergy members may be struggling to win over skeptics, people are far more likely to trust their own pastors than the profession at large. In that way, pastors are just like politicians; people tend to hate Congress but like their own representatives.
Can the profession do anything to regain trust? It’s hard to imagine how when the largest denominations’ core beliefs involve the same broken ideas that led so many people to walk away from organized religion in the first place. Without a full-scale rethinking of what it means to follow Jesus—something none of these groups have shown any interest of doing—they’re not going to be seen as leaders worthy of respect by people who have far better ethics and morals than they do.
There is one upside for pastors, though. As Christianity Today put it, “Positive perception of clergy among young people jumped by 10 percentage points compared to 2022.” That could be a sign of hope for the profession. Or the result of ignorance about how harmful pastors can be. Or perhaps it’s just a large percentage change because of the smaller sample size. It’s worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The overall trend, however, still doesn’t seem very promising.